Leaders as Servants: The 10 key characteristics

Leadership makes the difference between one organisation and another.

Effective leadership is demonstrated minute by minute in the things we do and say, every day. People see, note and feel every action, and word that we ut-ter. Any incongruity in what they see, hear and feel dissipates trust.

Books, lectures, seminars and workshops on leadership devote their time and space to the esoteric nature of the topic. We spend too much time analysing the thousands of factors that make up effective leadership but rarely actioning those things which really do matter.

The most significant works and practice that I have been exposed to at any time in my working life is ‘Servant leadership’. Robert Greenleaf’s book Servants as Leaders provided me with better appreciation of the underlying considerations and value within servant leadership.

Servant and leader.. can these two roles be fused into one real person, in all levels of status and calling? If so can that person be productive and effective in the real world of the present and the future?

Greenleaf and others believe that really good and yes, great leaders do indeed fuse two roles into one real person, in all levels of status and calling.

Servant leadership relies primarily on building competence in relationships with people who, together with the leader, produce the results and conditions. Together they will continually reach for both personal and organisational potential.

Greenleaf in his first work wrote: “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.

“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.

“Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Well before reading Greenleaf’s and other’s work on this stunning concept, I used phrase:- “the growth that I have achieved can be measured and seen in the growth that I have been able to bring about in others…”. In the concept of servant leadership both leadership and followership are emphasised.

Leaders leading leaders…
Servant leadership is embedded in many indigenous cultures. Anthropologists demonstrate that people who led others in tribal situations very often were the servants of the others. The cultures were holistic, co-operative, communal, intuitive, healing and spiritual and often centred on being guardians of the future and respecting ancestors who walked before.

Dr Lin Bothwell in The Art Of Leadership says: “Leadership is the most researched and studied subject in human-kind”. For millennia we have sought to understand what enables one person to stand out and to take people with them.

The concept of servant leadership, of leaders leading leaders can be summed up in the Latin phrase ‘primus inter pares’ – ‘each is first among equals’.

Greenleaf says that leaders bend their efforts to serve with skill, understanding, and spirit, and that followers will be responsive only to able servants who lead them. Discriminating and determined followers and servants as followers are as important as servant leaders, and every-one from time to time may be in both roles…leaders leading leaders.

If, as they say: you will never learn to do anything really well until you first have the desire to do so, we will find great difficulty in fulfilling our leadership potential until we really desire to serve others.

My experience is that organisations don’t pay half enough attention to the loyalty of their members. Too often person’s patronage is taken for granted.

Loyalty cannot be bought; pay/salary, the trappings of remuneration, cars, perks and the like, will only buy loyalty until better offer arrives.

Every successful organisation recognises that success, however measured, rests with the relationship that is created and maintained with the customer, or member. Dismiss my needs or fail to take my needs seriously and I’m off (if not physically then certainly attitudinally)!

Two of the most influential and largest grant-making foundations in the USA (Lilly Endowment and WK Kellogg Foundation) have sought to encourage the development of programmes designed to educate and train leaders and trustees of not-for-profit organisations to function as servant leaders.

Larry Spears, executive director of the Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership identified the following 10 critical characteristics of the servant leader:
1. Listening: Servant-leaders must reinforce these important skills by making deep commitment to listening intently to others.
2. Empathy: The most successful ser-vant-leaders are those who have become skilled empathetic listeners.
3. Healing: In The Servant as Leader Greenleaf writes: ‘There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share.’
4. Awareness: Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed. They are not seekers after solace.
5. Persuasion: Reliance upon persuasion, rather than positional authority.
6. Conceptualisation: To be servant-leader thinking must be stretched to encompass broader-based conceptual thinking. There is delicate balance between conceptualisation and day-to-day focus.
7. Foresight: The ability to foresee the likely outcome of situation is hard to define, but easy to identify. It is deeply rooted within the intuitive mind. Foresight is the one servant-leader characteristic with which one may be born. Greenleaf proposed foresight to be the central ethic of leadership.
8. Stewardship: Holding something in trust for another.
9. Commitment to the growth of people: Belief that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers.
10. Building community: Servant-leaders seek to identify means for building community among those who work within given institution.

According to Greenleaf, “Caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which good society is built.”

Servant leadership is now into its fourth decade as specific leadership (and management) approach.

Successful leadership is practising the art of inspiring people to do something with the focus on people.

Meeting the needs of others so they will meet yours, and those of the organ-isation and its stakeholders, is one of the most important things servant leader can do.

Servant leaders recognise that person’s self worth is their most treasured possession – to be handled with the greatest of care.

Even Confucius had hand in developing servant leaders around 550 BC. He said: “Put service first and your own gains after. You are humane (empathic) if you can practice five virtues: respectfulness, magnanimity, truthfulness, commitment to goals, generosity.

Leaders must be nurturers. No task is more important than the people involved.

Ron Rowe is Life Fellow of NZIM. Much of his working life has centred on the study of leadership. He is currently involved in introducing workplace assessment within NZ Police.

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