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The functions of a servant-leader

By Lisa Ross,2014-07-09 00:30
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The functions of a servant-leader

The functions of a servant-leader

     “True leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a deep desire to help others.”

     In my last column, I bemoaned the greed and selfishness that characterise political and corporate leadership in Africa. Then, I advocated the injection of servant leadership into Africa’s systemic governance. I suggested that in spite of the extensive damage that colonialism has done to Africa’s capacity for holistic development, the continent can re-invent itself by effective leadership shorn of graft. Crying over split milk serves no practical purpose. Elegiac anti-Western rhetorics will not build the continent good roads or feed and educate its rural poor. What should be done is stop buckpassing, yank off fatalism and negative rationalism, and face the challenges of Africa’s rebirth with servant leadership. As a leadership approach, servant leadership will aid honest harnessing of the continent’s vast resources to forge its sustainable wealth and welfare. Also, it will ensure that leaders rule with Messianic motive unfettered by neo-colonial intrusion. Further, servant leadership will rid Africa of dictatorship as it runs on consensus instead of coercion, preferring collectivism to individualism. The concept

    As a concept, servant leadership was coined and defined by Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) in his essay titled The servant as leader, published in 1970. Greenleaf had spent 40 years in the field of management research, development and education at AT&T. On retirement, he took up another career teaching and consulting at a number of major academic institutions and corporations, which included the Havard Business School, MIT, Mead Corporation and Ford Foundation. Greenleaf’s idea of servant leadership might have been inspired by his experiences during his half-century work at the helm of large institutions. But what helped crystallise his thinking on the concept was the lesson he learnt reading Hermann Hesse’s novel, Journey to the East, which told the story of a people on a journey for a spiritual purpose. Writing in the journal, Leader to Leader, (No.34, Fall 2004), Larry Spears, who is the CEO of Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, said “Greenleaf concluded that the great leader is first experienced as a servant to others, and that this simple fact is central to the leader’s greatness.” Spears continued: “True leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a deep desire to help others.” The servant-leader concept offers an alternative approach to leadership practice leading others by serving their mutual interest. The emphasis, in Spear’s words, is “increased service to others, a holistic approach to work, promoting a sense of community, and the sharing of power in decision making”. In recent years, servant-leadership as a leadership development concept has spawned scholarly writings by scholars such as Stephen Covey, Peter Block, Peter Senge, Max DePree, Margaret Wheatley, Ken Blanchard, John Sullivan, and others. Greenleaf’s works together with those of these leadership consultants have helped sustain the concept’s currency in leadership practice and win it many disciples in education and corporate worlds. A servant-leader, according to Greenleaf, is “one who is a servant first”. He wrote: “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” Greenleaf provides the test questions for servant-leadership. He asked: “Do those served grow as persons, do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to be servants…?” Greenleaf may be responsible for the coinage and definition of servant-leadership; but the idea wasn’t entirely his own. According to Wikipedia, “Chanakya or Kautilya, the famous strategic thinker from ancient India, wrote about servant leadership in his 4th century book, Arthashastra. Also, the Lord Jesus taught the concept when He said to His disciples, “Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so it shall not be among you; but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister; and whosoever of you will be chiefest shall be servant of all” (Mark 10:42-45). Wikipedia (2001) notes that servant-leadership, an “upside down leadership style, puts the needs of followers above the needs of the leader, promotes teamwork, individual dignity and worth, and results in a synergy of purpose unachievable with the old leadership models”. As organisational management style, servant leadership, works by “eschewing the common top-down hierarchical style and instead emphasising collaboration, trust, empathy and the ethical use of power … The objective is to enhance the growth of individuals in the organisation and increase teamwork and personal involvement”. The characteristics

