Servant leadership

Servant leadership (November 1, 2005)

Ben Teehankee

Managing For Society column, The Manila Times

You’re a manager but you want to be a better leader. Why not try being a servant leader?

Servant leadership was formally noticed in leadership writing when Robert Greenleaf of AT&T wrote Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness in 1977. Given the challenges that many organizations face today and the quiet desperation that many people are feeling given the country’s political turmoil, the need for this form of leadership is greater now than ever before.

What are the basic practices of a servant leader? The first is valuing people. Followers instinctively feel if they are being valued or merely used. A politician who values his constituents will regularly hold dialogues with them to listen to their needs and sentiments. A manager who takes the time to visit her subordinates at their workplaces to see how they’re coming along sends the message that her subordinates matter to her. Tom Peters, the management guru who co-authored In search of excellence, captured this practice in the acronym MBWA which means “managing by walking around.” Do you find time to “be with the people” or are you more often in your desk reading reports and “managing by remote control”?

The second practice is developing people. Servant leaders understand that those who are under their charge are under their care. People need to feel that they are improving, not only as workers but, as human beings. A lot has been said about how important Filipino human capital is and that our major advantage as a country is our people. Yet, a recent study by economists Villamil and Hernandez revealed that non-agricultural firms spent a mere 0.76% of total labor cost on training. Servant leaders invest in others and know that people who grow in the workplace do not only produce more but, more importantly, are more fulfilled. Can your people say that they have become better workers and individuals this year compared to last year?

Practice number three is building community. While many view corporate life as nothing more than a collection of employment contracts, the servant leader knows that a workplace has the potential of becoming a nurturing “community of work” where people value and support each other. A servant leader weaves the organization’s elements together by building bridges of common aspirations and communication between people and departments. They do not allow disagreements to fester into deep divisions and factions among organizational members. Instead they encourage the free and constructive ventilation of issues and the generation of joint solutions through meetings and other forums. Do you monitor the state of relationships in the organization and take steps to make sure that they are healthy?

Being authentic is the fourth practice of the servant leader. James Autry, author of The Servant Leader, explained this simply as being who you are and holding the same values in whatever role you have. In short, being “real”. Autry narrates how his frequent disagreements with his boss, whose vision he believed in, led him to decide to resign. His boss asked to speak to him and told him, while looking straight in his eye, “I’ve been such a jerk and I’m sorry. I should have known that the structure I set up did not free you to do the creative job I expected. I’ll change it. I need you here to help carry out the vision. Please stay.“ Autry stayed because his boss did not let his ego or position prevent him from apologizing to someone lower in the hierarchy. How real are you when you deal with your people? Do they know what you really value? Can you admit and be accountable for your mistakes?

Fifth, the servant leader practices shared leadership. The temptation for top-down control is very strong in organizations. Management schools have taught management by objectives (MBO) to generations of managers. Unfortunately, what goes for MBO nowadays has very little input from the people who actually do the work. Objectives are simply numbers “cascaded” down the organization -- as if objectives, like a waterfall, should follow the law of gravity. The result is frustration, demoralization and a sense of powerlessness among workers.

Jimmy Blanchard is the Chairman and CEO of Synovus Financial Corporation, a Georgia-based multi-billion dollar financial services firm noted for its servant leadership practices. Blanchard favors an inspiring shared vision over imposed objectives: “When employees feel … that they are a part of a team that stands for something good, that there is a higher calling than just working to get a paycheck, that they are improving mankind, there is an energy level that explodes and great things happen”. Do you inspire a shared vision among your people?

So, dear manager. Are you ready for the calling to be yourself and to serve others? Your people are waiting.