The idea of servant leadership isn’t really new. In the fifth century BC, the Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu defined four types of leaders:
According to this simple taxonomy, the superior ruler (leader) is one who is “self-effacing and scanty of words.” This leader assigns tasks in such a way that his subordinates naturally take credit for any achievements.
Many of us have dealt with bad managers at some point our careers. In most cases, these individuals think they must issue orders like drill sergeants to get things done. When mistakes occur, which they often will, these “bully bosses” dodge responsibility by blaming anyone or anything other than their own shortcomings. Such leaders are almost always feared or despised. Subordinates do whatever they can to defy them. Or, more often, they simply quit the team or company in question. Company executives should identify these bad managers and either teach them better leadership skills or relieve them of authority.
Lao-Tzu’s category of the beloved leader is a tricky one. Many managers want to be loved and admired. It’s simply human nature. It’s very flattering to be known as the “Best Boss Ever,” and the company culture that fosters such leadership is likely to attract and even retain good employees. Here’s the catch: being popular isn’t the same as being effective. To remain a healthy organization, there must be effective leadership. Positive recognition and making people feel good isn’t enough.
The highest form of leader, according to Lao-Tzu, is the invisible leader. In today’s leadership environment, the closest match for this category is the so-called servant leader.
How does this work in practice?
There are several definitions of the principles of servant leadership. They have the following characteristics in common:
In some ways, this type of leadership might turn an organization upside down. The leader serves the team by listening to the group, by delivering a vision of the desired future-state, by persuading the team to adopt the right course of action, and by allowing the team and its members to claim credit for achievements. The leader serves the team, and the team serves the organization, the market, and society.
The importance of values
These are key to the philosophy of servant leadership. Robert K. Greenleaf, who is credited with coining the term in his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader, made it clear that it’s the task of the servant leader to strive toward the greater good of society. The long-term goal is an altruistic one. It’s the business of the servant leader to envision a better future and to help his or her team along the path that leads in that direction.
How does this work day-to-day? The servant leader must ask himself or herself whether a given course of action helps make the people being served or the outcome better in some way. Will they be more healthy, wise, smart, or free? Will the action lead toward or away from the desired future state? Will a decision serve to move things forward or back?
The servant leader’s main role
The servant leader provides the team with a vision and a path. The vision is based on defined values and understanding of a better life, a better solution, a better way. The path is based on all the decisions and course corrections necessary to realize the vision. Servant leadership is by definition both far-sighted and far-reaching. At the same time, its principles can trickle down to the most mundane daily decisions.
To be successful, organizations must have a clear and unified vision they can work toward and a leadership team that listens. A healthy organization will also work consistently toward altruistic goals based on the good of society. Finally, the organization should support the needs and wants of the people in that organization. These are principles that lie at the very core of the idea of servant leadership. Companies that take these principles to heart will thrive.
In looking at the principles of servant leadership, Jim Collins’ classic Good to Great comes to mind. In this book, Collins describes five levels of leadership, starting with Highly Capable Individual (Level 1) and ending with Great Leader (Level 5). One of the most important traits of a Level 5 leader is humility. There are several other areas of overlap between good servant leadership and “Level 5.” These include working with a clear purpose, or vision, taking responsibility for team failures, and asking for help or listening carefully to the team’s input.
Collins calls Level-5 leadership a paradox, because it combines humility with great resolve. In the same way, servant leadership is anything but a position of weakness. On the contrary, it’s both a single-minded adherence to core values and an open-minded welcoming of ideas and initiatives from the team.
In Give and Take, author Adam Grant states, “If you’re a giver at work, you simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas, and connections with other people who can benefit from them.” A strong and vibrant culture is one in which people demonstrate empathy and genuine interest in others. It is an environment of empowerment, accountability, and coaching where there is no fear of failure. Such a culture fosters a growth mindset and doesn’t concern itself with bolstering ego. Instead it focuses on being prepared and fulfilling life’s purpose. This is the culture that the leaders and team at Thompson Pipe Group strive to build in our organization.
Servant leadership certainly is leadership. In fact, it’s the leadership style that best fits forward-looking organizations that are committed to their people, to quality improvement, and to helping make the world a better place. The sustainable organization works toward a goal that’s greater than short-term profits or increases in market share. It isn’t that profitability is unimportant. But it can’t be what fundamentally powers the organization and motivates people. Without greater values, it’s too easy for an organization to lose its way, to falter along its path, or even to betray its own best interests.
A good servant leader is one who quietly listens to the team, who defines the vision, and who gently drives the team along the path toward it. The real leader is not bombastic and power hungry. Instead, he or she empowers team members to succeed and takes responsibility for missteps. A great leader moves the organization closer to realizing the vision — without making a big display of their own acumen. As the Chinese philosopher said, the great leader is almost invisible.
The principles of servant leadership apply to all leaders within the organization, from supervisors to executives. They outline the foundation of a company culture in which people, and the organization itself, can thrive and grow. At Thompson Pipe Group, we are a pipe manufacturer that continually encourage and nurture this type of effective and compassionate leadership.
P.S. Please share your views on this subject. Does servant leadership mean an unwanted breakdown in organizational hierarchies? How does this leadership style cope with things like team discipline? Does the visionary approach only work for companies that market visionary products? What do you think?