Servant Leadership

I came across an article in Inc. Magazine last month on Servant Leadership that really hit the mark for me. The basic premise is summed up by a quote from Kent Keith, CEO of Greenleaf Center of Servant Leadership:

“I think the simplest way to explain it would be to say that servant leaders focus on identifying and meeting the needs of others rather than trying to acquire power, wealth, and fame for themselves”

I believe in this concept – wholeheartedly. I discussed this a bit in my post “Two Tips for Building a Semi-autonomous Business” – but it is worth discussing further.

Its tough for people new to management to get this concept. It seems to go against the image we have of strong leaders and managers. Think of the management style that is encouraged on tv shows such as The Apprentice. Think of the stressful environment that Alan Sugar creates. The fear of hearing “you’re fired”. Although this is a highly-dramatised example, there are many people who truly believe that this is a correct way to manage people / business.

I thought this way too when I first started. Believing that management is about control, direction.. strength. But this “top down” style of management may be tough.. but it is not strong.

Leadership is more about influence than control.


The problem with the top-down approach is that it is self-limiting for a number of reasons:

1. The business / team / department / division / subordinates become unable to think for themselves. They are great at completing tasks. And if you are good, these tasks are completed to the highest standard. But when it comes to making decisions, then they can struggle – they are afraid of making the wrong decision or simply become too complacent with taking instruction.

2. There is a limit to the number of people (direct reports) you can manage. A lot of management books discuss the maximum number of direct reports one person can manage – sometimes measured as the “Span of Control” – as anywhere between 6 and 12. This is certainly true in environments where you are actively controlling / directing people.

What if you turn this on its head – literally – and flip the organisation chart. Instead of controlling / directing people so closely – create an environment in which everyone understands what is expected of them, their role and empower them to achieve the goals with minimum supervision.. but with constant support.

If you can do this, you will enable you staff to think for themselves. Their capability becomes virtually unlimited. You will build highly effective teams. You will be able to manage far more direct reports than you could with a top down approach.

If you Google “servant leadership” you will find definitions that are discouraging in my view. They use lots of “hippy” phrases that give the impression of group hugs and herbal tea. Ignore all that. The core of Servant Leadership is realising that you gain far more power and authority by enabling and supporting others than you could by more traditional control and delegation methods.


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