When it comes to leadership, the classic image of a cantankerous boss barking orders and flaunting his or her power might come to mind. Leadership is a “process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Northouse, 2016, p. 6). Influence is simply how the leader affects you as a follower (Northouse, 2016). The cranky boss is influencing you through intimidation by making demands, but there are other ways to do so. The definition of leadership frames it as a process, built by the interactions of a leader and his or her followers (Northouse, 2016). This means that there are different ways to interact and influence your followers. You don’t have to be the cranky boss who rules by fear.
As I’ve advanced in my career and have been studying different leadership styles, aligning my own style with my Christian faith has been important. There are many examples in the news of leaders whose actions were harmful to employees, organizations or to their customers. It is important to me that my actions in my career are not kept separate from what I strive to be through my faith. But, I was not sure how to best do that.
And then, I learned about servant leadership. This is a way to lead that is a natural fit to the service nature of the church I attend. A basic teaching of the Christian church is to treat others as you would like to be treated, to serve others and to love them, sometimes to the detriment of yourself. Servant leaders act similarly by putting their followers first, nurturing them and empathizing with them (Northouse, 2016).
Greenleaf (1970) states that servant leadership “begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead” (as cited in Northouse, 2016, p. 226). This seems contrary to the traditional view of leadership, but a servant leader is still using institutional power and control that come with his or her position, however he or she is “shifting authority” (Northouse, 2016, p. 227) to followers and working to develop them into servants leaders as well (Greenleaf, 1970, as cited in Northouse, 2016).
A servant leader has several characteristics including being a good listener, empathetic, a healer, aware, persuasive, conceptual, predictive (having foresight), a steward, committed to the growth of people, and a community builder (Spears, 2002, as cited in Northouse, 2016).
A leader who listens is one who hears what followers say and is receptive to it; listening acknowledges the followers’ viewpoints (Northouse, 2016). A leader needs to hear the facts, called comprehensive listening (Gamble & Gamble, 2013), and he or she need to listen to know what to accept and reject, known as critical listening (Gamble & Gamble, 2013). But if a leader is putting the follower first, then empathic listening is key. Empathic listening is about understanding feelings of the person and involves trying to feel what the speaker is saying and tapping into their emotions, using an appropriate emotional response (Gamble & Gamble, 2013). Empathic listeners pay attention to nonverbal cues and do not interrupt the speaker (Gamble & Gamble, 2013). A leaders who listens is one who can be empathetic and understand what a follower is thinking and feeling (Northouse, 2016).
Being a healer means that a leader has concern for the well-being of followers and helps them overcome personal problems and become whole (Northouse, 2016). This means being aware of what your followers are dealing with. To help with healing, a leader is available to followers, stands with them and supports them (Liden, Wayne, et. al., 2008, as cited in Northouse, 2016).
Being aware means understanding what effect you have on others and in the situation (Northouse, 2016). It can mean not letting your ego get in the way and stepping aside if it’s in the best interest of the team.
Persuasion is “clear and persistent communication that convinces others to change” (Northouse, 2016, p. 228). Being persuasive means using gentle nudges and being nonjudgmental (Northouse, 2016). I remember one time, when I was new to leadership and in my early 20s, I wasn’t happy with the skills of one of my employees. Instead of gently nudging this employee to approach her work differently, I distinctly remember saying “this looks like garbage” and throwing the newspaper she worked on across the room. Needless to say, it didn’t help our relationship nor did she have any incentive to change. If I could find that employee and apologize to her, I would. That was not putting her first. There was a better way to nudge her into a direction I wanted.
Being conceptual is clearly communicating goals and your vision of how to get there (Northouse, 2016). A servant leader shows conceptualizing by having a full understanding of the organization. (Liden, Wayne, et. al., 2008, as cited in Northouse, 2016). As a servant leader, I need to understand the mission of the organization and convey to my staff how our department contributes to that mission.
Foresight is the ability to “predict what is coming based on what is occurring in the present and what has happened in the past” (Northouse, 2016, p. 228). For example, if I’ve seen a certain approach fail in the past or see senior leadership not be receptive to it, I can predict that a similar approach suggested by a different employee will yield a similar result. As such, I need to advise the employee to not use that approach, thus helping improve the odds of success for that employee.
Stewardship is understanding the leadership responsibility a person has been given over others in the organization (Northouse, 2016). Being a leader is a big responsibility and it must be treated as such.
Commitment to the growth of people is meant both personally and professionally (Northouse, 2016). Career development, skills development, listening to the followers’ ideas and involving followers in decisions are all ways to promote growth (Spears, 2002, as cited in Northouse, 2016). It also means mentoring your followers and helping them reach their full potential (Liden, Wayne, et. al., 2008, as cited in Northouse, 2016). For example, I worked for a leader who understood that my college courses were important for my growth. She made school a priority for me by protecting some of my time so that I could work on lessons at the office.
Building community is promoting a sense of unity and belonging; identifying with “something greater” (Northouse, 2016, p. 229). Community means that follower feel safe and connected, but can still be themselves as individuals (Northouse, 2016).
A servant leader puts his or her followers first and demonstrates through his or her actions and words (Liden, Wayne, et. al., 2008, as cited in Northouse, 2016). You can do this is many ways like stopping what you are doing to address a need of a follower (Northouse, 2016). I want to be the type of leader who is always considering the needs of my followers and what I can do to meet those needs. It could be something as simple as always making sure to recognize my team member’s contributions to senior leadership to help build respect for them in the organization and support their career advancement. I’ve worked for leaders who took credit for work their team members did – and that’s not the type of leader I want to be.
Servant leaders also behave ethically (Liden, Wayne, et. al., 2008, as cited in Northouse, 2016). Too often, leaders are caught cutting corners to cover up mistakes or make performance goals. A leader needs to do the right thing and be open, honest and fair (Northouse, 2016). My faith is important for this because it helps define what is ethical.
A servant leader needs to empower his or her employees to be independent and make decisions (Liden, Wayne, et. al., 2008, as cited in Northouse, 2016). Doing so will give followers confidence because they have the freedom to succeed or fail (Liden, Wayne, et. al., 2008, as cited in Northouse, 2016). This is something that parents can relate to, especially parents of teenagers. As our children mature, we empower them with more and more decisions that give them invaluable experience and confidence in their abilities to handle what life throws at them. Sometimes that means that mistake are made or that failure happens. As a leader, I want to empower my employees to make decisions and have the safety net to fail and learn. There are consequences of failure, of course, but I don’t want a fear of failure to cripple followers from making decisions.
A servant leader should also give back to the community (Liden, Wayne, et. al., 2008, as cited in Northouse, 2016). A way to do this is to find a way to link the goals of the organization with those of the community (Northouse, 2016). In my last job, the office volunteered once or twice a year at a food bank. At another job, the office collected Christmas gifts for a family in need.
Through servant leadership, your followers’ performance can improve and they can grow into servant leaders themselves. It can also improve team effectiveness, organizational performance and create a positive societal impact (Northouse, 2016). Being a servant leader can benefit your organization. It is, however, not for everyone. Some followers do not respond to servant leadership and do not like that style of leadership (Northouse, 2016). With these type of followers, you may need to make some adjustments, serving them in ways that they are comfortable with.
Servant leadership may seem contradictory, but treating people right and with respect and putting them first is a powerful way to wield influence. It is how I plan to lead in my next leadership opportunity. It relates to who I am working to be on a personal level, and being a servant leader will help me grow personally while helping my followers.
Gamble, T. K., & Gamble, M. W. (2013). Leading with communication: A practical approach to leadership communication.Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7thed.).Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.