Servant Leadership: When People Do Not Want To Be Served
Servant Leadership: When People Do Not Want To Be Served

Recently, someone asked me this simple but profound question;

‘How can you practice servant leadership when those you want to serve are not receptive to this kind of leadership style?’

I found this question quite interesting and somehow, it led me to some more questions

  • Why were they not receptive to this style of leadership?
  • Should leaders determine the style of leadership they adopt based on what their followers want?
  • Who really should determine how the leader behaves; the leader or the followers?

Now, let us discuss these questions in a bid to answer the original question.

Why are they not receptive to this style of leadership?

John Maxwell asks three questions that followers may voice out or think within;

  1. Do you like me? (Compassion)
  2. Can you help me? (Confidence)
  3. Can I trust you? (Character)

Before a leader can successfully reach out to his followers, there is need to know if the resistance or lack of receptivity to servant leadership is based on past experiences.

  • Could it be indicative of a lack of trust in the leader?
  • Could it be that the followers doubt the leader’s sincerity of motive?
  • Could they be doubtful of the leader’s compassion?
  • Does the leader inspire enough confidence amongst his followers?
  • Do they have enough confidence in his level of competence?
  • Is it possible that they question the character of the leader?

Usually, the answer lies in these questions. It is up to the leader to determine where exactly the problem is coming from (it may be one or more of the underlying issues listed above).

Larry Spears, President and CEO of the Robert Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership for over 17 years, identified 10 characteristics of Servant Leadership:

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Persuasion
  6. Conceptualization
  7. Foresight
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to the growth of people
  10. Community Building

A leader who wants to inspire confidence and trust needs to evaluate himself to see which of the characteristics listed above is lacking in his person and find ways to make up for it.

Should leaders determine the style of leadership they adopt based on what their followers want?

This point has raised varying opinions as different schools of thought have shown diversity of beliefs. While some suggest that a leader should pick and stick to one style of leadership, others suggest that leaders need to be flexible in the adoption of leadership styles as there is no one-shoe-fits-all leadership style and the situation the leader is faced with should determine the leadership style he adopts.

Hersey and Blanchard developed the ‘Situational Leadership Style’ which identified four (4) possible styles a leader can have in his toolbox.

S1: Telling -This is characterized by one way communication. The leader defines roles and tasks, tell his followers what he wants, provides the necessary resources, gives directions on how he wants to get things done and expects full compliance.

S2: Selling – here, communication is two-way; while the leader is still in charge of assigning tasks and roles and decision-making, he is open to ideas from his followers and he provides the social and emotional support the followers will need in order to embrace and buy into the process.

S3: Participating – in adopting this leadership style, the leader allow for shared decision-making on how task will be carried out. Here, the leader is less focused on task behavior and more interested in building positive relationship behavior.

S4: Delegating – leaders who adopt this style get themselves involved in just decision-making. They pass on the task process and completion to their followers and only get involved with project monitoring to ensure that things go as planned.

The style the leader decides to adopt will be based on the maturity level of his followers. Four (4) corresponding maturity levels were identified

M1 – these followers cannot show initiative or take on the responsibility of starting the process. However, they are very enthusiastic about work and very willing to work, but just don’t know how to go about it.

M2 – these followers lack the requisite skills to perform the task at hand. They are not only unable to take on the responsibility, they are also unwilling to carry the responsibility upon themselves.

M3 – these set of followers have the needed skills and experience for the task at hand but, they lack confidence and this makes them unwilling to take on responsibility. They are essentially afraid of failure and would rather pull back than try.

M4 – these followers are experienced, confident about their skills and competence. They readily embrace the idea of a challenge and show a lot on enthusiasm. They have no issues with taking on the responsibility and appreciate leaders who give them freedom to show initiative.

A lot of people have clamored for Transformational leadership over Transactional leadership, but they really do not have full understanding of what Transformational leadership is really about. While a transformational leader is preferable, there are times when a leader has to be transactional in certain situations if he wants to get things done and bring out the best in his followers.

In his book ‘Ready? The 3Rs of Preparing Your Organization for the Future’, Thomas W. Malnight identified the leadership style desired by many generations. While his research may not be seen as definitive, it is extensive and highly descriptive. He talks about how the leadership style of a certain generation can affect the desired leadership style of other generations and his work gives enlightenment and offers a voice to this often ignored issue.

A leader should adopt the style of leadership based on the situation – not necessarily what the followers want as followers are highly likely to pick a leadership style that will not work for the issue at hand and this will not be in their best interests or in the best interests of the organization (which is the superceeding interest). Rather than bend to the will of his followers, a leader should find the best way to effectively communicate the need for his choice of leadership style to his followers.

Who should determine how the leader should behave?

After all has been said and done, the leader should be the one to choose the leadership style to adopt based on the situation at hand and after critical analysis. Decisions should not be taken emotionally but logically and rationally. A leader is expected to lead and not follow. He should also be proactive and not reactive. It is easy for a leader to build emotional bonds with his followers and when that has happened, cutting the emotional ties will be hard. This is one of the hardest lessons every leader can – and should learn. This does not mean that a leader has to be cold, unfeeling and high-handed in their interactions with their employees. Rather, they should ensure that unnecessary emotions do not get in the way of discharging their duties.

As Robert Greenleaf wrote when he first introduced Servant Leadership ‘The servant-leader is servant leader is a servant first…it begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve and to serve first’.

The leader’s desire to serve others is the foundation; however, service and sacrifice are two distinct ideas.

So…back to our original question:

‘How can you practice servant leadership when those you want to serve are not receptive to this kind of leadership style?’

A leader should always choose his style of leadership with focus on what best serves the interests of the organization and not what others want. If servant leadership is the way forward, it is the style he must stick to – even if his followers are not receptive. If confidence and trust issues arise, then the leader might have to evaluate – as Jim Collins says – to know if he has the right people with him or if really, there is need for change.

In conclusion, the practice of servant leadership is not dependent on the receptiveness of the people involved. The leader should effect followers’ receptiveness using correct, effective and adequate application of the characteristics of Servant Leadership.

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