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.

The Web of Work: Serving and Being Served through Work

Web, david reid, Flickr

Web, david reid, Flickr

Have you paused recently to reflect on how interdependent we are in our work and within an economy? For those with independent streaks, this question might be received as insulting. But I mean this in the best sense of interdependence. No-one truly is independent. We rely upon countless others throughout our day, and others rely upon us.

Work, at its core, is the means by which we serve one another in a society and an economy. Through my work I contribute to society and make myself useful to others. And through the work of others, I am served countless times throughout my day. And lest we miss this, work has both paid and unpaid expressions. From a parent working at home to care for children, to those serving in paid positions, our work—paid and unpaid—is most often the primary way we serve others.

Work becomes a beautiful web or network of service.

My Work of Serving Others Today

My work today happens to involve traveling to a conference. Because of this, my work for the day is fairly straightforward. First, I’m using time on the plane to (hopefully) serve you the reader of this blog through my work of reflecting on the meaning of work. Second, I’m going to a conference that will allow me to gain insights for my role as an academic administrator so that I may better understand how I to serve the students enrolled in the doctoral program I lead.

So this particular day, I hope that the recipients of my work are you and my doctoral students. Through my work (some of it paid and some of it unpaid), I am serving others today.

The Work of Others Serving Me Today

But the web of work does not end there by a long shot. It is barely lunchtime as I write this, and I have been served by innumerable individuals who have served me through their work.  Though I will certainly miss countless categories, consider with me the multitude of individuals who have already served me today through their work before I have even reached the lunch hour.

Waking Up

  • The furniture makers who made the bed I slept in
  • The home builders who made the home in which I live and woke up
  • The inventors and manufacturers who developed the alarm clock used to wake me

Preparing for the Day

  • The workers who made the modern conveniences of a shower, toilet, and sink
  • The product developers and distributors who make simple toiletries available so I may shave and brush my teeth
  • The clothing designers, manufactures, and laborers involved in the creation and distribution of the clothing I am wearing today

Traveling to, from, within, and in between Airports

  • The countless individuals from Henry Ford on involved in providing a reliable Ford vehicle for me to drive to the airport this morning
  • The massive number of individuals who participated in the planning, construction, and maintenance of the roadway and traffic network facilitating a smooth drive to the airport
  • The countless number of engineers, builders, and beyond involved with constructing and maintaining the parking ramp, elevator, trams, escalator, restaurants, concourses, restrooms, jet ways, tarmacs, runways, and airplanes I have encountered and relied upon today
  • The technology experts involved in bringing smartphones, computers, monitors, and avionics involved in my work and transportation today
  • The many airport and airline employees who helped with scheduling, checking in, loading bags, fueling planes, boarding, serving passengers on the plane, flying, navigating, and those attending to safety through air traffic control

Brightening the Day — Back to the Individual

And while I’m missing an endless number of categories and individuals who have served me today through products and services provided and used—even though I have never met most of them—sometimes we have the chance to get to see the person serving us and greet them by name.

One of those individuals was Gwen. Gwen served me through her work today by brewing and handing me my coffee this morning at the airport. Though a small act, Gwen brightened the early morning at the start of my travel with kindness and caffeine. While she is just one individual, Gwen reminds me that the countless number of others who served me today through their work also have names and faces.

Work and Economy is about People

At the end of the day, economy and work are not just about money, labor, and exchange. Economy and work are ultimately about people and how these people contribute to the well-being and flourishing of others. In a modest way, I’m serving people through my particular work today. In exchange for this modest commitment to serve others, in return I have been served by thousands, if not millions, through the products and services that have facilitated my work and travel today.

In light of this, I am grateful. I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve others through my work. I’m grateful for other people who likewise serve me through their work. Work provides a network of service. Work, in a very real way, becomes the glue that holds us together as a society.

An Invitation to Recognize and Value People in Their Work

So, I invite you to pause in the midst of your day.

Pause and recognize how you are serving others in your work today, both the paid or unpaid dimensions of your work. Pause and recognize how others are serving you through their work (again, paid or unpaid). Be grateful for these observations. Be grateful for these people. And, allow this thankfulness to spill over into expressions of grace and gratitude as you interact with others in your day. We live in a delightful Web of Work.

