Monday, March 26, 2018

What Is Servant Leadership?

Good morning.
And the beat goes on,............."

For most of organizational history, the leadership model has been top down, with senior leaders making all the policy and strategic, and many of the operational, decisions, and the rank and file existing pretty much just to implement those decisions.  Those at the bottom of the organization's pyramid exist to serve the top leadership.  The auto assembly line model embodies that autocratic approach, where labor was seen largely as cogs of the machine.  The thoughts, ideas and thinking of the base of the pyramid was rarely sought, nor considered.

To be sure, forward thinking companies and other organizations slowly began to wake up to the idea that on-the-ground employees, closer to the operational aspects of the work, might, from time to time have valuable suggestions on how to improve productivity.  And their input was encouraged, and some decision making was shared.  But even those advances still didn't accord the employees room to come up with ideas, to be creative, to contribute to the organization in fundamental ways beyond their stated jobs.  There was little emphasis on their development and growth.  It was still top down decision making, and the "cogs" in the machine were there to serve the top echelon.

Servant Leadership takes the opposite approach.  It reverses the pyramid, and calls for the leaders to serve the base of the organization.  The leader's job is to consider the needs of those who work at the organization first, and to help them to develop their skills and abilities.  By doing so, the organization increases its creativity, productivity and the morale and attitude of the workforce, making the organization perform better on every level.  The concept has gained traction in the high tech field and spread from there.

This approach requires leaders to change their mindset from the idea that all major decisions ought to be made by the senior team - the bosses - to one of sharing power and serving the idea that enabling the people of an organization to grow, and to maximize their potential.  And that involves doing everything possible to help them be their best.   Changing that mindset unlocks the potential of the organization.  The leader's job is to serve the needs of the people of the organization.

According to Wikipedia's summary of Servant Leadership:

"While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in "The Servant as Leader", an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:
“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”
“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

Following Greenleaf's conceptualization of Servant Leadership, dozens of authors have expanded on the idea, frequently listing the qualities that are essential to institutionalizing the change.  Those qualities include, among others, in virtually all of the literature:

  • Putting people first.  Empowerment.  
  • Building a team.  Community. "Coaching, not controlling."
  • "Unleashing the intelligence and energy of others."
  • And, listening.  In fact, listening is included on most of the lists of other authors as key to the Servant Leadership model.
A new work encapsulates the developments in the Servant Leadership concept, with varying perspectives by its supporters and practitioners.  Check out some quotes from the newly-released Servant Leadership in Action: How You Can Achieve Great Relationships and Results in an article in inc.

In 20 years of working in the nonprofit arts, I think we are largely still stuck in the old model of the pyramid, where decisions are made from the top down.  To be sure, enlightened leaders in our field seek the advice and counsel of those that work for them, but the emphasis isn't on serving those in the organization.  We, of course, pay lip service to professional development, to employee career trajectory counseling, and to involving everyone in the process of continually refining the organization and its operation.  But too often the change stops at the lip service.  For example, few organizations even have a line item in the budget for professional development of the staff's experience and ability.  Few leaders below the senior rank are ever sent to national conferences or conventions.  Career trajectory counseling is a luxury available at very few arts organizations.  Decision making is rarely shared, and leadership doesn't really prioritize serving the people who work at the organization. 

If we want to be on the cutting edge of organizational dynamics, if we want to attract and retain great future leaders, if we want to tap into the intelligence, energy and the ideas of those in our sphere, we need to more fully embrace serving the people who make up our organizations, rather than clinging to the antiquated notion that they exist to serve the small cadre at the top.  

We need to not just delegate more authority, but involve everyone in the workings of that authority as it connects to mission.  We need to empower everyone to grow so their contributions to the organization can flower.  We need to deconstruct power within our organizations so as to realign it in ways that maximize the potential of the people who make up our field.  And we can't do that if we perpetuate the relationship where the executive leaders are the Masters who are served.  Those leaders must be the ones who serve.  We need to consider letting go of autocratic trappings and switching to servant leadership precepts.  

And in last week's relevant post on the value of listening as one of, if not the, critical skill for leaders, I heard from two independent consultants:

Jeffrey Golde wrote:

"Listening is one of the areas I was asked to do some deep research on in order to teach to Fortune 1000 executives at some of our Leadership programs.  Turns out its the #1 skill they say they need and that the research backs up as the core skill of leadership.  There were also measurable outcomes to being an excellent listener for leader's subordinates including:

1. People who work for you perceive you as a strong leader
2. Pscychological safety goes up
3. Trust goes up
4. Productivity goes up
5. Commitment to the organization goes up
6. Burnout goes down (major major benefit in the non-profit arts field)
Not to mention the unmeasured benefit to developing community ties, finding out what to program for your orgs constituents etc."

And Lydia Hooper wrote:

"Today is the halfway mark for a 40 day listening challenge I've been hosting on my Patreon page (it started on March 1). Over the past several months I've heard so much (no pun intended) about how we Americans need to improve our listening skills, but very very little about how exactly we can do so. (So thank you for providing a tool and not just a reflection yourself.) This is what inspired me to launch this challenge. Every day for 40 days I am posting an illustrated exercise anyone can do to work on developing their listening skills."

If you click on her link, she breaks down each of the 40 days of her listening tutorial.  Very interesting, comprehensive look at the skill of listening.

Thanks to both Jeffrey and Lydia.

Keep listening.  And think about Servant Leadership as opposed to Master Leadership.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit