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What Servant-Leadership Involves

Let's continue with our series on servant-leadership, this time focusing on what servant-leadership is and the disciplines it requires.  What we don't need is more of the kind of leadership that we have had, much of it wrapped and explained in biblical terms.  I heard one woman in leadership teach recently that her "ministry" is similar to Jesus when He went into the Temple and chased everyone out.  She was simply trying to justify her bad leadership behavior as any of us are apt to do and she used the Bible to do so.

Servant-leadership isn't just an improved version of the leadership we already have in much of the church and business.  It is a whole new genre and requires a different set of skills and thinking.  It is not simply leaders who serve, nor is it servants who happen to attain to higher levels of leadership.  It is leaders who know how to lead while putting the highest priority interests of others ahead of their own.  It is a leadership that heals and doesn't wound, leaders who know how to direct and guide others without manipulation or control.  Robert Greenleaf stated that the test of leadership is that others follow voluntarily.

Author Larry Spears wrote:

Leadership is an influence process in which you try to help people accomplish goals.  All good leadership starts with a visionary role.  This involves not only goal setting but also establishing a clear picture of perfection—what the operation would look like when it was running effectively.  In other words, leadership starts with a sense of direction.  In the book I coauthored with John Carlos and Alan Randolph, Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute,
 we said, “A river without banks is a large puddle.”  The bank permits the river to flow; they give direction to the river.  Leadership is all about going somewhere; it’s not about wandering around aimlessly. Even Alice in Wonderland learned that concept when she came to a fork in the road and asked the Cheshire cat which road she should take.  He replied by asking her, “Where are you going?”  She essentially said, “I don’t know.”  His response was quick:  “Then it doesn’t matter what road you take.”  If you aren’t sure where you are going, your leadership won’t really matter, either.

Yet just because leaders have a vision doesn't mean they (he or she) are justified in doing whatever it takes to get people to follow.  This is usually where the breakdown occurs, especially when someone has "heard from God."  When they have, and I believe many leaders have, they then feel that the ends justify the means, that they can use ungodly leadership tactics to obtain godly objectives.

There are two skills critical to servant-leadership and they both require patience and practice. The first is listening, not just politely paying attention, but working hard to hear and understand what someone else is saying.  Robert Greenleaf wrote, "Listening, coupled with regular periods of reflection, are essential to the growth of the servant leader. . . . The most successful servant-leaders are those who have become skilled empathetic listeners." 

Stephen Covey wrote:

"Most people [and leaders] do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. . . . The essence of empathetic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually." 

When is the last time you encountered a good listener?   Would others say that you are a skilled, empathetic listener?

The second skill is persuasion, about which Greenleaf wrote: 

Persuasion involves arriving at a feeling of rightness about a belief or action through one’s own intuitive sense.  One takes an intuitive step, from the closest approximation to certainty that can be reached by conscious logic (which is sometimes not very close) to the state in which one may say with conviction, “This is where I stand!”  The act of persuasion, thus defined, would help order logic and favor the intuitive step. But the person being persuaded must take that intuitive step alone, untrammeled by coercive or manipulative stratagems of any kind.  Persuasion, on a critical issue, is a difficult, time-consuming process.  It demands one of the most exacting of human skills."

In other words, leaders must give followers room to ascertain for themselves the rightness of the leader's path.  There can be no manipulation, but there can and should be a lot of dialogue where active and effective listening is involved.  And that goes for prophetic leaders who are convinced that they have heard from God.  (This dialogue, which slows the process down, is a safeguard against the tendency to hear God but to hear Him in part, or to mix in a whole lot of misunderstanding with what the leader has accurately understood.)

Greenleaf also wrote this warning about persuasion and leadership:

Because they are recognized as being better than most at leading, showing the way, they [leaders] are apt to be highly intuitive.  Thus leaders themselves, in their conscious rationalities, may not fully understand why they choose a given path.  Yet our culture requires that leaders produce plausible, convincing explanations for the directions they take.  Once in a while, they can simply say, “I have a hunch that this is what we ought to do.”  However, most of the time, rational justifications are demanded, and part of the successful leader’s skill is inventing these rationalizations.  They are necessary, but they are also useful because they permit, after the fact, the test of conscious logic that “makes sense” to both leaders and follower.  But the understanding by the follower, if he or she is not to be manipulated, is not necessarily contained in this rationalization that makes sense.  Because we live in a world that pretends a higher validity to conscious rational thinking in human affairs than is warranted by the facts of our existence, and because many sensitive people “know” this, manipulation hangs as a cloud over the relationship between leader and led almost everywhere.

Because this manipulation does hang like a cloud, leaders must take active steps to disarm it or else the coercion will take over naturally.  This is why we cannot just have an improved, kinder, gentler version of the leadership we know.  We need a whole new style and servant-leadership, in my humble estimation, is it.

As you can tell, anyone serious about servant-leadership must study Robert Greenleaf, the father of the modern servant-leadership message.  When I read Greenleaf years ago, I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach and took my wind away -- it was that powerful.  Nothing has changed since that first reading.  I still study his material and say, "This is what the Church needs.  This is what business needs. This is what society needs." 

Do you agree?  If so, what are you willing to do to see servant-leadership come to the forefront of your own leadership style and philosophy? 


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