Working On My Serve
Rick Forbus, PhD
Servant and leadership are two words that do not seem to fit together. Rather like jumbo shrimp, junk food and genuine fake watches. In years past, these words would have been more likely used together in non-profit and religious organizations. Lately, I have heard the words expressed by business professionals in everyday corporate settings. Western business leaders in the past have articulated their leadership style with a more direct, authoritarian and dictatorial stance. Why would we self-assertive, driven, fast-paced and achievement-oriented business leaders want to work on our servant leadership attributes? I like what James Hunter says about this topic.
James Hunter in his book “The Servant” presents a powerful picture of what it really means to be a leader/servant. He shares: leadership is ultimately rooted in our will. Not forcing our will on others, but demonstrating our will to serve. There is a big difference between leading through power and leading through authority. Many people can simply force people to do what they want because they have the power to make them. However, few people like to be forced to do anything. Eventually such “power driven leadership” destroys relationships. On the other hand, some have the ability to lead through authority. Authority is different than power. Power is something you have and force on people. Authority is something you gain – it’s given to you by the people you lead. How does one gain authority from those they lead? They do this only through service and sacrifice. When people see that you have their best interests at heart, when they see you are willing to sacrifice and serve them they will be willing to follow. That’s servant leadership, that’s authority.
I have been working on my “serve.” It is amazing what transpires when you look at the people you work with as individuals to empower and serve. Many driven leaders think that when they withhold information and restrict personal power of others, that they, the leaders, have more power. This is really not the case. How do I know? I’ve tried it both ways! I have tried the power plays, the marginalizing of others’ talents and held power close to my office. When we hold most of the power as leaders, then the flow of synergy, talent and teamwork simply cannot increase.
“He stands erect by bending over the fallen. He rises by lifting others.”
– Robert Green Ingersoll
When we pull back and allow our team members to thrive, utilize their talents and we celebrate team divergence, greater accomplishments occur. The releasing of team power brings about transformational achievement. And, servant leadership unlocks this team power. When you serve others they are more apt to be loyal, more willing to work hard and more enabled to be themselves. This unleashes inconceivable team power. Serving is a strong stance for any leader. Altruism is powerful. It means such things as:
I really do not know why it happens, but serving someone unleashes something in them and you. It is an upside down way to be a leader. It is the difference in power and authority. Power comes because of a leader’s position. Authority is bestowed on a leader by the followers. When we serve we empower others to grant us our authority. When we stop serving followers stop endowing us with authority. Actually, followers, when served, lend us their trust and grant us our authority to continue leading.
As morning broke on December 14, 1862, the battlefield at Fredericksburg, Virginia revealed a ghastly landscape. More than 8,000 Union soldiers lay dead or dying before a stone wall where the Confederate Army had entrenched itself. The cries of the dying for help and water were chilling.
Nineteen-year-old Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the Second South Carolina Brigade had seen and heard enough. Kirkland went to Confederate General Joseph Kershaw. “General,” he said, “I can’t stand this!” He startled his commanding officer. “All night and all day I hear those poor Federal people calling for water,” he said, “and I can’t stand it any longer. I ask permission to go and give them water.”
Kershaw shook his head sympathetically. “Sergeant,” he replied, “you’d get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped over the stone wall onto the plain.”
“Yes, sir,” answered Kirkland, “I know that, but if you let me, I’m willing to try it.”
The General responded, “The sentiment which prompts you is so noble that I will not refuse your request. God protect you. You may go.”
Quickly the South Carolinian scaled the wall and immediately exposed himself to the fire of every Yankee sharpshooter in that sector. Kirkland walked calmly toward the Union lines until he reached the nearest wounded soldier. Kneeling, he took off his canteen and gently lifted the enemy soldier’s head to give him a long, deep drink of refreshing cold water. Then he placed a knapsack under the head of his enemy and moved on to the next.
Racing against the lengthening shadows of a short, somber December afternoon, he returned again and again to the lines where comrades handed him full canteens. Troops on both sides who had watched this unselfish act paid young Kirkland the supreme tribute — not a standing ovation, but respectful awed silence.
The phrase “Servant Leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, he said:
“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; perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”
“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: 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?”
In his second major essay, The Institution as Servant, Robert K. Greenleaf articulated what is often called the “credo.” He said:
“This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.”
Servant leaders are seen to be effective because the needs of followers are so cared for that the followers reach their full potential, thus performing at their optimum. An obvious strength of looking at leadership this way is that it forces us, as leaders, away from self-serving, domineering leadership. Those in charge of others should think harder about how to give respect, value and motivate people reporting to them.
“We must be silent before we can listen. We must listen before we can learn. We must learn before we can prepare. We must prepare before we can serve. We must serve before we can lead.”
William Arthur Ward as quoted in an article, Leadership with a Human Touch
Servant leadership, as already stated, is a contradiction in terms. Servant literally means an employee who serves somebody else, especially an employee hired to do household tasks or be a personal attendant to somebody. Leader means somebody who guides or directs others or even the head of a nation, political party, legislative body, or military unit. So these two words connote conflicting things and are really tough to get our arms around without some deep consideration of how this plays out in real-life leadership. Perhaps the poem following will bring some clarity.
