A bestselling author and a management professor explain how you can lead and serve at the same time, and why that leads to better outcomes.
Too many leaders have been conditioned to think of leadership only in terms of power and control. We believe there is a better choice: to lead at a higher level. When people lead at a higher level, they make the world a better place, because in addition to results and relationships, their goals are focused on the greater good. This is called servant leadership. ¶ In case you’re not familiar with servant leadership, Robert Greenleaf first coined the term in 1970 and published widely on the concept for the next 20 years. Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela are examples of great leaders who practiced this philosophy.
What Is Servant Leadership?
When some people hear the phrase servant leadership, they are confused. They think it is a religious movement. Others believe it means managers should be working for their people, who would make all the decisions. If that’s what servant leadership is all about, it doesn’t sound like leadership to them at all. It sounds more like the inmates running the prison, or managers trying to please everyone, or an effort to convert people to a particular religious point of view.
The problem is that these folks don’t think you can lead and serve at the same time. But you can, once you understand that servant leadership has two parts: vision/direction and implementation.
People look to their formal leaders for vision and direction. While leaders should involve people in shaping direction, the ultimate responsibility for the visionary/direction aspect of leadership remains with the leaders and cannot be delegated to others. This visionary role is the leadership aspect of servant leadership and it’s where the traditional hierarchical pyramid is effective.
Once a vision has been agreed upon and people are clear on where they’re going, the leader’s role moves to implementation. This is where the servant aspect of servant leadership comes into play. If you are a servant leader, you now philosophically turn the traditional pyramid upside down and work for your people. Your purpose is to help them accomplish established goals, solve problems and live according to the vision. Under a servant leader, people serve the vision, not the leader.
Since Seton Hall is arguably most famous for its men’s and women’s basketball teams, perhaps a basketball analogy is in order. Although obvious, it’s worth noting that the coaches do not score any points. Scoring is the job of the players. In their leadership role, the coaching staff must establish the vision and direction by setting the game plan. Then they must turn the proverbial pyramid upside down to implement that plan by coaching and supporting the players to succeed.
Servant Leadership Is a Question of the Heart
Effective leadership is all about leadership character and intention. Why are you leading? Is it to serve or to be served? Answering this question is the key to leading at a higher level.
The most persistent barrier to being a servant leader is a heart motivated by self-interest that looks at the world as a “give a little, take a lot” proposition. Leaders with hearts motivated by self-interest put their own agenda, safety, status and gratification ahead of those affected by their thoughts and actions. Most of us are programmed this way and entered the world with a self-focus. Is there anything more self-centered than a baby? A baby doesn’t come home from the hospital asking, “How can I help around the house?” As any parent can attest, children are naturally selfish; they must be taught how to share.
The shift from self-serving leadership to leadership that serves others is motivated by a change in heart. These leaders understand an important principle:
You finally become an adult when you realize that life is about serving rather than being served.
Putting Servant Leadership into Action
Servant leadership is all about helping people win — to accomplish their goals. In an organizational setting, meeting with direct reports one-on-one is an excellent way for servant leaders to create and sustain good relationships and build trust. Let’s look at how the process works.
For servant leaders, the performance review system consists of three parts: performance planning, day-to-day coaching, and performance evaluation.
- <strong”>PERFORMANCE PLANNING. The leadership part of servant leadership requires that managers make sure their direct reports are clear on what they are being asked to do and what good performance looks like. This is the focus of performance planning.
- The next step is DAY-TO-DAY COACHING. Now leaders turn the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down and focus on the servant part of servant leadership: praising people’s progress, redirecting efforts when they are off track and cheering them on to goal accomplishment.
- The third step is performance evaluation, when direct reports meet with their manager — ideally at least quarterly — to assess progress and either celebrate accomplishments or together determine what needs to be done if goals haven’t been met.
When you ask managers which step they spend the most time on, they usually say PERFORMANCE EVALUATION — filling out forms and rating people.
Servant leaders, on the other hand, spend most of their energy on day-to-day coaching — the servant part of servant leadership. These leaders are constantly trying to find out what their people need to perform well. Their focus is on helping their direct reports accomplish their goals, so that when it’s time for performance evaluations, their people win. And when direct reports win, the leader wins, the department wins, and the organization wins.
Ken’s thinking on the importance of day-to-day coaching dates to his experience as a college professor, when he was periodically in trouble with the faculty. What drove them crazy was that at the beginning of every course, Ken gave his students the final exam. When the faculty found out about that, they asked, “What are you doing?”
Ken said, “I thought we were supposed to teach these students.”
The faculty said, “We are, but don’t give them the final exam ahead of time!”
Ken said, “Not only will I give them the final exam ahead of time, what do you think I’ll do throughout the semester? I’ll teach them the answers, so that when they get to the final exam, they’ll get As. You see, I think life is all about helping people get As — and not force-fitting them into a normal distribution curve.”
Ken’s focus was on helping his students to really learn. His final exams were tough; he didn’t give easy true/false or multiple-choice tests. His goal throughout the semester was to partner with students to help them answer the hard questions on the final exam.
Many organizations place too much emphasis on performance evaluation and force their managers to sort people according to a mathematical formula — or worse, rank-order them. Not only are these evaluations demotivating, but they also take valuable time away from day-to-day coaching, where goals are accomplished and real work gets done.
The Importance of One-on-One Meetings
One of the servant leader’s best practices is to have regular one-on-one conversations with their direct reports. The leader schedules the one-on-one meeting, but the direct report sets the agenda. This provides a chance for the direct report to talk about their goals, share personal information, learn more about the organization or ask for help to solve a problem.
As a leader, you might be thinking I don’t have time for more meetings. But we say you can’t afford to not take time for your people. If you can’t find a few extra hours to mentor and develop your direct reports, a leadership role may not be right for you.
Spending time with direct reports in team meetings is not the same. When a servant leader takes the time to connect one-on-one with a direct report, they let that person know their work is important and they are a valued member of the team. These conversations provide the foundation for a strong, productive relationship that aligns the leader and direct report with each other and with the organization.
Servant Leadership: The Power of Love, Not the Love of Power
To find out what kind of leadership has the greatest impact on performance, Scott Blanchard and Drea Zigarmi conducted a yearlong study of strategic leadership and operational leadership. The big picture conclusion from this research is that while strategic leadership — the leadership part of servant leadership — is important, it is operational leadership — the servant leadership part of servant leadership — that has a greater impact on an organization’s success. These findings are consistent with a series of studies Steven published with Angelo Mastrangelo and Erik Eddy that found a leader’s vision (1) begins with them (2) reaches their people through meaningful and supportive interactions, which then (3) lead to a range of positive organizational outcomes.
What does this mean? It means that organizations whose leaders are focused on serving their people are the most likely to achieve the best results.
A few years ago, Ken received a letter from a man in New Zealand with a line that he believes sums up the philosophy of servant leadership:
Teaching people the power of love rather than the love of power.
In this spirit, we invite you to embrace servant leadership. It’s not about letting the inmates run the prison or handing out easy A’s in classes. It’s about becoming a leader who, in Robert K. Greenleaf’s terms, “serves first and leads second.”
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Ken and Steven would like to express their gratitude to Martha Lawrence. The article has been substantially improved from its original form thanks to her outstanding editorial skills.