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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Servant leaders differ in approach, March 16, 2008, 2D.

Servant leadership is a popular term in management and organizational circles these days.  Churches, schools, volunteer organizations, and businesses of all types have jumped on the servant leadership bandwagon, but how many actually understand the concept and appreciate how drastically different it is from traditional models of management?

Robert Greenleaf coined the term “Servant Leader” to describe a leadership style characterized by serving and meeting the needs of people.  He argued that the conscious desire to serve others eventually creates a desire to lead.  Individuals who seek to be servants first and then rise to positions of leadership in organizations tend to interact with others and guide organizations differently than people who aspire to be leaders first.  Servants as leaders seek to meet the highest priority needs and interests of their people.  Servant leaders desire for their people to grow and to “…become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants.”

Traditional management thinking suggested that workers follow the commands and dictates of their superiors.  Superiors made decisions and retained control over all the dimensions of the work and organization.  Workers acted as the hands and feet of management, carrying out the will of the decision-making brain.  In traditional management, organizations were viewed as machines and workers were viewed as machine parts.  When workers broke down or gave up, management would replace them with other workers who would comply with orders and efficiently perform their work.  Power and control resided with management; workers merely did what they were told to do.

Rather than tell, servant leaders ask.  Servant leaders ask people about their needs and desires and ask for worker input on decisions affecting the organization.  Servant leaders treat their followers as self-active, responsible, and intelligent people rather than mindless machine parts.  By attending to worker needs, servant leaders free their followers from obstacles and barriers to performance and allow them to figure out and suggest ways to improve their work.  They allow workers to take ownership in the workplace and the decisions affecting the organization.  In the process, workers develop feelings that they are appreciated, respected, and trusted.  By empowering workers and giving away authority, servant leaders actually gain more power from their followers.

Being a servant leader does not mean being a doormat to workers.  Effective parents serve their children while guiding them in positive directions and steering them away from harmful or unhealthy decisions.  Effective parents allow children to grow and explore new things, but are also willing and able to give corrective feedback when necessary.  The goal of any parent-child relationship is for the child to meet or exceed the abilities and accomplishments of the parent.  A servant leader’s relationship with followers is no different.

The ideas that managers should serve and develop workers into employees who self-actively manage and make decisions for an organization and that superiors are servants of the followers is backwards from traditional management thinking.  The success of servant leaders comes from serving the needs of others.

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2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved