Many performers, would be leaders, and leadership students get caught up with the influence portion of leadership.  After all as John Maxwell put it in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, “leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.

Influence can obviously come via positional authority, however for those aspiring leaders who wish to practice the art of Functional or Transformational leadership, setting an example is one of the most important building blocks in developing influence.

People will only follow those who have a demonstrated competency in an area.  Let me use an example.

If you wish to start a semi-competitive adult softball team but have never played softball or are very poor at it, the chances of recruiting people to play are low. This of course assumes they know this about you already, if they don’t know they will probably find out soon enough and stop following you.  You have to first demonstrate your ability to be a performer before people will follow you.

Now lets say you are really good at softball, in fact you are the best player on the team.  Top performers are not always coaches, and the best coaches are not always the top performers but for this example you wish to become a great coach.  Purely setting an example may not be enough to effectively lead or coach your team.

Additionally, without the proper leadership techniques, it is easy to become frustrated, dogmatic and managerial with the players you are trying to improve.  Trying to help someone hit the ball better, by repeatedly showing him how to hit the ball better yourself, may not always fit the bill.  On the flip side, in a volunteer environment such as this, shouting out orders is unlikely to work either.

This is where servant leadership comes in…

Robert K. Greenleaf founder of the modern Servant Leadership movement, and author of many books on the topic offers many guidelines for the would be servant leader.  This include the following statements.

“The highest priority of a servant leader is to encourage, support and enable subordinates to unfold their full potential and abilities.”   “A servant leader looks to the needs of the people and asks himself how he can help them to solve problems and promote personal development.”

By serving the individuals of the organization you are in turn serving the organization as a whole, as their personal improvement, furthers the advancement of the group.  Back to the softball example, by helping a member of team hit better, you help the team goal of winning.

The approach however, may not be that easy.  Asking someone how, you can help them with their hitting, may come off as underhanded or manipulative.  It would be the same as asking someone how you can help them get to work on time.

A better way to broach the topic may be to focus on something specific to avoid an overarching generalization, such as subtlety saying “you are bad at hitting.”  It may go something like this.  “Bill I noticed that at your third at bat, you get a lot less contact on the ball, why do you think that is.”  (You have to be careful to be truthful here and make sure you find something sincere.)  An approach like this may open Bill up and give you the leeway to offer help through, more practice, or specific coaching on an issue.

This is obviously a very limited example, but the point is that the approach is everything when it comes to servant leadership.  Of course the heart must be right as well.  You have to truly want to help the person in order for it to come off as sincere.  If you are asking as a platitude or for manipulative means, the principle will not work over the long run.

Although servant leadership is absolutely necessarily when working with volunteers, affiliates and independent contractors; I would submit that it is fundamental to leadership at all levels.  It is true that people will follow performers, and yes positional authority will inscribe people’e subordination.   The truth however is that servant leadership builds the trust and bond between people in an organization that allows for transformational results.

Don’t take my word for it though, look at the monumental leaders throughout time and you’ll see they were all world-class servant leaders.   For leaders such as Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Jesus this is pretty clear and obvious.  However you will also find it to be true in the stories of great leaders such as Ronald Reagan, Sam Walton and Benjamin Franklin.  Great leaders in history put service to their community first.

What are your thoughts on Servant Leadership?

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