Strategic Foresight: The Past, Present, and Future Focus of Leadership

Photo: In the middle of nowhere, Brian Koprowski, Flickr

Photo Credit: In the middle of nowhere, by Brian Koprowski, Flickr

Clarity and foresight are essential leadership characteristics. Organizations and teams need leaders who can see clearly in the midst of confusing organizational and environmental realities.

THE VUCA WORLD

We are increasingly experiencing what some refer to as a “VUCA” world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. More than ever, we need leaders with vision, clarity, and foresight.

FORESIGHT

Larry Spears argues that foresight is one of Robert K. Greenleaf’s core characteristics of servant leaders. Of foresight, Spears notes:

Closely related to conceptualization, the ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation is hard to define, but easy to identify. One knows it when one sees it. Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant-leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future.”

THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE FOCUS OF FORESIGHT

This thread of learning from the past, observing the present, and anticipating the likely consequences of decisions on the future is critical. Focusing on only one of these areas can lead to leadership blind spots. Using and embracing all of them brings holistic perspective to leadership.

Past: The past is full of lessons, but it is not where we live. We must look to the past. We must listen to the past. We musts learn from the past. But, we must not live in the past. We must not only celebrate the past glory days of our organizations and communities.

Present: We must be present in the moment we’ve received, fully engaging the lives and mission we’ve been given as individuals and as organizations. At the same time, we must not be short-sighted and only live for the moment.

Future: Similarly, we must look to the future in light of the lessons of the past and present. We must anticipate and make course corrections based on likely outcomes and anticipated scenarios. But, we must not only look to the future. We can be so future-oriented that we miss the people and opportunities that are right in front of us. We must not live in the future, but rather look to the future for insights that inform the present.

STRATEGIC FORESIGHT

Although all organizational members benefit from looking at the past, present, and future, leaders in particular have this as part of their core job responsibilities. Leaders must learn from the past and present and look to the future with strategic foresight.

Foresight is not about looking into a crystal ball to see the future. Foresight is about actively learning. It is about playing out future possibilities and scenarios in our minds based on the past and present knowledge we have of our organizations and world. It is about identifying with clarity what will be the likely future outcomes of decisions we make in the present.

FORESIGHT FOR TODAY

In other words, although foresight is looking to the future, foresight serves the present. Leaders look to likely future possibilities based on diverse possible decisions and scenarios, and then they return to the present to guide present-day decision making in light of this future-looking foresight activity.

As you look at the past, present, and possible futures in your organization, what narrative threads and patterns emerge? What lessons do these threads point to for your community? As you look to the future and anticipate likely outcomes of decisions, what decisions need to be made in the present to serve your organization in light of these desired outcomes?

Engage your leadership with foresight, guiding your present based on lessons from the past and foreseeing likely outcomes in your organizational future.

Assessing Leadership — The Purpose in Leadership Inventory

Researching, Steve Hanna, Flickr

Photo Credit: Researching, by Steve Hanna, Flickr

The inaugural edition of the journal Servant Leadership: Theory and Practice came out at the end of August. I’m grateful to have an article included in the August 2014 issue of the journal. My article is focused on the development and initial testing of what I’m calling The Purpose in Leadership Inventory.

In this brief post, I’m providing a link to the full article followed by a brief overview of what leadership variables are measured by the instrument.

The Development and Initial Testing of the Purpose in Leadership Inventory:
A Tool for Assessing Leader Goal-Orientation, Follower-Focus, and Purpose-in-Leadership

Why Was the PLI Created?

The Purpose in Leadership Inventory (PLI) was created for two audiences.

Leadership Researchers: First, the PLI is designed for researchers in the field of leadership studies. Developing new instruments to measure leadership variables is one of the keys to ongoing advancement of the field. As the field of leadership studies has grown throughout the last century, noticeable shifts are occurring. The PLI is designed to capture some of these shifts, and help researchers understand which leadership factors are associated with effectiveness in diverse organizational contexts.

Leadership Practitioners: Second, the PLI is designed for engaged leadership practitioners who desire to study the place of goal-orientation, follower-focus, and purpose-in-leadership within their organizations and leadership practice. Diverse leaders approach leadership differently. The PLI allows leaders to gain insight into how followers perceive their leadership around these vital variables.

What Does the PLI Measure?

As mentioned above, the PLI measure three core leadership variables. These are:

  • Goal Orientation
  • Follower Focus
  • Purpose in Leadership

The first two capture variables highlighted in a previous post: People or Production — Getting Things Done while Caring for People. A focus on accomplishing goals and getting things done is important for leaders. Equally import is a focus on caring for followers. Goal orientation and follower focus are the first two variables measured by the PLI.

