Generating Consistent Outcomes - Servant Leadership Applied

If your organization or company has struggled to move beyond the mediocre results of past years then consider changing the way leadership is understood.  Consider Servant Leadership. Researchers recognize two things are needed to consistently generate above average results.  They sound simple yet organizations wrestle against a flood of poor leadership models, performance pressures and flawed assumptions about workplace productivity that leave them struggling to produce anything but mundane results.

First, businesses and organizations need to learn how to generate high performing teams who feel alive and experience exhilarating meaning in work.  The fact is that when these two particular dynamics exist teams perform at sustained levels of output that consistently surpass the common benchmarks of productivity.[1]

Second, businesses need to accept the simple fact that happy people (those who embrace the highs and lows of life as learning opportunities) exhibit the kind of contribution, conviction, culture, commitment and confidence that not only propels performance forward at astonishing rates but also reduces the costs associated with sick days, lost productivity, employee sabotage, and turnover.[2]

The idea of psychological capital at work is gaining traction.  Why?  It produces measurable results across company metrics in every industry.  The fundamentals of personal happiness are nested in individual perspectives and choices. The organizational benefit of retaining people who hold these perspectives is a function of powerful and meaningful company culture.  The nature of an organization’s culture rests at the feet of its leaders.

When discussing leadership it is important to talk about the skills and styles that effect good communication between leaders and followers but skill sets and outcomes are not sufficient to understand what makes leaders effective. Limiting the understanding of leadership to skill sets and outcomes leaves a void in understanding that results in a distortion of leadership (like that identified by Lipman-Blumen) that cannot distinguish between good and poor leaders.  For example both Gandhi and Hitler influenced people and generated results. They are however worlds apart when one consider the long-term benefit to cost of their influence and outcomes.[3]

Clearly leadership must be exercised with a defined and transparent moral imperative. Leadership is not and cannot be exercised in a morally neutral way.[4] By transparent I mean that the moral imperative of leadership must be something capable of scrutiny. The idea of servant leadership lends itself to moral scrutiny in how it approaches power and outcomes. In servant leadership the “… imperative is to lead sacrificially for the sake of others.”[5] The transparency of a moral imperative makes it accessible to critique. This necessitates a the willingness on the part of a leader to listen to concerns and challenges and to take his or her development as a leader seriously.

Organizations that exhibit the psychological capital needed to sustain extraordinary performance are lead by men and women characterized as servant leaders.   So what is servant leadership?

The servant-leader is servant first . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve—after leadership is established. The leader- first and the servant- first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature. . . The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant- first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.[6]

Servant leadership is an orientation to leadership that owns a transparent moral imperative, exercises personal awareness for the impact of behaviors, recognizes the contribution potential of employees and builds a culture characterized by modeling, mentoring, development, discipline and fun. Servant leadership engages the essential activities of vision, structure and benevolence in an accessible way to employees, board members, stakeholders and stockholders.  Servant leadership sees a long view versus a foreshortened quarterly view that produces a rate of return on a company’s pre-tax portfolio of over 20%.[7] To some leaders this level of performance sounds mythical.  However to men like Ken Melrose (former CEO of Toro) this level of performance is a given result of servant leadership.

What kinds of actions define servant leadership?  Servant leaders listen, they use power ethically and persuasion as the preferred model, they build ownership of decisions by ensuring participation of all employees; they practice foresight that sees a preferred future and the paths and obstacles to achieving it.  Servant leaders exercise adaptive leadership recognizing when problems are ill-defined solutions must be designed and not dictated – they conceptualize well.  Servant leaders regularly practice withdrawal in recharging their energy.  Finally servant leaders practice acceptance and empathy recognizing that employees want to engage, they want to believe in something larger than themselves and they want to commit.  A servant leader helps provide the culture needed to engender employee commitment.

Servant leadership has moved beyond an esoteric idea of something that may work better and has entered the critical world of theories that measurably perform better.  It is a concept and a way of thinking that needs to be both understood and employed in order to see superior performance.


[1] Jean Lipman-Blumen. The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians and How We Can Survive Them (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005), 221-22.

[2] Jessica Pryce-Jones. Happiness at Work: Maximizing Your Psychological Capital for Success (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 2-26.

[3] Ronald Heifetz. Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 16-18. Heifetz discusses the power of values and the necessity for including values in the definition of leadership.

[4] Tony Baron. The Art of Servant Leadership (Tuscan, AZ: Wheatmark, 2010), 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader (Indianapolis: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 1970, 1991), 7.

[7] Art Barter, CEO Datron Communications. “Datron’s Servant Leadership Journey – Success and Pitfalls” (San Diego, CA: Servant Leadership Winter Conference, February 1-3, 2011).