The most memorable piece of advice I’ve ever received from a supervisor was, “A leopard doesn’t change its spots.” Through much heartache and frustration I’ve learned this lesson to be true in so many areas of life, not the least of which is at work. People are who they are and no amount of training or mentorship can change who someone is at their core. This is very evident in servant leadership. When someone is a servant leader, their desire to help others and their devotion to their organization is unparalleled. Servant leadership isn’t so much about what a leader does, rather, it focuses on why the leader does what they do (Brown, 2019). Servant leaders have a desire to not only help others, but to serve their organization.
By developing themselves and their followers to meet their organization’s needs, the organization succeeds (PSU WC, L11, 2019). Servant leaders display a specific set of traits centered on the “people” side of the organization. They listen, are empathetic, provide healing, promote awareness, persuasion, and conceptualization, they have foresight and through stewardship demonstrate their commitment to the growth of the people and their communities (PSU WC, L11, 2019). For me personally, I am a servant leader. I see the greater needs of the organization as a priority and all of my goals are centered on the success of my organization and my staff.
Serving a large and highly publicized organization, the reception team I supervise must be present in order to meet our daily operational needs. Joe, incredible human being who is funny and engaging excels at his job on my reception team, when he’s there. In the last four weeks, Joe has been absent four and half days and late once. According to servant leadership, the way I interact with Joe will result in Joe understanding the importance of his contributions to the organization as a whole. To better reflect on the situation I’m faced with (Joe’s attendance), it is beneficial to outline the 10 servant leadership characteristics identified by Spears (2002) and consider how each relates to my current situation.
“Servant leaders communicate by listening first” (Northouse, 2018, p. 229). By this point I my career, I have attended numerous sessions on learning how to be an active listener. Listening and truly hearing what the other party is saying is a skill that has to be developed and maintained. One of the struggles I had to overcome was providing my undivided attention to the person talking to me. As someone who has suffered with, until very recently, undiagnosed and untreated attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, devoting my undivided attention to one person was nearly impossible. Thankfully, this interactive skill is becoming second nature to me. When Joe walks into my office to talk about the personal issues he is facing, I am able to turn away from my computer and devote that moment in time to Joe alone.
“Empathy is “standing in the shoes” of another person and attempting to see the world from that person’s point of view” (Northouse, 2018, p. 229). This means freeing my mind from all judgement and enabling myself to drop the ‘manager’ status in the moment of that conversation. When Joe describes the incredible anxiety he is challenged by each day, I cannot respond to his openness with judgement, rather, I have to show Joe that I am truly invested in his journey. Anxiety is a basic emotion that results in a physiological response in preparation for the instinct to “fight or fly” (Sue, Sue, Sue, Sue, & Sue, 2016). People are plagued with anxiety for a multitude of reasons and by being empathetic to Joe’s I demonstrate to him that his reasons are valid, regardless as to how I may personally feel about them.
“To heal means to make whole” (Northouse, 2018, p. 229). According to servant leadership, but listening to Joe and helping him heal from his problems, I too will be healed. This is a part of leadership where, again, the manager hat comes off and the listener steps in. Showing Joe that I am willing to help him through his personal strife helps to build trust between us, but also allows him to be free of his personal anxieties that interfere with his ability to come to work each day.
“… [A]wareness is a quality within servant leaders that makes them acutely attuned and receptive to their physical, social, and political environments” (Northouse, 2018, p. 229). Being aware is more than just knowing the environment we are surrounded by, but it’s about being able to see ourselves for who we are, independent of the situation we are in or the title we hold. As a manager and supervisor, my team looks to me for leadership and guidance. For me to be an effective leader, I have to be able to set aside my own biases. For example, Joe’s reason for not coming to work on Friday was because he had a final to work on. Joe is a single man who lives alone. He works a regular work week and takes one class, one night per week. On the other hand, I work more than full time, my immediate family includes my husband and one child still at home, a grandchild I take care of a couple evenings a week, my 94 year old grandmother who I also care for on a regular basis and I am a full time student taking 12 units this semester. I’ve not ever had to call out of work because I needed to work on a final. As such, when Joe called out of work on Friday, I had to be very aware that we are not the same person. My needs are very different from his, and the amount of work/life/school balance I need is very different from what Joe needs. By being able to view the situation without my own biases, I am able to provide effective leadership to Joe.
“Persuasion is clear and persistent communication that convinces others to change” (Northouse, 2018, p. 229). Unlike coercion that relies on positions of authority to dictate the behavior of others (Northouse, 2018), persuasion can effect change through communication. In my ongoing dialogue with Joe about his attendance, I let him know that I too am a student and that I would be happy to open a dialogue with him about how I have managed to balance work and school and my family over the years. Part of my intent to share my own experiences with him is to establish a common ground between us, but also to let him know that he’s not alone in the world. By offering him time management tips and encouragement, I am demonstrating empathy and awareness.
