What, Exactly, Is Servant Leadership?

At The Ken Blanchard Companies, most of our work in the past focused on leader behavior and how to improve leadership style and methods. We attempted to change leaders from the outside. But through the years we have become convinced that effective leadership starts with self perception—it’s an inside job. It is a question of the heart. It’s all about leadership character and intention. Why are you leading? Is it to serve or be served? Answering this question in a truthful way is so important, because you can’t fake being a servant leader. We believe that if leaders don’t get the heart part right, they simply won’t ever become servant leaders.

The most persistent barrier to being a servant leader is a heart motivated by self interest that looks at the world as a “give a little, take a lot” proposition. Leaders with hearts motivated by self interest put their own agenda, safety, status, and gratification ahead of others who are affected by their thoughts and actions.

In a sense, developing a “servant’s heart” is a lifelong journey. It is my belief that you finally become an adult when you realize that life is about what you give rather than what you get. The shift from self-serving leadership to leadership that serves others is motivated by a change in heart. Servant leadership is not just another management technique. It is a way of life for those with servant’s hearts.

When some people hear the phrase servant leadership, they associate it with “soft management”—they think you can’t lead and serve at the same time. Yet you can, if you understand that there are two kinds of leadership involved in servant leadership: strategic leadership and operational leadership.

Strategic leadership has to do with vision and direction. This is the leadership aspect of servant leadership. The responsibility for this visionary role falls to the hierarchical leadership. Kids look to their parents, players look to their coaches, and people look to their organizational leaders for direction.

Once people are clear on where they are going, the leader’s role shifts to a service mindset for the operational leadership task, which is all about implementation—the servant aspect of servant leadership. How do you make your vision happen?  In a traditional organization, all the energy in the organization moves up the hierarchical pyramid as people try to be responsive to their bosses instead of focusing their energy on meeting the needs of their customers. Bureaucracy rules, and policies and procedures carry the day. This creates unprepared and uncommitted customer contact people who are trying to protect themselves and it leaves customers uncared for at the bottom of the hierarchy. This scenario doesn’t do much to move the organization in the desired direction toward accomplishing a clear vision. Servant leaders, on the other hand, feel their role is to help people achieve their goals. To do that, the traditional hierarchical pyramid is theoretically turned upside down so that the frontline people, who are closest to the customers, are at the top. Now the frontline people are responsible—able to respond—to the needs of the customers. In this scenario, leaders serve and are responsive to their people’s needs, training and developing them to accomplish established goals and live according to the vision.

Servant leadership is not soft management; it is management that not only gets great results but also generates great human satisfaction.

If you are interested in learning more about Servant Leadership, I will be speaking at the Servant Leadership Institute Winter Conference on February 1st-3rd in San Diego. For more information, or to buy tickets, please visit their website at http://sli2011winterconference.eventbrite.com/. See you there!

4 thoughts on “What, Exactly, Is Servant Leadership?

  1. Although one might believe that leaders are not born but actually made, and although one might believe that leadership styles and behaviors are taught and trained, yet for one to truly and genuinely be a “servant leader”, he/she must have the inner believe in own desire and ability to support & help others to achieve their goals in the organization / society.

    This is something that I find hard to train and teach, because it has much to do with the leaders own raising, background, and own motivation. It’s something that “Servant Leaders” might learn & gain over the years as they grow in to their wisdom age. An age where the leader realizes, deep in side, that true leadership lays in achieving long term, continued success through others, which can only happen by helping them achieve their goals.

    Self centeredness VS others centeredness:

    To me, the core difference between traditional leaders “those who achieve results by focusing on the organization’s needs and achieves them by pushing others” and “Servant Leaders: those who achieve long term results with the people, helping them achieve their goals and consequently the organization’s”, is in the drivers of self-satisfaction.

    A servant leader’s self-satisfaction is driven by / results from helping others achieving what they need to achieve.

    Self centered leaders’ self-satisfaction is driven by / results from having others serve the leaders’ own desires and agendas, regardless of the others’ desires and goals.

    To me this is why organizations can’t easily replace servant leaders with traditional ones and expect to enjoy the same spectacular multidimensional results.

  2. Ken
    This is yet another fabulous pull, a great one for those who continue to view leadership mainly as a way of making people to work on their behalf. You seem to say that servant leadership is more about the bigness of a heart that is willing and desirous to give. Such a heart makes the leader to be less inward-driven. When working with others, such a leader love to see these others have more responsibilities, achievements, recognitions etc more than themselves. That is not a very easy thing in the ego-driven world of today. And sure, it needs great learning exercise. Go a head with your planned talk; educate the world.

    Tom Dienya
    National Food Security Programme
    Ministry of Agriculture
    Nairobi, Kenya

  3. Ken, your material on servant leadership has been rich through time. I like how you use Jesus as your model and go from there. It’s about putting the people you lead before you, not in back of you. It’s caring for them as a person, before an employee. It’s doing everything you can to equip them to succeed, then getting out of their way so they can do it.

  4. Ken,
    I had the opportunity to teach your Sit Lead II for several years, so I am a fan of the techniques you developed. I do agree that the heart and intention of the leader is what makes everything come alive in the relationship with their people. One trend I have seen with the discussion of the Millenials/Gen Ys entering the workforce is the focus on how different and needy they are. Part of me sees it as a great awakening for leaders that do not lead from a servant perspective. Retention of Millenials will be a problem if people see a me first leadership style. Thoughts?

    I always appreciate your posts. Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts.

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