Who is the servant-leader?
The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.
Robert K. Greenleaf
Back to 70’s, Robert Greenleaf in his thought-provoking essay, The Servant as Leader, introduced the concept of servant leadership and argued that the best way to identify servant leaders was through the manifestation of certain outcomes to followers. According to his work the “best test” of servant leadership is to make sure that other’s people highest priority needs are being served:
Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?
Robert K. Greenleaf
But what it means for a practitioner to become a servant leader? Which are those characteristics that are central to the development of servant leadership?
In an attempt to describe what is servant leadership for practitioners Spears in his work based on Greenleaf’s wrttings created a model of 10 core characteristics that were considered as important behaviors of servant leaders: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuation, concpetualization, foresight, stewardship, growth and community building. This model enhanced by Barbuto and Wheeler work with an additional characteristic, calling, that they believed was fundamental to servant leadership and consistent with Greenleaf’s view and initial message.
Calling. Servant leaders motivation begins with a consious choice to serve others. An internal desire and willingness to sacrifice self-interest for the benefit of their followers.
Listening. Servant leaders communicate by listening first, what others have to say, their ideas, their suggestions. They believe that listening is a skill that envolves with practice and requires to hear, being receptive and value the ideas of others. Such a pattern of behavior increases followers commitment.
Empathy. Empathy extends listening by standing in the shoes of another person and trying to see the world from that person’s point of view. A servant leader tries to fully understand others thinking, needs and feelings. Being an empathetic listener makes others to feel unique, accepted and recognised. Those that have become skilled empathetic listeners and have the ability to appreciate the circumstances that other faces are the most successful servant leaders.
Healing. Servant leaders care about the well being of other persons and they support by helping them to overcome their personal problems and their relationship problems with others. They provide a forum to help others express their feelings and through empathetic listening to help them with the healing process or the emotional resolution. Even if broken spirits is part of our nature as human beings, servant leaders have an ability to recognize when and how to foster the healing process. As Greenleaf mentioned the process of healing helps not only others in the search of wholeness but is a healing process for servant leaders as well. “There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led…the search for wholeness is something they share”
Awareness. Servant leaders have the ability to step aside and notice what is happening in a greater context of a situation by reading and understanding different signs. Awareness includes understanding oneself (self awareness) and the impact one has on others. Awareness help servant leaders to view most of the situations from a more integrated and holistic perspective.
Persuasion. Persuasion is seen as the ability of servant leaders to convince others to change without the use of any formal authoriy or power but with clear and persistent nonjudgemental argumentation.
Conceptualization. Servant leaders go beyond daily routines, realities and the achievement of short term operational goals. They nurture their ability to dream great dreams and see the big picture. They provide clarity on goals and direction, they foster an environment that uses mental models and encourage creativity to respond to complex problems.
Foresight. Foresight is a servant leader’s ability to predict what might come based on what is happening in the present and what has happened. It’s about understanding the lessons learned from the past, the current reality and anticipate the impact and the consequences of a decision in the future.
Stewardship. Stewardship is about not only being committed in serving the needs of others but to further contribute for the greater good of society. Stewardship also emphasize the use of openness and persuation when leading people instead of using command and control.
Growth. Servant leaders core belief is that everyone is a unique person with intrinsic value that goes beyond their contributions to the organization and as a servant leader you are committed to the growth of each and every individual. it is in their own responsibility to support and nurture the personal and professional growth of their followers, employees, colleagues. They are doing this by providing opportunities for career development, help them develop new skills, taking personal interest in their ideas, and involve them in decision making.
Community building. Servant leaders encourage and foster the building of communities among those who work together within a certain organization, people that have shared interests and a need for unity and relatedness. Servant leaders provide a place where people can feel safe to express their own views while being connected with others.
These 11 characteristics of servant leadership represent Greenleaf ’s initial message on the servant as leader. They are the areas someone could dive deeper in understanding the complexities of servant leadership. For more than 30 years a lot of studies have been made aiming to create a theory around servant leadership and many models and instruments have been created that could help practinionners to “measure” servant leadership.
One instrument someone could use is the servant leadership questionnaire that developed by Barbuto and Wheeler. They refined the 11 characteristics into the following five dimentions: 1. altruistic calling (desire to make a positive difference in others’ lives), 2. emotional healing (foster a spiritual recovery from hardship or trauma), 3. wisdom (a combination of awareness of surroundings and anticipation of consequences) 4. persuasive mapping (use of mental models) 5. organizational stewardship (make a positive contribution to society & foster community development).
The servant leadership questionnaire consist of 23 items on a likert-type 1-4 scale (1=strongly dissagree, 2=somewhat disagree, 3=somewhat agree, 4=strongly agree). As a practitioner you can use the questionnaire with your groups or any teams it happens to work with.
- This person puts my best interests ahead of his/her own.
- This person does everything he/she can to serve me.
- This person sacrifices his/her own interests to meet my needs.
- This person goes above and beyond the call of duty to meet my needs.
- This person is one I would turn to if I had a personal trauma.
- This person is good at helping me with my emotional issues.
- This person is talented at helping me to heal emotionally.
- This person is one that could help me mend my hard feelings.
- This person seems alert to what’s happening.
- This person is good at anticipating the consequences of decisions.
- This person has great awareness of what is going on.
- This person seems in touch with what’s happening.
- This person seems to know what is going to happen.
- This person offers compelling reasons to get me to do things.
- This person encourages me to dream “big dreams” about the organization.
- This person is very persuasive.
- This person is good at convincing me to do things.
- This person is gifted when it comes to persuading me.
- This person believes that the organization needs to play a moral role in society.
- This person believes that our organization needs to function as a community.
- This person sees the organization for its potential to contribute to society.
- This person encourages me to have a community spirit in the workplace.
- This person is preparing the organization to make a positive difference in the future.
Another widely used questionnaire is the one developed by Liden, Wayne et al., and consist of 28 items that measure seven major dimensions according to their study, conceptualizing, emotional healing, putting followers first, helping followers grow and succeed, behaving ethically, empowering, and creating value for the community. The questionnaire could be found here with instructions how to use it.
Concluding, being a servant leader requires understanding first of the main characteristics and the behaviors someone needs to demonstrate. Secondly requires a lot of practice to grow the weak areas and grow stronger the strong ones as indicated by the various tools. However, as Greenleaf argued, it is more important to understand that servant leaders make a conscious choice to serve first and place the good of followers over their self interests.
Servant Leadership it’s a journey worth to take it!