Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Servant Leadership Philosophy from Robert Greenleaf. What makes someone a Great versus Average Leader?


When the word management is used, we think of people out in front, leading everyone. When I first got into management in the mid-1980s, I was told that managers needed to be in charge of their people, to control them and make them respect me and my title. That concept never settled with me, and I took a slightly different approach: by trying to earn people's respect. In the early 1990s, I came across a philosophy called servant leadership, which put a label on many of the things I had already been doing.
Servant leadership originated with Robert K. Greenleaf in the essay "The Servant as Leader" (Greenleaf, 1970). Greenleaf spent most of his organizational life in the field of management research, development, and education at AT&T. I was first exposed to it in the early 1990s but learned it better in the late 1990s when I attended a year-long session with monthly meetings of the "Leadership Institute—Leadership for the 21st Century."
Greenleaf asks the question: What makes someone a great versus average leader? He defines a servant leader as someone who naturally feels motivated to serve but ends up becoming a leader. The opposite of servant leadership is a person who puts leadership first before everyone and everything. Many managers fall into the latter category; they assume that a title will make them into a leader. They normally do not work with their team but instead tend to set goals and objectives with no input. Then they try to push their staff to meet these goals and objectives. This type of manager is at the opposite end of the spectrum from a servant leader. To determine what type of management style a manager has, he can draw a line with "servant leader" on one end and "leader first" on the other and put a tick mark on the line where he thinks his management style falls. Then each member on his team can make a mark on the line as to what they believe his style is. This serves as a reality check of how the manager believes he is managing versus how he is actually doing.
A servant is often thought of as someone who waits hand and foot on others. By no means is that the type of servant that is being talked about. Being a serve-first manager means making sure that other people's highest-priority needs—such things as having room to grow, feeling needed, empowerment, having the proper training and tools, and getting rid of barriers to job performance—are being met. Most of these things deal with employee development, for which management is responsible.
So why should a manager look at servant leadership? We can answer this by considering why we might follow someone. The answer is because we believe the person will take care of us. If we know someone is going to set us up for failure or suddenly disappear when things get tough or start to go wrong, we definitely would not follow the person too long. Those who are interested only in themselves will never have loyal followers because they are not concerned about others' well-being. Several decades ago it was much easier to get workers to follow blindly. The expectation was that once a company hired a person, there was a very good chance that person would retire from it. In today's world of company downsizing, layoffs, outsourcing, and job-hoppers, workers are much more leary of companies. The worker in today's world has the mindset of "what are you going to do for me before I will follow you?" Managers who believe in leading first cannot answer this question except to threaten job security or entice with money. In contrast, this question is not asked of serve-first managers since workers are well aware of what their manager has already done for them. This is how trust and loyalty are built.
A characteristic of lead-first managers is to make statements first and not to listen very much. They tend to push through issues instead of stopping and understanding how to resolve the issues. Servant leaders listen first and spend the time to gather as much information as possible to make an accurate decision. They make sure the right people are brought into the conversation who are or will be affected. Within reason, they listen to everyone with insight. Again, who would you follow: the lead-first or the serve-first manager?
Greenleaf also defines the characteristics of a great leader, one of which is knowing the unknowable. Since servant leaders are in tune with their workers and their environment, they have the ability to pull in past and current information and experiences to come up with an educated guess as to what is going to happen in the future. They can foresee barriers or issues before they become actual problems and can make practical decisions to avoid them. This is the art of being proactive, and most great leaders have this ability.
All great leaders must continue to be proactive; otherwise, they end up reacting to events. It is common for leaders in management to be great at being proactive only in certain positions or situations. For example, a manager may generate outstanding results in a certain position but then gets moved to another position and suddenly disappears within the organization. You never hear the person's name mentioned again. This manager may possess all the skills and knowledge from the prior position but in the new situation doesn't have the foresight or proactive attribute. Hence, the person loses most of the ability to lead. So how do you keep foresight? It circles back to listening and serving first. It is necessary to understand everything that is happening around you and the needs of everyone who works around you.


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