Who Do You Follow?

A good friend of mine once shared with me the following nugget of servant leadership wisdom:

We cannot give the title of “servant-leader” to someone simply because they have followers. We must know who that leader follows to determine if they’re themselves are worth following.

In his classic book, “The Power of Followership: How to Create Leaders People Want to Follow … and Followers Who Lead Themselves,” Robert Kelley writes:

The ultimate test of leadership is the quality of the followers. Exemplary leaders attract exemplary followers.

Kelly unpacks the skills exemplary followers possess that add value on the job:

  1. Consistent high performance along the critical paths to organizational success,
  2. The ability to weave a productive web of organizational relationships, and
  3. A courageous conscience, which compels them to be true to their principles, and in this way to be agents of alignment between the organization’s stated values and the behaviors that are actually practiced.


The reality is that we servant-leaders are followers ourselves when we serve those who look to us for leadership. Even if our name sits at the top of the org-chart, we are accountable to a host of stakeholders: customers, constituents, and employees, partners and shareholders, trustees and donors, the community and the public good. As servant-leaders. we are stewards of the resources that have been entrusted to our care. Our position of leadership confers profound responsibility as well as authority. In a nutshell, great leaders – leaders who achieve extraordinary results – are themselves great followers.

According to Robert Greenleaf, the father of servant leadership, the “best test” of a servant-leader is all about the servant-leader’s followers:

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?

We are worth following exactly to the extent that we draw and develop high-performing followers who meet Greenleaf’s best test. We don’t demand followership by bullying or bribery. Rather, we woo and win followers through persuasive influence that shares power with and for those who follow us rather than exercising power over them.

As servant-leaders, we make conscious, consistent, and continuous choices to be good servants of those who place their trust in us. To be at our best, we need to seek wise counsel from mentors who have proved themselves in the marketplace, the community, and the life of mind and spirit. We also must pay attention to those NOT to follow and take to heart the cautionary tales of leaders who serve only themselves. It’s human nature to follow those whose approval we seek. Sometimes those approval-figures are not the real-deal in servant leadership. And we can become addicted to approval in general. The real trick is to seek out worthy approval-figures who supply the grace and power needed to stir us to greater service.

In order to serve well, we should be the organization’s Motivator-in-Chief. When we press from servant leadership theory into servant leadership action, there are skills and behaviors we can learn and practice in our daily habits of encouraging and energizing those we serve. We need to be self-aware of what moves us to excellence before we can truly be in tune with the motivational drivers of those who look to us for leadership Here’s where work-style assessment tools such as MCORE (our motivational blueprint – why we do what we do when we’re in the zone), Gallup StrengthsFinder (how we perform when we’re at our best), and 360-degree performance processes (what others see as our successes and shortcomings) are great resources for servant-leaders.

The real power comes when we lead the way in such assessments and share our results with the team in an open process. Leaders worth the following are savvy seekers of authentic, effective feedback. We lead the way by being transparent about the need we all have to receive insights from those we serve, and we intentionally build this wisdom into the performance processes of our organizations.

Here’s the deep truth of leadership that truly matters – it’s by being the servant of your followers that you will empower these folks to harness their active, independent, problem-solving, creative energies in order to achieve the great purpose that guides your common endeavor. Exemplary leaders equip exemplary followers by being the Lead Follower, the Follower-in-Chief, of their enterprises.

Sounds paradoxical, and it is. But I believe that’s how the universe has been designed to operate. When we give ourselves away for the sake of others, we truly gain ourselves, and we bring flourishing to each other for the common good.

(Copyright © 2019 — Chris Alan Thyberg – The Serving Way. All rights reserved.)

The Servant-Leader in Action – Trust

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