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.

Providing Accountability (Leadership Practice 9)

inspire, by Sarah Parrott, Flickr

inspire, by Sarah Parrott, Flickr

I’m in a series highlighting 9 Effective Servant Leadership Practices. Servant leadership is not just a good idea. It works! The 9 effective leadership practices highlighted in this series capture core leadership dimensions that are correlated with effectiveness in the team context.

This week we will take on the final of the 9 practices—Providing Accountability. Before I dive into the final one, here is a snapshot of the core practices associated with team effectiveness:

Cluster 1—Beginning with Authentic Leaders

  • Practice 1: Modeling what Matters
  • Practice 2: Engaging in Honest Self-Evaluation
  • Practice 3: Fostering Collaboration

Cluster 2—Understanding the Priority of People

  • Practice 4: Valuing and Appreciating
  • Practice 5: Creating a Place for Individuality
  • Practice 6: Understanding Relational Skills

Cluster 3—Helping Followers Navigate toward Effectiveness

  • Practice 7: Communicating with Clarity
  • Practice 8: Supporting and Resourcing
  • Practice 9: Providing Accountability

Practice 9: Providing Accountability

The final servant leadership practice included in this model is the leadership behavior of Providing Accountability. Rather than servant leadership being a weak form of leadership that is disinterested in results, this leadership behavior emphasizes the priority of holding people accountable for reaching their goals.

Misconceptions about Servant Leadership

When the topic of servant leadership comes up, this point is often a misconception I hear. People fear that if they are committed to serving others, they will lose authority in the eyes of followers or their acts of kindness will become opportunities for others to take advantage of what others view as a “weak” form of leadership.

These are misconceptions of servant leadership, though. Servant leaders do make hard decisions. Servant leaders at times do need to terminate employees. Leaders who are committed to serving their followers don’t simply do the job for those followers, they support and resource their followers toward success, and they then hold followers accountable toward agreed upon outcomes. Although servant leadership begins with a focus on followers, servant leadership also “has teeth” and includes a commitment to providing accountability and is consistent with a commitment to valuing and developing followers.

Clear Communication

As with the leadership practice of communicating with clarity, several research participants reaffirmed the priority of clear communication in the providing of accountability for followers. In contrast to some of the negative examples provided by participants—examples where leaders failed to clearly communicate and then terminated or disciplined employees based on poor performance—there was a unified called to proactive and honest communication around expectations and follower performance.

Open and Honest Evaluation

One participant noted “I prefer honest performance evaluations—those which acknowledge both strengths and growth fronts and clearly set goals that can be reached quarterly and annually.” Another participant similarly noted that, “honest and open communication that is regular and consistent at setting and reaching goals is very effective in developing accountability and building trust.”

Inspect What You Expect

Another participant notes that “leaders inspect what they expect,” and this is arguably consistent with the leader-love that characterizes a servant leaders commitment to serving the needs of the follower over the needs of the leader. Engaging in direct and honest conversation with followers around outcomes that are important to followers and the organization provides an opportunity for follower development, a tangible factor associated with valuing and developing people. Servant leadership is not about caring for followers or providing accountability. Servant leadership includes both. Are you inspecting what you expect when it comes to follower goal accomplishment?

Some Final Thoughts

The model covered these past weeks is about (1) beginning with authentic leaders, (2) understanding the priority of people, and (3) helping followers navigate toward effectiveness. We’ve covered the 9 core leadership practices associated with team effectiveness that are both presented in this model and supported by related research.

As you seek to grow as a leader, these 9 effective leadership practices will serve both you and your followers well. Take time in the coming week to think through one or two action steps based on these practices. Enjoy the journey of growing as a servant leader.

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Related Posts for the 9 Effective Leadership Practices:

Cluster One — Beginning with Authentic Leaders

Practice 1: Modeling what Matters

Practice 2: Engaging in Honest Self-Evaluation

Practice 3: Fostering Collaboration

Cluster Two — Understanding the Priority of People

Practice 4: Valuing and Appreciating

Practice 5: Creating a Place for Individuality

Practice 6: Understanding Relational Skills

Cluster Three — Helping Followers Navigate toward Effectiveness

Practice 7: Communicating with Clarity

Practice 8: Supporting and Resourcing

Practice 9: Providing Accountability

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Note: For those wanting to dig a bit deeper, please check out my article entitled “A Model for Effective Servant Leadership Practice.”