What is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership isn’t about being subservient or always seeking consensus. It’s not about being overly warm and fuzzy.

Instead, it’s a leadership style that encourages accountability and ownership, driving positive change within organisations. And it taps into some of the core principles of matrix styled organisations where we see ‘mutual accountability’ and what’s known as ‘distributed ownership’.

My Experience: Learning Through Challenges

I never read about this, nor was it taught to me. I stumbled across it, if you could call it that, by putting myself in an interesting position of leadership.

In the mid-nineties, I was tasked with turning around a struggling hospital. The previous hospital administrator had been sacked for poor performance. Finances were a mess, and there were many industrial relations issues floating through the workforce.

Despite lacking technical knowledge in hospital operations, I chose to take it on and see if I could turn it around within a 12-month time frame.

Primarily because I could not offer solutions given my lack of technical knowledge, I needed to approach this problem by working through the people in the hospital who did have the technical knowledge to fix it.

Twelve months later, I left having successfully led the transformation using servant leadership principles.

I will describe how I approached this as a four part, or four phase sequence.

A Model of Servant Leadership

Phase One: You Direct Where Attention is Focussed

The leader’s primary role is to guide attention towards key areas of the business. As the leader, you own this. You dictate where your people focus their attention.

It might be things like expenses, product development, safety, marketing, service delivery, sales and so on. You identify the performance gaps in these areas as the first step.

Phase Two: You and They Mutually Agree on Achievable Objectives

Next, leaders collaborate with team members to set and agree on what they believe will be achievable objectives. It’s crucial to gain agreement on targets that team members believe they can accomplish to ensure alignment and accountability.

Phase Three: They Are Empowered With Ownership

Team members take ownership of how they go about closing the gaps that you agreed would be addressed.

As the leader, you step back from providing solutions and focus on holding team members accountable for reaching their agreed-upon objectives.

Your questions should not be about the solutions specifically, but rather questions about the ‘process’ of how they came up with those solutions and how they will ensure those solutions will close the performance gap.

The skill of guiding rigour into problem solving processes through good questioning is what will make you transportable into any business, not just one where you are content knowledgeable.

And here’s the final piece.

Phase Four: Ensure Accountability and Be a Servant Leader

Good leaders routinely check progress towards objectives. You want to know if they are on track or falling behind.

If they are on track, end of conversation. You now trust them to continue on without you needing to know everything that is happening.

If team members are falling behind, this is where you now become a servant to them. You ask – “What can I do to help you get back on track?”

This approach fosters ownership and commitment among team members. It gets the monkey off your back and frees you to focus where you should be focusing. And it develops a much more effective workforce.

Conclusion: Embracing Servant Leadership

Understanding servant leadership is essential for driving meaningful change in organisations. By guiding focus, setting achievable objectives, empowering ownership of solutions, and ensuring accountability, leaders can foster a culture of collaboration and progress.

More Information

For more information about the work of George Lee Sye, visit www.9skillsfactory.com where you’ll discover one of the most significant professional development programs in the world today covering topics of leadership, influence, business execution, and lean six sigma.

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