“Conceptualization refers to an individual’s ability to be a visionary for an organization, providing a clear sense of its goals and direction” (Northouse, 2018, p. 229). I’ve come to realize that there are times when Joe doesn’t feel as though he is an integral part of our organization. We recently had a staff member return from long term leave. Previous to her return, Joe was handling a portion of her daily duties that she is now taking care of. Joe is not seeing his role as being integral to the success of our organization anymore because he is experiencing change. Where he sees himself as an extra part to well-functioning machine, I see Joe as being ready for new obligations. I see an opportunity to train him on new functions so that we continue to meet our overall operational goals. This may mean that Joe isn’t sitting at a reception desk for eight hours a day anymore. This may mean that Joe has to take to some training to learn new skills or become familiar with software or other processes specific to our organization.
“Foresight encompasses a servant leader’s ability to know the future” (Northouse, 2018, p. 230). I am not a mind reader nor am I a fortune teller. I cannot predict the future. What I can do, however, is analyze previous trends to help me predict how certain trends behave over time. In my situation with Joe, I should clarify that he is a temporary staff on my team. His role was to fill a void for a specific measure of time. However, the initial period of time Joe was to be with us has been extended time and again because of the unpredictable nature of another staff member’s health. To further complicate how Joe feels about being part of the team, I am not at liberty to tell Joe that the person who just returned may leave again, with little or no notice. Further than that, this person may be separating from the organization all together. However, human resource laws prohibit me from sharing my foresight with the rest of my team. So in the meantime, I have to continue to manage my team and provide essential staffing using the least amount of resources possible.
“Stewardship is about taking responsibility for the leadership role entrusted to the leader” (Northouse, 2018, p. 230). The concept of stewardship is critical, especially within my organization. Working for a major public university, one of my mission-critical objectives is to always ensure we are being good stewards of university resources. After all, we rely on tuition, donations, grant funding, and federal and state money to do our jobs. A big portion of being a good steward of university resources includes ensuring our staff are using their time efficiently. A lot of what people don’t see when it comes to business operations is that the cost of salaries is usually the biggest budget line-item. This is absolutely the case at my organization. So if my staff, especially, are sitting at the front desk where the general public can view them, and they do not appear to be practicing effective and efficient time management, headlines can be made. Literally. People will call the local news stations and a story will be published. It’s happened before for much less. Similarly my role as a leader must include my own stewardship to the organization and our stakeholders. If I do not take my role seriously my team won’t take me seriously.
Commitment to the growth of people
“Servant leaders are committed to helping each person in the organization grow personally and professionally” (Northouse, 2018, p. 230). I have been able to promote to the position where I currently reside because I had leaders who were committed to my professional growth. As someone who has always believed that each member of our team brings with them a unique set of skills, abilities and talents, I believe that continual personal growth is critical to our success as an organization. Nothing makes me more proud than to see one of my staff promote into a higher ranking position, even if that means they leave my department. Helping them develop their skills and abilities not only helps them grow, but it also benefits our organization, and even more, our larger organization as a whole. When my team promotes into a different department on our campus, they are taking with them the skills and traits they’ve developed and can continue to contribute those values to our campus.
“Servant leadership fosters the development of community” (Northouse, 2018, p. 230). As I mentioned above, growing our people – investing in our people – only stands to improve our greater community. As a university, our mission is to collaborate within our organization to reach our university’s vision of education. Being aware of organization’s vision allows followers to be part of the big picture. It allows them to feel they are contributing to something greater than themselves (Northouse, 2018). For someone like Joe, I’m realizing that he needs to feel included in the larger picture in order to feel he is part of the organization. And by preparing Joe and other staff to be a part of the larger organization, we can continue to contribute to the community at large. We share our values and objectives with the neighboring cities and towns and because we all strive for the same organizational goals, we can work together to achieve those goals.
Circling back to where I started this blog post, Joe is not going to change his spots. He will continue to be a staff member who needs a little extra attention from his leadership to ensure he feels included and connected to the organization. Once he feels like he is truly needed, he is dependable and reliable. Thankfully I am learning this about Joe now, and not later down the road when it might be too late. Another manager may see Joe as being overly-absent and unreliable. I know, however, that with some guidance and advice, Joe can be a model employee who puts forth 100% effort for the greater good of the organization.
Brown, J. (2019, February 27). Who are these servant leaders? Retrieved November 4, 2019, from https://online.ben.edu/programs/ba-org-leadership/resources/who-are-these-servant-leaders.
Northouse, P. G. (2018). Leadership: theory and practice (8th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2019). PSYCH 485 Lesson 11: Servant leadership. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2008237/modules/items/27074746.
Spears, L. C. (2002). Tracing the past, present, and future of servant-leadership. In L. C. Spears & M. Lawrence (Eds.), Focus on leadership: Servant-leadership for the 21st century (pp. 1–16). New York, NY: Wiley.
Sue, D., Sue, D. W., Sue, D. M., & Sue, S. (2016). Understanding abnormal behavior (11th ed.). Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.