What Services Do Servant Leaders Provide?

Article contributed by guest author Dennis Hooper.

Sometimes leaders ask if I help organizations understand and implement “servant leadership.” Maybe the individual has heard of the concept but can’t imagine how it functions, considering his or her current beliefs about leadership. I love exploring existing perspectives with inquisitive people, helping them see a more effective model and allowing them to adjust their leadership behaviors.

The most common image of leadership involves the traditional pyramidal hierarchy. Developed centuries ago, the corporate organization chart clearly identifies what portion of the empire each leader controls. “These people work for me” is the operative mental outlook. Within this framework, many leaders find it hard to consider “what can I do to serve them?”

So, let’s start thinking about servant leadership by representing the organization through a different model. Imagine how we might use a tree as a more appropriate organizational metaphor.

Visualize that the individuals who do the work on a day-to-day basis are the leaves. They are supported by the branches, which are the organization’s managers and supervisors. Top management is the trunk supporting the branches and leaves and delivering water and nutrients up from the roots. The trunk and branches provide substantial support for that portion of the organization where the “real work” is accomplished. When the winds of change blow, the trunk and roots provide stability, keeping the tree anchored firmly. The tree’s extensive root system collects revenue from customers, and the trunk delivers the needed capital equipment, raw materials, tools, and supplies to the leaves.

Through this simple paradigm shift, many individuals are immediately able to better understand the concept of servant leadership. The trunk and branches function collaboratively to ensure the health and growth of the twigs and leaves. A tree is a living organism; if any part becomes diseased, the life of the entire tree is in jeopardy.
If the organization remains healthy, the parts that do the “real work” are pushed higher, competing favorably with surrounding trees for sunlight. Growth, through increased production and reliability, is a natural desire among those doing the work. The trunk and branches grow only as much as is required to deliver the resources needed by the growing numbers of leaves.

Pyramids were never intended to grow; they were designed as tombs! Trees, however, are alive and beautiful. With apologies to Joyce Kilmer, “I think that I shall never see a pyramid lovely as a tree.”

Now, let’s consider the real-time services that you provide when you function as a servant leader. Let’s start with you as entrepreneur, gathering resources and sending up the first shoot. Leaves are added as survival seems viable. Growth occurs quickly in those first few years as the tender seedling seeks sunshine and manages to avoid consumption by insects and herbivores.

Once the organization matures, you as leader provide opportunity, resources, a healthy work environment, and clear expectations. Depending on the surroundings, you communicate direction so that everyone is empowered to achieve the inspiring vision of robust growth. When problems arise, you listen and collaborate to eliminate obstructions and obtain needed resources.

You offer coaching, feedback, respect, and expanded responsibilities. You inform everyone of the organization’s results and you invite new ideas. You offer encouragement, hope, balance, and clarity. You tell the truth. You plan so last-minute requests rarely occur. You keep promises that you’ve made. You ask people what they need, and you work to provide it.

Lest we take this model too far, let’s acknowledge that those doing the “real work” are accountable to your authority. However, the leaves rarely need to be reminded why they exist. They realize that their role–processing sunshine, water, and nutrients–is a critical function for the success of “the tree team.”

As a servant leader, you support and empower those who do the “real work” of the organization!

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