THE PARADOXES OF BEING A SERVANT-LEADER
Strong enough to be weak
Successful enough to fail
Busy enough to make time
Wise enough to say “I don’t know”
Serious enough to laugh
Rich enough to be poor
Right enough to say “I’m wrong”
Compassionate enough to discipline
Mature enough to be childlike
Important enough to be last
Planned enough to be spontaneous
Controlled enough to be flexible
Free enough to endure captivity
Knowledgeable enough to ask questions
Loving enough to be angry
Great enough to be anonymous
Responsible enough to play
Assured enough to be rejected
Victorious enough to lose
Industrious enough to relax
Leading enough to serve
Poem by Brewer – Word, 1987. (p. 29)
When a leader is serving team members, then the team members have an inclination to follow that leader. Why? Because serving sanctions others, causing them to in turn sanction or endow the leader with authority. If you lead and do not serve then people may perform tasks but not really be following with loyalty and allegiance. There is a vast difference in coercion and true followership. To be completely honest, coercion and loyalty are not even in the same sphere of meaning and intent.
What does serving look like in the real world of leadership? Following are some practical suggestions:
o Leaders should conduct team meetings that allow the team members to contribute ideas and divergent input without the threat of reprisal.
o Leaders should volunteer to work alongside the team on certain endeavors.
o Leaders should extend compliments and sincere encouragement at every opportunity.
o Leaders should exhibit fairness and not show favoritism with team members of all levels within the organization.
o Leaders should allow team members, at times, to take the lead on a project that the leader would normally lead.
o Leaders should even literally serve from time to time at team gatherings such as team dinner or event.
From experience, I have found that intentionally serving others, really takes the lid off of team synergy and productivity. In essence, allowing a divergent team to be free to disagree with each other and you, the leader, is empowering. For some magical reason, people want to follow a leader who is aware of their needs, respects them and serves them.
In one of my leadership workshops we discussed the continuum of leadership. The discussion led to the opposites of leadership: hands-off leadership and authoritarian dictatorial leadership. Hands-off leadership allows team members to find their own way without much direction, whereas, authoritarian is strong, telling and micro-managing in style. One participant asked me what I thought was the best style. I went to the marker board and drew a long horizontal line. At one side I wrote hands-off leadership and on the opposite side I wrote authoritarian. In the middle I wrote servant leadership. The ensuing discussion was powerful. I basically told them that from experience, I have found that leaders may have to lead from every point on the continuum. Sometimes, like within emergencies or during economic crises, we may need to lead with an authoritarian style of telling and with great strength. At other times, it may be best to allow the team to find their way as they grow in their own leadership, using the hands-off style. But, I told them that from my personal experience the servant leadership style was most effective and used most of the time.
Servant leadership consistently takes in to consideration others’ needs and the team’s multiplicity. Servant leadership allows the team to prosper and grow, where the other styles can disengage and cause teams to wander aimlessly or run for cover! If you are a new leader or insecure leader I would coach you to try the servant leadership style most times.
Some years ago, a young and very successful executive named Josh was traveling down a Chicago neighborhood street. He was going a bit too fast in his sleek, black, 12-cylinder Jaguar XKE, which was only two months old. He was watching for kids darting out from between parked cars and slowed down when he thought he saw something. As his car passed, no child darted out, but a brick sailed out and-WHUMP! — It smashed into the Jag’s shiny black side door!
SCREECH…!!!! Brakes slammed! Gears ground into reverse, and tires madly spun the Jaguar back to the spot from where the brick had been thrown.
Josh jumped out of the car grabbed the kid and pushed him up against a parked car. He shouted at the kid, “What was that all about and who are you? Just what the heck are you doing?!” Building up a head of steam, he went on. “That’s my new Jag that brick you threw is going to cost you a lot of money. Why did you throw it?”
“Please, mister, please…I’m sorry! I didn’t know what else to do!” pleaded the youngster. “I threw the brick because no one else would stop!” Tears were dripping down the boy’s chin as he pointed around the parked car. “It’s my brother, mister,” he said. “He rolled off the curb and fell out of his wheelchair and I can’t lift him up.” Sobbing, the boy asked the executive, “Would you please help me get him back into his wheelchair? He’s hurt and he’s too heavy for me.”
Moved beyond words, the young executive tried desperately to swallow the rapidly swelling lump in his throat. Straining, he lifted the young man back into the wheelchair and took out his handkerchief and wiped the scrapes and cuts, checking to see that everything was going to be OK. He then watched the younger brother push him down the sidewalk toward their home.
It was a long walk back to the sleek, black, shining, 12-cylinder Jaguar XKE – a long and slow walk. Josh never did fix the side door of his Jaguar. He kept the dent to remind him not to go through life so fast that someone has to throw a brick at him to get his attention…
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