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Yes, Servant Leaders Do Actually Lead

There is a common misconception that Servant Leaders don’t lead, they simply hold the space for the team and remove obstacles. Leaders see a clear future in the way that others don't and they are pointing the way.

A manager once told me "My team is struggling, but I'm being a Servant Leader so I'm not going to engage with them." This is exactly not what a Servant Leader is. As people let go of their old leadership style, sometimes they aren't sure what to replace it with.

In Robert K. Greenleaf’s essay The Servant as a Leader, he outlines 3 ways Servant Leaders lead. They have clarity of vision, they have a wide span of awareness, and they can help defuse the anxiety of the organization. Let’s take a look at each.

  • Clarity of Vision. Servant leaders have more of a sense of the unknowable, and a clearer sight into the future, than others. They are monitoring past, present and future, all at once. Servant leaders are still leaders, and leaders, and leaders know where they are going. People follow leaders because the leader has made them feel like they are in good hands, and the direction is clear. Leaders help the people they serve understand the Why behind their work. They help them connect their own work to the overall vision. This is the antithesis of “do as I say” or “because I said so” or “it’s not your job to know”. Servant Leaders know that their results are better when everyone’s head is in the game. Leaders have a 6th sense of the future, and bring that together with the present, taking the history into account. They are able to see the future but know how to get there from where they are. You may have seen leaders who paint a great picture of the future, but no one knows how to get from here to there. Leaders guide you through that terrain.

  • Wide Span of Awareness. Servant Leaders are always looking to widen their field of awareness. They are looking for blind spots. They are constantly asking themselves and other “what am I missing?” Good leaders are scanning the landscape for opportunities and threats. They are scanning not only the present but the future and past as well. They scan the future for possibilities. They scan the past for repeating patterns. A good leader is not a bliss, in fact, they are often in turmoil. Greenleaf says “Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed.” The recent film “The Darkest Hour” chronicles Winston Churchill’s angst as he led England into war, despite the advisement of his own political party.

  • Defuse the Anxiety of the Served. One of the marks of a good leader is their comfort with uncertainty. They adapt and make decisions as situations unfold. As a leader, they can help reduce anxiety for others who are less comfortable with uncertainty. They help create safety for other people’s fears. This was an eye-opener for me. Though I’m comfortable with uncertainty, I could probably be more attentive to those who aren’t. As I help organizations become Agile, I’m sure I have been dismissive of some people’s fears. My apologies to those people!

  • Leaders create or maintain order. Greenleaf warns that “..people will choose some kind of order over chaos even if it’s delivered by a brutal non-servant and even if, in the process, they lost much of their freedom.” Wow, that’s harsh. This is supported by the post-revolutionary rise of dictators. In the face of anarchy, people preferred order. For Servant Leaders, this means that the path you lead must connect to a better form of order than the alternatives. As a leader who is comfortable with a bit of chaos, I have often been remiss in providing order, loath to create templates and checklists. Guess what happened? Draconian rules and cumbersome reports seeped in. I plead guilty to this one!

What is your experience with Servant Leaders taking the lead? Let us know!

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