There Is No “I” in Leader – Some Thoughts on Servant Leadership

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Gary Lee
Gary Lee

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servant-leadershipSince I first moved into a management role nearly two decades ago, I’ve read nearly a hundred books on various topics like leadership, creativity, teamwork, communications and strategy.

Somewhere along the way I was introduced to the concept of servant leadership and, like many things in these books, I learned a much better way of communicating something I instinctively already “got.” I surprised myself recently by successfully remembering (maybe guessing) which book first presented me with a working definition of servant leadership. In “Leadership Jazz” by Max DePree, he says: “Above all, leadership is a position of servanthood. Leadership is also a posture of debt; it is a forfeiture of rights.” This is pretty heady stuff and a lot for anyone to live up to.

When I read that, it reminded me of an even earlier introduction to servanthood in the form of my fraternity’s motto: “Give, expecting nothing thereof.” So how does all this relate back to something useful for the reader of this post? To me it is all about selflessness in how leaders think about and execute their three main responsibilities to the team:

1) Clearing obstacles

2) Marshaling resources

3) Explaining boundaries

I’d like to explore each of these further and then wrap things up with some thoughts on how this all can apply to leadership in settings outside the business world like families and volunteer work.

Clearing obstacles is a fairly obvious place to start, but it can be difficult if the hindrances are beyond the leader’s control or require something not possible based on current circumstances. Overcoming these adversities may not be easy and leaders need to be focused on serving the team rather than assuaging their egos. By this I mean to be careful not to breed dependency in the team by jumping in to help whenever the slightest wind starts blowing against them. They need an ally when times are tough rather than a super hero to squash all adversity. That said, a servant leader does not create artificial constraints or competition to get the most out of a team. Games are for the sporting courts, not for the business world of those aspiring to true servanthood.

Marshaling resources in the past might be referred to as providing resources, except that in our increasingly flattened and matrixed organizations, the servant leader often has to convince others to join in the cause rather than being “able” to order them to do so. And even if they could use command, servanthood would suggest the better option is to sell them on joining the cause to boost the combined team’s cohesiveness and dedication to the goal. In addition to human resources, the servant leader is called upon to provide the team with the proper skills, training, technology and other equipment they need to get the job done. Servanthood requires the ability to empathize with the team and truly understand what they need rather than what they say they want.

Explaining boundaries is often overlooked despite being quite possibly the greatest help to the team. At the same time, it is not an easy task. It is difficult to strike the right balance between creating guidelines that help the team without steering them in the direction the leader would go. The servant leader cherishes the gifts of the team rather than validation that they have all of the answers. The best leadership advice I ever received was from my father when he basically said, “If everyone around you always agrees with you, then you probably don’t need them.” The difficulty of setting boundaries correctly is being willing to do the hard work to make it simple. Servanthood here is about giving the team a clearly defined goal with a concise yet complete set of boundaries to set them free on the task, while also ensuring that they don’t waste their time on unacceptable solutions.

The debt servant leaders owe to their followers is vast, yet the return on servanthood is even greater as the team flourishes and reaches its full potential. Your rights as the leader are to take all of blame and none of the credit. To praise publicly and criticize privately while being either a spokesperson or diplomat, depending on which is needed. I hope that these three responsibilities of a servant leader are clearer now, and you see how much fuller your life can be through practicing them.

I promised to connect how servanthood can also apply to families and volunteer work, but hopefully it is obvious to you now how that path is the same: 1) clearing obstacles, 2) marshaling resources, and 3) explaining boundaries. The love parents have for their children can easily be expressed as “Give, expecting nothing thereof,” and it is also what drives servant leaders in the causes they support.

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