    Larry Spears has extracted the characteristics of servant leaders from Greenleaf’s original writings. They are 11 in number. Some of these characteristics are inborn; while others can be developed through education and

practice. For example, characteristics such as calling, empathy, healing and stewardship are more of inherent personal traits than learned skills. A leader must have tested positive for these traits to be successful at servant-leadership practice. The remaining characteristics listening, awareness, persuasion, conceptualisation, foresight, growth and building community can be learned and continually developed by servant-leaders. Now, you can see that servant leadership is more than a wish. You must be both born and made for it. Writing in NebGuide (2002), leadership development specialists, John E. Garbuto and Daniel W. Wheeler, observed that servant leaders have a natural deeply-rooted value-based calling to serve others. “A servant leader,” they asserted, “is willing to sacrifice self-interests for the sake of others”. They warned: “This characteristic cannot be taught, so unless a person has a natural calling to serve, servant leadership is not realistic or compatible style.” They counselled people to “reflect and thoughtfully assess the degree to which (they) have what it takes to be a servant leader”. This counsel, however, should be directed at African nations’ electoral institutions and the continent’s hasty voters. What about testing election candidates for servant-leaders’ traits before they are cleared to contest? What about educating the voters about the principles and profits of servant leadership persuading them to vote for candidates with servant-leader potentials? Africa’s political leadership will profit much from servant leadership. Check the records, and you will see that African leaders that turn their nations the right side up are those who operate with principles of leadership servanthood. Such leaders aren’t motivated to seek political office for increased power; but are out to fill the void in their people’s collective existence. No wonder, they are able to feed their nations. African organisations, too, should include servant-leaders’ traits in their criteria for management positions and design appropriate means to measure them. The critics The philosophy of servant-leadership has been challenged by some leadership scholars who have objected to the implications of its metaphoric paradox. One critic was apparently disturbed by the connotations of the term “servant” in the compound word, “servant-leadership”. He argued that, “serving people’s needs creates the image of being slavish or subservient… The principles of servant leadership are admirable. It is the image of servant with a slave-like connotation that is problematic.” But, it need not be so. Greenleaf didn’t call leaders to carry their subordinates’ briefcases or stand up when a line officer enters the office. Servant-leadership doesn’t mean nobody is in charge. It doesn’t seek to blur the distinction between the leader and the led. But, it does recommend that the leader conducts business with the people’s all-round welfare in mind. In fact, one of the critics concedes that servant leadership “forces us away from self-serving, domineering leadership and makes those in charge think harder about how to respect, value and motivate people reporting to them.” According to Larry Spears, “At its core, servant leadership is a long-term, transformational approach to life and work … that has the potential for creating positive change throughout our society”. This leadership approach need not conflict with organisational goals as some critics may fear. In fact, most industrial crises can be traced to workers’ dissatisfaction triggered when leaders, in the haste to achieve a dream bottom-line, adopt policy that sets workers’ teeth on edge. Servant leadership can help prevent this. All that is needed to ensure that the approach works well is to harmonise organisational goals with workers’ real and felt needs. I will now outline the characteristics of the servant leader. * Listening Communication skills are imperative to effective leadership. But the servant-leader isn’t only a good speaker; he is also a good listener. For, he needs to hear the people’s views and feel their pulse to determine the direction the nation or organisation would go to realise its goals. Many an African political leader is reputed to be a bad listener; some are known to have developed a hard artery against expert advice of state officials and public opinion leaders; nor do they hear the cries of their people for attention. This is one reason why many African leaders fail. For, whether in a nation or an organisation, only leaders who listen intently to the people they are leading can have a better shot at satisfying both corporate and individual needs. * Empathy

Another chief reason why many African leaders may fail to improve the state of their nations and people is their ack of empathy, because they live outside the people’s world. “The servant-leader, wrote Spears, “strives to understand and empathise with others”. The leader may not pander to the people’s whim; nonetheless, he views their intentions as good and values their feelings. But this won’t happen unless the leader chooses to wear the people’s shoes. A servant leader can’t live in a cocoon. (To be continued)

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