The third variable is the significant addition to the leadership research stream. This variable is Purpose in Leadership. Purpose in leadership as a variable is based on the work of individuals such as Paul Wong who focus on meaning-centered approaches to leadership and management. These approaches take seriously the leaders’ sense of meaning and purpose.

Why Does this Matter?

The more I engage in leadership research, the more I’m convinced that purpose matters. Leaders who have a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives as leaders add value to their organizations. Such leaders help the members of the community understand that their work and organizational outcomes actually make a difference in the world.

As leader-centered models of the 20th century have been modified by more recent approaches such as transformational and servant leadership, the opportunity to reflect on the deeper meaning and purpose in leadership has emerged. The PLI is a tool to help leadership practitioners and researchers investigate the priority of these leadership variables.

I’m looking forward to seeing the additional research that will emerge through the Purpose in Leadership Inventory.

Leadership: A Commitment to Learning

Learning by Anne Davis, on Flickr

Photo Credit: Learning by Anne Davis, on Flickr

The Cry for Leadership…

In an essay entitled “The Cry for Leadership,” John Gardner notes the following:

“Most men and women go through their lives using no more than a fraction—usually a rather small fraction—of the potentialities within them. The reservoir of unused human talent and energy is vast, and learning to tap that reservoir more effectively is one of the exciting tasks ahead for humankind.”

As someone who is at a mid-career point in my life, leadership, and work, such observations press the question of whether I will:

(1) simply rest on the skills/knowledge I’ve already developed (using the fraction Gardner notes), or will I

(2) aim to continue learning in the second half of my life and professional service of others?

Such a question motivates me as a practitioner-learner. In service of others, I want to commit myself to ongoing learning. Leadership = A Commitment to Learning. If I am committed to the servant leadership values I hold, this commitment leads me to a path of life-long learning. A commitment to leadership translates into a commitment to learning.

As a leader, how are you committing yourself to learning in service  of others?

People or Production — Getting Things Done while Caring for People

People, Viewminder, Flickr

Photo Credit: People, Viewminder, Flickr

People or Production

In management studies, there is a rich history of work engaging the importance of focus on people and results.

— A Concern for People is characterized by leaders or managers emphasizing and recognizing the needs of followers, and then working to meet followers in these areas of need.

— A Concern for Production or Results is characterized by leaders emphasizing organizational objectives and what the best pathways are for meeting these goals and objectives.

Engaging Leadership Style

The “Ohio State” studies, and the “University of Michigan” studies on these themes were complemented by what is known as Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid. Based on the categories of concern for people and concern for production or results, Blake and Mouton’s categorizes leaders in the following manner:

  • Impoverished (low results/low people)
  • Authority-Compliance (high results/low people)
  • Country-Club (low results/high people)
  • Middle-of-the-Road (med. results/med. People)
  • Team (high results/high people).

People and Production

As leaders, it is easy to feel this tension between a focus on results or a focus on people. Many times, managers and leaders view it as a mutually exclusive decision. Either the focus will be on results, or the focus will be on people.

Thankfully, contemporary models of leadership are emphasizing the priority of both. Both people and production are valuable, and in fact the two serve each other in a healthy organizational system.

Chicken or Egg

But what comes first. Must a leader prioritize one over the other, even though both are valuable? Generally, transformational models of leadership emphasize change and getting things done. These approaches emphasize results along with individualized consideration as a necessary part of the leadership approach. This commitment to organizational goals is seen as the best way to meet the needs of people.

Servant-oriented models of leadership emphasize a commitment to people. These approaches emphasize a commitment to serving the needs of people as primary. This commitment to people is seen as the best way to accomplish organizational goals and objectives.

A Matter of Emphasis

It really comes down to a matter of emphasis. Both people and production are a priority. Both followers and goals are essential. But which is the best way to meet these aims. For the time being, I land on the side of emphasizing people first, and seeing this as the best way to also get things done.

Thankfully, there is a growing body or research helping us understand this relationship between goal-orientation and follower-focus.

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Pursue both. Leaders who value and develop their people will have a solid community ready to meet organizational goals. Leaders who work with their community to get things done will have healthy organizations that provide stability for their people. Both are a priority, so lead well toward both of these ends.