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What is a "Servant Leader?" You May Have More Than You Think
By Melissa Vokoun

Editor's Note: Servant leadership is a different way of conceiving of the role of leaders in modern organizations. The term was coined by Robert Greenleaf. Here's a brief overview of the concept.

In an essay by Robert K. Greenleaf, the author coins the term "servant leader." Exactly what is a servant leader? Are there any in your organization? If you don't have any servant leaders, how can you develop them? The answers to these questions may surprise you and introduce you to a vital source of leadership for your business.

A servant leader is one who draws their authority not from their superiors or by their position, but from their followers. A servant leader is perhaps the most fundamental and valuable source of leadership you will find within your organization. To draw power from followers gives the leader a measure of trust and respect that cannot be gained simply by virtue of title or position. The concept here is simple: the group members collectively give a fellow member of the team the role of leader. The foundation of this transition is trust and respect. These are leaders that the group will follow anywhere and forgo limits and constraints on the degree of authority granted.

A servant leader is first a servant. They are someone who has spent time in the line and learned in minute detail the functions of the group. They have served as a loyal team member and contributed more than their share to the overall success of the group. It is important to look at the term "servant" without prejudice. Servant does not mean doormat or saint. A servant is not a selfless, patient, abiding person who gives and gives and never gets. A servant in this context is a contributor. Someone who invests themselves in the goals and objectives of the group, shares their motivation with others, and is a source of stability within a group.

The members of a group reach points in their projects where the need for leadership becomes obvious. This often happens when consensus can not be reached, the scope of the project broadens, or additional departmental cooperation is required. The group looks within itself for a leader. This is a natural process within the framework of the group dynamic. They look for someone in whom they have trust and confidence. Someone who is equally invested in the outcome of the project and the groups objectives. The person they choose may not be an obvious choice. Perhaps it isn't the person who makes the most noise or dominates group meetings. It may not even be the person who is the first in and last out at work everyday. Who it will be is someone who the group determines feels with them and has something invested in their cause. Thus, the servant becomes a leader.

This leader can offer direction and guidance that is accepted without fear of hidden agendas or alternative motives. Because their roots are in the group and they have served the group, their motives and methods are rarely questioned. The group goals are furthered by mutual understanding and commitment to a successful outcome.

As I said, don't get the idea that a servant leader is some sort of selfless saint. They have much at stake in the success of their given group and are willing to both serve and lead. Often, there are rewards for assuming a leadership role and servant leaders are no different than other team members in welcoming these rewards. The difference is that they are willing to serve an informal internship to achieve these perks. Frequently the services of the servant leader are legitimized by promotion or some degree of elevation of status. But persons who achieve these promotions often do not have to deal with the infighting and jealously or co-workers because of how they achieved their status. They enjoy an acceptance that outsiders often don't get.

Look at your teams and just how they achieve results. Look for those "servant leaders" and recognize the valuable contributions they make. You can enrich the entire concept of team management by searching out these vital contributors who embody the truest definition of "team" and placing your trust in them just as their followers have done.

Melissa Vokoun is a successful Business Advisor and Trainer. From 1983 to 2005 she was COO and VP of Sales and Marketing for a national telecom equipment distributor. Her passion for business, working with clients in solving critical issues in the strategic, tactical and operational areas of growth continues. She is now President and Founder of NuVo Partners and Successful Business Advisors.


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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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