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Servant leadership is much praised by academics and authors. It is sometimes cited as an antidote to leadership hubris, which we looked at recently: Instead of being full of yourself, have the humility to serve others below you in the hierarchy.

Some people take to it naturally; instinctively, servant leadership feels right. Others ignore or dismiss it as wrong-headed.

For many middle managers, it seems an impossibility. Their role places them in a perennial squeeze between serving those under them and abiding by the directives of those above them. They may want to be a servant leader, but that would mean being viewed negatively by a demanding boss. Yet this basic quandary is often ignored in the paeans to servant leadership.

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The idea traces back to ancient religions and philosophies. It was repopularized in a 1970 essay by Robert Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader, which ignited a movement. “The servant-leader is servant first,” he wrote. “… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

It received another boost a few months ago in a book, Servant Leadership in Action, edited by Ken Blanchard, famous for The One Minute Manager, and Renee Broadwell, an editor with his consulting organization, who brought together a variety of experts to contribute articles. In the opening chapter, Mr. Blanchard says people struggle with the notion because they don’t feel you can lead and serve at the same time. He says you can if you understand that there are two parts to servant leadership:

  • A visionary/direction, or strategic role – the leadership aspect of servant leadership.
  • An implementation or operational role – the servant aspect of servant leadership.

Once direction is set, attention should be focused on the servant role but he notes trouble often occurs because everybody is obsessed with satisfying the person above them in the hierarchy. Instead, he argues the traditional hierarchy needs to be turned upside down with customer-contact people and ultimately customers at the top and the high-level bosses on the bottom. It’s a stirring notion but impractical for many middle managers in traditional organizations. Indeed, taking a customer- and staff-first approach helped get me fired once.

I find managers can be divided into two types. Some, instinctively, fight for the ideas of those below them in the organization – advancing good ideas, trying to protect their team from the stupidities that can descend from the powers-that-be and fighting for customer needs. Others unquestioningly enforce the ideas of their boss and the executives even higher in the organization (who, it should be stressed, in some cases can be highly customer-focused).

Obviously at times you can try to find compromises or blend the pressures from above and below into a workable framework. That is the essence of middle management. But in a crunch, you can be forced to take a side and you learn your personal bottom line: You are either top-down or bottom-up.

If you are in a position of power, Mr. Blanchard’s ideas can have special currency. We know there is value to serving customers, making them the top priority. We also know some successful organizations have a seemingly opposite philosophy of trying to put their staff first, since a satisfied, energized and empowered staff should lead to more (and more satisfied) customers.

Consultant Nathan Magnuson, on his website, suggests servant leaders must settle four issues. First, who do you serve? In that, he includes the community and investors in the possibilities. Next, how well do you understand their core needs? Not all customers (or investors for that matter) will have the same needs. “For your servant leadership strategy to truly work, you will need to differentiate the core needs within your group and conduct a thoughtful needs analysis,” he writes.

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You will want some metrics to measure your effectiveness in pursuing those needs. And then you must get others on your side. He stresses you can’t accomplish a servant-leadership strategy on your own, even if you’re the CEO. “At the end of the day, servant leadership isn’t just talk. It’s action. It’s easy to say we believe in servant leadership. But until we have a strategy, we’ll never actually serve the people we need to lead,” he says.

So this soft, simple notion has a depth and hardness to it that is important to grapple with if we want to escape hubris and have better organizations.

Cannonballs

  • Perhaps the most astonishing feature of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to use the notwithstanding clause to bypass a judicial ruling on his electoral changes to Toronto was how fast it was made. That fits the image he portrayed in the election campaign of a tough, quick decision-maker (like George W. Bush and Jean Chretien). Don’t be seduced into that style: It’s outmoded, patriarchal-based, but powerful in our minds. Give yourself time for consequential decisions. Consult. Consider carefully.
  • A key sign of servant leaders is that they turn conversations toward others, says leadership coach Dan Rockwell, adding that one of the first signs of humility is open ears and a closed mouth.
  • “The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already," – John Buchan, Scottish novelist and 15th Governor-General of Canada

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