If you want to recognize a servant-leader in action and uncover what she does to make servant leadership real, look for tangible, measurable, positive results in those who choose to follow her lead. It’s simple really: exemplary leaders are those who empower exemplary followers. Robert Greenleaf, the father of servant leadership, put the “best test” of a servant-leader this way:
“Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?”
Followers who are growing bring value to the world. They show up every day with willing hearts and keen minds. They bring their best selves to do the best work they’re capable of. And they continually seek ways to expand those capabilities for even greater performance.
Workplace engagement has been the subject of rigorous and powerful research into leadership that produces exceptional outcomes. In Nine Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall argue that Lie #9 is that “leadership is a thing.” It’s not that we can’t learn principles and practices of great leadership. It’s just that coming at leadership head on by trying to identify and assess traits and skills that all great leaders supposedly share really doesn’t get us very far beyond vague platitudes. What we can measure with confidence is what our followers have to say about their experience as members of the teams we lead, whether or not they are engaged at work, and the correlated evidence of high performance. Buckingham and Goodall write:
“This is the true lesson in leading from the real world: a leader is someone who has followers, plain and simple. … So, the question we should really be asking ourselves is this one: Why do we follow?”
ADP Research Institute conducted a Global Study of Engagement in 2018 that surveyed nearly 20,000 employees in over nineteen countries in order to determine what characterizes great teams. The following eight precisely worded survey items turned out to be the most predictive of teams that experience the highest levels of engagement and, in turn, are the highest performing:
(1) I am really enthusiastic about the mission of my company.
(2) At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.
(3) In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values.
(4) I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work.
(5) My teammates have my back.
(6) I know I will be recognized for excellent work.
(7) I have great confidence in my company’s future.
(8) In my work, I am always challenged to grow.
So, let’s take a look at these eight dimensions of engaged teams as a framework for the behaviors of servant-leaders, starting with the first two: mission and expectations.
I am really enthusiastic about the mission of my company.
Servant-leaders translate great dreams into compelling missions. Greenleaf uses entheos, the root of the word “enthusiasm,” to characterize servant-leaders as “spirit carriers” who propagate the organization’s animating dream. As Greenleaf says, “For anything to happen there must be a dream. And for anything great to happen there must be a great dream.”
When a worthy mission becomes personal, it becomes a cause. And commitment to a cause drives greater engagement, which in turn produces greater value for all stakeholders. For the servant-leader to foster enthusiasm for a cause that goes beyond quarterly earnings, the mission has to be greater than maximizing shareholder returns.
Love – what we yearn for – is at the heart of organizational culture. What we love defines and sustains why we exist as an enterprise, what we aspire to be, and how we fulfill our brand-promise to our stakeholders. Enthusiasm for mission operates at the level of our core beliefs about ourselves and our organization.
Mission flows out of vision and purpose – what we do that creates value for our stakeholders is grounded in why we pursue these specific ends. Servant-leaders use every opportunity, no matter how small, to make the mission of the organization clear and compelling by telling vivid stories of folks who go “above and beyond” in order to achieve the mission.
Servant-leaders also steward the operational systems. It’s these processes and procedures that embed mission at the core of the organization. As a result, mission extends beyond the annual report, comes down from the office walls, and finds a home in the hearts of followers who enthusiastically engage in creating and sustaining an organization that lives up to its calling in the world.
Servant-leaders are the Chief-Mission-Officers of their organizations. Keeping up a steady sense of mission-urgency is needed to prevent the organization from sliding from accomplishment to complacency. Servant-leaders keep the fire burning brightly every day, in every way possible.
At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.
It is the servant-leader’s job to coach team members on how to collaborate with others in a system of shared expectations. The mission needs to be broken down into digestible bites so that people can turn big-picture enthusiasm into effective collective action that advances the cause. The servant-leader ensures that everyone knows in sharp and specific terms how their individual roles contribute to mission.
Expectations start with the servant-leader. We must “walk the talk,” owning up to mistakes, admitting when we don’t know, and taking responsibility when we fall short of expectations. In so doing, we demonstrate humility and authenticity. And that earns trust. Setting clear expectations about everyone’s roles, responsibilities, authority, and performance indicators is critically important and will make or break our followers’ spirit of engagement.
The servant-leader persuades others to freely choose mutual accountability. Too often, we buy into the myth that it is the leader can hold people accountable through command and control. The truth is, people always have a choice between commitment, compliance, and cynicism. In reality, our attempts to hold force accountability are expressions of parent-child relationships that negate agency and freedom. It is a servant-leader’s job to persuade others through the language of disclosure and engagement, combined with intense listening, to freely choose mutual accountability. This is not soft stuff. Being a servant-leader sometimes requires hard conversations when the choice is changing attitude and behavior or moving on.
The servant-leader co-crafts with her team the web of expectations needed to achieve mission. We frame, model, and foster personal and communal accountability for the good of the whole. This is collaborative work. Imposed expectations don’t meet the best test. The lead a servant-leader possesses lies in helping people find their unique place in the team and connecting them to each other functionally as well as missionally.
Next up: values and strengths.