Being a Boss by Serving Others: The Concept of Servant Leadership

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Organizational structure and design continues to be a highly debated topic. The form of leadership that is most effective in organizations remains questionable. But what kind of leader is needed in specific organizations? In the case of the bureaucratic organization where there is a top down approach to management and a defined role system in place the notion of servant leadership would be most effective. This type of leadership, requires leaders to lead in humility and in consideration of their followers. Servant leadership then provides a blueprint for successfully leading in bureaucratic organizations, as well as other organizational structures.

Organizational theories such as Weber’s bureaucracy theory exist to provide a framework for structure and management in organizations. Organizational analysis and theories are concerned with how organizations are born and how they die, how organizations function internally and how might these functions be improved, and what has been the impact on society by organizations. Like leadership theories, certain organizational theories are more effective depending upon the cultures represented within an organization. The theory of bureaucracy is exemplified by a hierarchy and proves to work better in cultures with a high power distance such as Southern Asia but not as well in cultures with a low power distance.

One of the key premises of Weber’s bureaucracy theory is that an organizational hierarchy should make it clear to organizational members who reports to whom. Hierarchy refers to the way in which authority is dispersed within an organization. Hatch and Cunliffe, researchers on organizational theory, explain that the hierarchy maps communication channels either downward (directing subordinates) or upward (reporting to management. Weber believed that the formal structure of hierarchy helped shape behavior and therefore helped the organization reach its goals. Thus, he theorized that each position should have predefined duties and the occupant’s behavior would be determined by those roles. Other characteristics of the theory of bureaucracy are as follows: (a) a fixed division of labor, (b) candidates are appointed rather than elected, and promotion granted according to seniority. Additionally, Weber’s idea of bureaucracy satisfies a checklist of criteria and is based on impersonal order, written rules and a clear division of labor.  The notion of formalization refers to the how much influence rules and policies govern organizational activities. Examples of formalization include job descriptions, handbooks, and operation manuals. With such a rigorous approach to organizational structure, perhaps a less demanding approach to leadership is in order. While hierarchy structures have proven to create competition and dysfunction, this may in fact be a result of leadership and not the structure itself.

Structural Issues in Bureaucratic Organizations

Organizational structures with hierarchical structures create the ladder effect within an organization in which those on the bottom are competing for positions at the top. The fact that there are more jobs at the bottom than the top means that competition for the top places is likely to be keen and that in any career race there are likely to be far fewer winners than losers.  Promotion can sometimes be the result of networking abilities, allies and relationships.  Additionally, there often lies promotion based on seniority rather than qualifications in bureaucratic forms of organizations. Hence, when seniority and networking are the basis for promotion, more qualified and deserving organizational members are overlooked for management positions.

Servant Leadership

According to Robert Greenleaf, the creator of the term, servant-leaders are driven to serve first, rather than to lead first, always striving to meet the highest priority needs of others. The core of the servant leadership model is based on four tenets of moral authority: Conscience, the essence of moral authority, (a) is sacrifice, (b) inspires commitment to a worthy cause, (c) teaches that ends and means are inseparable, and (d) introduces the world of relationships. Here are some definitions from leadership scholars:

  • Yukl states that a “servant leader must attend to the needs of followers and help them become healthier, wiser and more willing to accept their responsibilities.”
  • Pollard defines a leader as not the “…person with the most distinguished title, the highest pay, or the longest tenure…but the role model, the risk taker, the servant; not the person who promotes himself or herself, but the promoter of others.”
  • One of the most relatable definitions I have found is from S. Edmonds, organizational consultant who defined it as  “a person’s dedication to helping others be their best selves at home, work, and in their community. Anyone can serve–and lead–from any position or role in a family, workplace, or community.”

corporate meetingThe problem with servant leadership is that its components are the total opposite of the individualistic approach many of us have to leadership. The servant leader is constantly thinking about ways to serve whereas leaders today are often focused on the bottom line. So how can a leader be goal oriented and serve? It’s simple. Happy employees will deliver and nothing is more satisfying that going to work every day with a leader who considers your needs and is concerned about the things that concern you. How can you be more of a servant leader?

  1. Listen to them. Make them feel heard.
  2. Empathize with them. Put yourself in their shoes and understand their perspective.
  3. Value them. Be open to their ideas and suggestions.
  4. Show appreciation. Say thank you, award and congratulate them.
  5. Develop them.  Invest in your staff and offer opportunities for growth and development.

Being a leader is more than just being a boss, it’s about building people up. “If you really listen to your colleagues and figure out how to get them what they need, they will perform at a higher level, which improves the customer experience, which affects business results,” says Kent Keith, CEO of Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Ultimately, operating under this style of leadership does wonders for your organization, especially those where a top down structure is in place.  Moreover, serving others first is a model for leadership, life, parenting, and marriage. It’s a concept that if applied, can have a worldwide impact.

Servant Leadership Resources

The Qualities of a Servant Leader

7 Secrets of Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership

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About Arian T. Moore

Arian T. Moore, Ph.D., is the publisher of Bibs & Business Magazine with 15+ years in the field of media, marketing and content creation having worked in radio, television and print. Moore serves as adjunct faculty for a number of universities, teaching leadership, communication and journalism courses. She's an expert in leadership theory and trends, with a doctorate in organizational leadership, and is mom to four children ages 7 to 1 years old.

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