How to tell a servant leader from a non-servant leader

Lest the negative image of CEO’s be overstated – there are good servant CEO’s among us – some of them my close associates and friends.    One the best is Bob Sloan who commented to the blog last week and responded further to my question about how to tell a servant leader from a non-servant leader.

Bob recently retired after 27 years of distinguished service as CEO of Washington’s Sibley Hospital.  He has gone on to serve as the President and CEO of the Jane Bancroft Robinson Foundation to support projects that break the cycle of poverty in Washington, DC.    In 2013, he received the “O” award, the highest honor from his alma mater, Olivet Nazarene University.

He described the effect of non-servant bosses in his early life.

“I worked for two CEO’s in my career that had the characteristics that you describe in some of your writings.  Both CEO’s suffered from a lack of confidence and intimidated those who served with them.  They were harsh, critical, demanding and made people feel insecure which created turnover in the organization.

Their leadership certainly had a negative impact on the organization.”

And then he reflected on the servant leaders who set an example for his own career.

“I also served with three outstanding leaders who were smart, hard working, committed, humble and loyal to their subordinates.  As a consequence those who served with them worked extra hard just so they would not disappoint or let their leader down.  The morale in the organization was very high in each of the organizations with these leaders.

I was able to pattern my leadership after the ones that I admired and I was able to avoid bad habits because of what I learned under domineering leaders.  I was very aware of the characteristics of both styles of leadership.”

In his writings on servant leadership, Robert Greenleaf wrote that servant leaders are known not so much by what they do as the effect they have on their followers.

The best test,” of servant leadership, he wrote, “and difficult to administer, is this:

Do those served grow as persons: Do they, while being served become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?

And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?  Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived.”

Bob Sloan’s personal experience confirms Greenleaf’s observations.   Servant and non-servant leaders come in many different forms and with a variety of styles.   But one thing is constant – the effect they have on others.

The followers of non-servant leaders flounder while the followers of servant leaders flourish.

7 Responses to “How to tell a servant leader from a non-servant leader”

  1. Gene Gabbard Says:

    Good servant leaders delegate authority and responsibility so that team members can truly do their jobs and grow as they learn. If they have trouble or make mistakes (all leaders make mistakes), then a good servant leader will first send help instead of harsh criticism. Such organizations are likely to grow, treat all stakeholder with respect and have low turnover. Such organizations often run as well when the boss is away as when he is present.

  2. Mark Cork Says:

    Coming alongside as opposed to leading from “position” has always worked best for me. There’s something compelling about leaders who relate to their followers rather than those who elevate themselves, and flaunt their position of authority. My dad is probably the one who taught me that if you’re a leader you don’t need to tell anyone; they’ll know.

  3. Carl Summer Says:

    Thanks again Tom for your excellent posts. In response to what you mention above from Robert Greenleaf related to the “the best test of leadership,” Dr. Harold Reed, former president of Olivet Nazarene University, in his book on Leadership, quotes notable Ordway Tead who said:

    “Leadership is known by the personalities it enriches, not by those it dominates or captivates. Leadership is not a process of exploitation of others for extraneous ends. It is a process of helping others to discover themselves in the achieving of aims which have become intrinsic to them. The proof of leading is in the qualitative growth of the led as individuals and as group members. Any other test is trivial and unworthy.”

    It seems to me that Ordway Tead encapsulates the essence of servant-leadership very well. Any leader or organization that does that will flourish.

  4. Dick Schubert Says:

    the reality is that Servant Leadership is good for the organization because it produces “followers” who are the best they can be enhancing the output and hence productivity.

  5. John Wilcox Says:

    Transformational leaders realize that they are not leading an organization but rather are leading people. It sounds trite and much too obvious, but effective leadership requires affected followers. Because the servant-leadership model is so closely associated with biblical Christianity, many leaders too quickly dismiss it as being “upside down” and ineffective in the “real world.” But it is only upside down from our human perspective. To the Creator, it has always been right-side up and therefore eternally workable in the real world. The one who serves the most people the most effectively, is usually the one who rises up into leadership. The corporate ladder goes from vertical to horizontal to form a bridge.

  6. David Ralph Says:

    Thanx for another great blog!!! I remember reading the famous holiness classic; “Christian Secret to a Happy Life”… Hannah Whitall Smith said something extremely similar in the mid 1800’s when she said something along the line that the same principles apply to pastors and their flocks! Pastors are like shepherds who feed their flocks well and care for them well!!! They are fat and have thick healthy coats. Pastors can be evaluated by how healthy are their flocks! Of course the sheep have to eat but usually when a Shepherd puts out excellent food the sheep will come and eat and be healthy!!! Sounds like a similar principle of CEO’s

  7. Kerry Says:

    20 years ago I wrote out a leadership philosophy in my Pastoral Theology class at Nazarene Bible College under the watchful eye of Professor Neil Wiseman. My simple paper was entitled “Servant Leadership”. After (soon-to-be) 20 years in the same local church, I am humbled to report the philosophy I began with still warms my heart. To be entrusted to postively effect the lives of others as a servant leader under the authority of The Suffering Servant wonderfully amazes me — heart, mind, soul and strength. Thanks Capt. Tom for the challenge and the inspiration to continue onward… with my head up and my knees down.