Priority #1: Servant Leadership and Follower Focus

Focus_ihtatho

Photo Credit: Focus, by ihtatho, Flickr

Last week I shared my 4 Top Leadership Priorities.These priorities are central to what I teach others about leadership in classes, and these priorities inform how I want to lead personally.

In this post, I want to settle in on the first priority identified in that post: Servant Leadership and Follower Focus.

Greenleaf on Servant Leadership

Robert K. Greenleaf was one of the first people to write about servant leadership in the contemporary literature. Although it is easily argued that servant leadership has ancient roots, I’m grateful for voices like Greenleaf who brought attention to the practice of servant leadership in the context of modern organizations. Here is one look at Greenleaf’s priorities:

“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…. 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 this: 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?”

Greenleaf was working out his approach to leadership in the context of AT&T at the time of these reflections. Others have gone on to engage this “servant first” approach to leadership in diverse organizational sectors since then. At the core of this servant first approach to leadership is the focus leaders place on follwers.

In my own dissertation research, I discovered that servant leadership practices are not only a good idea, but that they also are effective. Here are a few resources that point such findings: (IJLS Journal Article; PIL blog series). 

The Core of Servant Leadership is Follower Focus

What differentiates servant leadership from other approaches to leadership? The short answer is “follower focus.”

Stone, Russell, and Patterson put it this way:

“The principal difference between transformational leadership and servant leadership is the focus of the leader…. The overriding focus of the servant leader is upon service to their followers…. The stress of servant leadership is upon the leader’s aim to serve. This desire to serve people supersedes organizational objectives. Servant leadership is a belief that organizational goals will be achieved on a long-term basis only by first facilitating the growth, development, and general well-being of the individuals who comprise the organization.”

In a previous post, I expressed this concept in the following manner:

While the organization as a whole needs to be externally focused (serving its customers, constituents, or mission), the primary focus of the leader must be on serving and caring for the followers who are directly responsible for fulfilling the organization’s mission.

At the end of the day, servant leaders care deeply about organizations meeting their goals. However, this commitment starts with care for and focus on followers.


 

When you consider your own approach to leadership and where your focus lies, where do followers fit into your primary commitments?

When honestly answered, are followers viewed primarily as a means to organizational ends, or are followers at the core of your leadership commitments, and thus valued primarily for who they are rather than simply what they contribute?

In my next post, I’ll turn my attention to the second leadership priority that further connects follower focus to organizational transformation and goal attainment.

As always, I love to hear your thoughts. Please share them below.

Harnessing the Hope of Humility: Timeless Wisdom for Today

basin_Flood G.

Photo Credit: basin, by Flood G., Flickr

In seasons of political posturing, humility rarely is modeled by current and aspiring politicians. But into such seasons, the hope of humility stands in stark contrast and calls for us to harness this hope for the good of our communities

In this post, let’s journey back to the time of Jesus Christ in order to explore the timeless wisdom of servant-hearted humility.

A Mother’s Request

Nearly 2000 years ago, a mother motivated by love for her boys made a request. She asked Jesus to allow her sons to sit in the places of honor at His right and left in His kingdom. As might be expected, the other ten disciples did not look favorably on this parental power play.

But Jesus harnessed the occasion as an opportunity to teach a kingdom reality: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26).

We find here a profound reality in Jesus’ teaching—humility in the form of service is at the heart of leadership in the economy of Jesus. One of my colleagues notes that at its heart, this passage is calling leaders to positions of low status and high service.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

The low status & high service motif of Jesus was not mere rhetoric, however. Jesus lived and modeled this principle. Take, for instance, one of the most powerful sermons ever—the sermon preached with a basin and a towel.

In John 13, we find Jesus at a Passover feast with His disciples. With divine audacity, Jesus rises from the meal, wraps a towel around his waist, and stoops low, with heavenly humility, as He begins to wash His disciples’ feet. We see in this amazing account the words of Jesus made alive: “…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Jesus lived the kingdom principle of low status & high service.

The Hope of Humility

The timeless teaching of Jesus that modeled and called His followers to leadership marked by low status and high service stands in stark contrast the inverted high status and low service motif modeled by so many leaders in our day. What such leaders fail to realize, however, is that in the case of humble service it is not only good wisdom but also good business.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great asks, “What catapults a company from merely good to truly great?” His answer is refreshing—leaders who combine fierce resolve and humility are key.

It’s often viewed as counter-intuitive. Usually humility is associated with pushovers rather than leaders of great companies. But amazing as this is, biblical humility is just what the cultural and corporate doctors have ordered.

Harnessing the Hope of Humility

So how is the hope of humility to be harnessed?  Let me offer three “prescriptions.”

Prescription 1: Be an Apprentice in the School of Humility

The first prescription is to be an apprentice in the School of Humility. Humility is by its very nature something that is learned through participation. 2 Chronicles 7:14 calls us to this apprentice-like participation: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” Harnessing the hope of humility begins as a participating apprentice.

Prescription 2: Follow the Man from Galilee

In the School of Humility, our apprenticeship is under the Master Practitioner—Jesus, the servant from Galilee. When Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, He called them to a life-trajectory of humble service saying, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). Following the Master Servant furthers a harnessing of the hope of humility.

Prescription 3: Go to the Grace

The final prescription is simply this: Go to the grace. In 1 Peter 5:5, Peter writes, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  Do you wish to harness the hope of humility?  Go to God’s graceful place of humility. You’ll be glad you did.


 

It’s difficult to imagine how one person’s actions of humility and service could change the course of history, but this is exactly what happened through the life of Jesus as He began to turn the world right side up. Applying these prescriptions will help us begin the process of aligning the course of our lives with His. Applying these prescriptions will help us to harness the hope of humility.