The Robert K Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership defines a servant-leader as one who focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. (https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/)
In this model of leadership the triangle of authority and power is flipped upside-down. The servant leader is one who respects, empowers and moves the team towards the goal.
Several years ago I worked in the Information Technology Department at Asbury Theological Seminary headed by Dr. Kenneth Boyd. I had moved from India where my experience of leadership was almost always authoritarian -the triangle was definitely flipped the other way. While I enjoyed the work I did in India I dreaded the leadership which was micro-managing and disrespectful. Under the leadership of Dr. Ken Boyd I not only enjoyed my work but I wanted to be there. It was liberating to wear my thinking cap instead of following a “don’t think just do what you are asked” environment.
Here are a few things I observed as I worked in this department:
- truly getting to know your team and the individuals that make up the team (listening)
- a few ways to create the team
- how to keep the vision in mind and
- encouraging/mobilizing everyone towards that goal (empathize)
Right from the beginning of one’s journey in this department is the sense of a team. I’m not saying it was all perfect but it was a united force. At the interview everyone in the team would be present. Of course there were different levels in the interview process where the applicant’s knowledge and skill were assessed but equal points were given to how this individual interacted with the rest of the team and how the team related to this person they would work with. In my previous places of work whatever position I held in the team I didn’t have any input in creating the team. A bunch of skilled workers were put together to complete a project, it was very task oriented. In an Indian context where authority and power play a huge role in the ego of a leader it is easy to gloss over servant leadership by simply using the language or the symbols. In many settings there would be leaders literally holding ceremonies where they would physically wash the feet of the people who work in the team. This facade has penetrated even in the Christian community. While washing another’s feet may be symbolic and a heart-warming gesture a Dean jumping in to fill in a spot so that the mission of the department is achieved is in reality servant leadership. The role of the leader is not to watch a team member fail at a task but to actually humble oneself to serve/help the employee achieve the mission. That most certainly does not mean the team member is not held responsible but the review would first try to understand the situation and then work out steps to assist the team member to excel at the role.
Every team I have been a part of has required team members to be accountable for time, and the achievement of the goal. But micro-management of how the time is spent dries the bones and curtails creativity. A servant leader respects the individuals in the team and expects the individual to plan out the project and produce results at the consented duration. This empowers and facilitates growth. And I get to put on my thinking cap!!!
As mentioned earlier creating a team isn’t about bringing a group of skilled people together for a task. I suppose there is a place for task-oriented teams. However, creating an atmosphere of belonging and a shared goal is about creating the space for the individuals in the team to get to know one another and respect one another. At this department we celebrated birthdays together with affirmations and prayer. Every member of the team had to think of one thing they appreciated about the one who had a birthday. It forced the team members to think about their relationship with that person, it definitely encouraged the receiver and allowed the team to get to know how and what each member of the team valued.
A servant leader takes the time to know his employees strengths and weaknesses. During a financial crunch when every department had to squeeze budgets Dr. Boyd fervently sought to juggle around responsibilities based on the personality and gifting of the team member before ever considering eliminating any position. He won our respect, He won our loyalty. He is a servant leader who inspired me to pursue a Masters in Leadership to understand what I was missing through my earlier work experiences and how some of these principles can be infused in culture that was immersed and maybe obsessed with authority and power (whether they accept it or not). I am grateful for my years with Dr. Ken Boyd and the Information Technology Department at Asbury Theological Seminary.
We misunderstand servant leadership if we merely use the symbols and the jargon but fail to lift those in the team to fulfill their potential and their dreams within the vision set for the department. Servant Leaders are unafraid to give credit to whom it is due. Servant leaders don’t claim to be experts neither do they hide the ones who have the expertise. read more by Ed Batista. So stop literally washing others feet with water and allow others to flourish and bloom if you really want to be a servant leader. Listen to the dreams of your team members so you can empower them and value them for who they already are not merely for how they can fulfill a leader’s ideas. This then would truly be an inverted pyramid model of leadership with the leader lifting up its team in the spotlight and into greater heights.