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Servant leadership turns the relationship between boss and worker on its head

13:12 03/04/2020
In uncertain times, the servant leadership trend can be a useful tool for managers

The term ‘servant leadership’ was coined by Robert K Greenleaf, a US business executive and management consultant, in a 1970 essay called The Servant as Leader. “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,” he wrote.

The New Jersey-based Robert K Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, an educational organisation started by Greenleaf that seeks to spread the practice of servant leadership, offers the following characteristics of a servant leader: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualisation, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.

Katleen De Stobbeleir, an associate professor in leadership and coaching at Vlerick Business School, says servant leadership in essence inverts the typical leadership paradigm. “Rather than leaders being at the forefront and being the ones doing the command and control, the main goal is that the leader is more a servant of the followers rather than followers being servants of leaders,” says De Stobbeleir, who also heads a centre at Vlerick that specialises in monitoring leadership trends and the development of innovative leadership and coaching tools. She describes it as a style that asks leaders to step out of the limelight and devolve some decision-making power to their ‘followers’, or their employees who have less power than them.

If the concept has been around since 1970s, why has it only become a buzz word now? Its emergence runs in parallel with a shift in thinking about leadership. In the past, being a leader meant having a clear vision, delegating tasks and finding ways to make employees more productive. This was also known as the ‘command-control’ leadership style and it has been in vogue for the past two decades.

But businesses today are operating in an increasingly complex and uncertain world. Trends like digitisation and fragmentation as well as developments like global warming mean doing business has become much less predictable, De Stobbeleir explains. She gives the example of the hotel industry. “In the past, the competitor of a Hilton was probably the Marriott next door. Now it’s Airbnb; it’s apartments,” she says. “So it’s become much more fragmented and complex. It’s very difficult for leaders to really have an overview of what our competitive landscape look like.”

And that newly unpredictable business environment means that the topdown, command-control leadership style of yore is no longer as effective as it has been in the past. “To find ways of being successful in today’s economy, leaders need to really tap into all the potential they have in the
organisation and to collaborate,” she says. And that’s where concepts like servant leadership, shared leadership, agile working and self-managing teams come in.

Examples of companies steered by CEOs who display some of the typical characteristics of a servant leader include the Ypres-based semi-conductor company Melexis, led by Françoise Chombar, as well as Durabrik, the construction company, based in Drongen, East Flanders, led by Joost Callens.

Chombar, for instance, heavily involves employees in her decision-making process. “She’s known for being very inclusive and asking employees: ‘If you were leading this company, what would your decisions look like? What do you feel our strategic direction should be?’” De Stobbeleir says. “Of course, in the end, she might still make her decision, but at least she’s known for being a very inclusive leader, and really listening and gathering a broad variety of input.”

Callens, meanwhile, takes a very spiritual approach to leadership. Rather than conducting appraisal reviews in an office setting, he is known to go on long walks through a forest with his employees. “He feels it opens more of a dialogue and it’s about caring about the person rather than their output and what they produce,” De Stobbeleir explains. “He’s certainly somebody who listens a lot, has a lot of empathy and also tries to, let’s say, empower people to make their own decisions.”

Criticisms of this leadership style have of course also been formulated. That the concept is too black and white for instance; that it’s too normative. It’s why De Stobbeleir advises thinking of servant leadership as just another tool in a leader’s toolbox. In some situations, a leader might be better of applying the commandcontrol style, while at other times a servant leadership style might be preferable.

According to De Stobbeleir, servant leadership works especially well in uncertain contexts, when the challenges in front of a business are really complex – precisely when the intuitive choice might be to assume that strong leadership is needed more than ever. This is equally true for politics, she says, pointing out that the turbulent, unpredictable times we are living in have made voters turn to strong leader figures, people who decisively declaim they know what the problem is and how to fix it.

She notes that this is why preparing employees to become more involved is also key. “That’s also a side effect of servant leadership – that people themselves need to take more responsibility and not everybody is always willing to do that, certainly not when the situation is uncertain,” she says. “So you might also need to think wisely about how to prepare people and how to make it safe for them to go in a leadership style where they are more intensely involved, where they need to take more responsibility.”

This article first appeared in ING Expat Time

Written by By Linda A Thompson