Servant Leaders Show Up With Great Effect

Publication1Leaders who understand the power of servant leadership share an important characteristic – they “show up” in every relationship and are able to adjust to the needs of the person in front of them. By “showing up” I mean that the servant leader is attentive to other people’s motivations and needs.  Servant leadership is an approach to leading that is identifiable in the belief that others want to bring their best selves and their best contribution to work. As a result servant leaders engage and develop the knowledge and energy of all employees.  Simultaneously servant leaders expect and encourages the best contribution of others.
Jesus’ encounter with Nathanael illustrates what it means to “show up” in a relationship and provides a great insight into how servant leadership works.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets spoke, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” And Nathanael said to him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”[1]

Jesus recognized that Nathanael was a man intent on knowing and deciphering truth – this is the meaning of saying Nathanael was without fraud or deceit. Jesus’ assessment amazed Nathanael for the insight into Nathanael’s character and for the verdict of guileless inquiry. Nathanael was a skeptic. Jesus did not shy away from addressing skepticism head on. Nathanael’s skepticism is rooted in his awareness that Nazareth (Jesus’ home town) did not play into the prophetic narrative of Jewish Scriptures regarding the Messiah.  The skepticism of today’s workforce is often rooted in their experience with leaders who are uncaring, inconsistent and concerned only for their own prestige and survival.

In contrast to Jesus, some leaders fail to “show up” in any relationship because they are distracted by what must be accomplished or recent challenges or new opportunities. Distracted leaders are self-absorbed leaders who would not have recognized the potential in Nathanael much less exhibited the presence or insight to speak directly to Nathanael’s skepticism. Instead distracted leaders often interpret anything other than compliance as insubordination and see skepticism as equal to disapproval.

How a leader is present in every relationship demonstrates the degree to which they believe that it is important to know and address the needs of those in front of them. This is one of the reasons why being with servant leaders is encouraging and inspiring to others.  Servant leaders call out the kind of commitment and behaviors that lead people to be their best. Barclay’s description of Nathanael’s experience is profound,

…Jesus had read the thoughts of his inmost heart.  So Nathanael said to himself: “Here is the man who understands my dreams! Here is the man who knows my prayers! Here is the man who has seen into my most intimate and secret longings which I have never even dared to put into words!  Here is the man who can translate the inarticulate sigh of my soul!”[2]

Who wouldn’t find a leader like this intriguing? This simple, direct, and abbreviated encounter between Jesus and Nathanael illustrates the power of believing in others and knowing what they need to thrive and be their best.  Servant leaders make explicit what is implicit. This kind of insight into others is not out of the reach of servant leaders if they exercise six practices of effective servant leadership.

First, believe that others want to be and give their best. Servant leaders work at knowing others. When a leader pays attention to knowing others through observation, vulnerability and questions significant insights into others emerge.

Second, recognize that people are intrinsically motivated and that this motivation possesses three critical elements: (1) autonomy, the desire to direct our own lives; (2) mastery, the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and (3) purpose, the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.[3] Mastery and purpose are understandable in common usage.  Autonomy requires definition. By autonomy I do not mean independence and a quest for narcissism. Instead I use the word as Pink describes it,

Autonomy… is different from independence. It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy.  It means acting with choice – which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others.[4]

Jesus gave invited people to decide to act. A 2004 study of 320 small businesses illustrates the power of choice and autonomy. Researchers found that those businesses offering autonomy grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented, top-down management companies and had one-third the turnover.

Third, stay engaged. The recognition of autonomy does not mean that servant leaders must practice a laze faire approach to organizational leadership. Servant leaders stay engaged with their operations and the development of their team. They use the right kind of controls. Controls help shape the culture and effectiveness of an organization.  Not all controls however are helpful.  The difference between helpful and damaging controls is the assumptions behind the controls. Controls that presume trust in others are far different in their impact on participation and contribution than controls that assume people cannot be trusted and need extrinsic motivation to work.[5]

Fourth, avoid a focus on empathy that mollifies the emotional immature.  Mollifying the emotionally immature is regressive and toxic in outcome – it is impossible to relate to another person as a peer when the other person fails to exercise responsibility for their well-being and is by nature all take and no give. Servant leaders recognize the difference between causing pain in others (as is often the case in making difficult decisions) and in causing harm to others. The challenge induced by painful experiences is often the development of a greater capacity for self differentiation.

Fifth, use tools that help you define other’s usual behavioral style is and to play to those strengths. Use the tools that do not insult the complexities of each person. I have found that the Birkman Method is the best in providing leaders with an understanding of the unique perspectives and needs of each individual.  The Birkman Method helps people understand the multi-dimensional aspect of human behavior that starts with recognizing the diversity of observable behavioral characteristics.[6]

Sixth practice vulnerability. That servant leaders expose their vulnerable side to enhance communication and relationship seems counter intuitive particularly in times of interpersonal stress. However, vulnerability is an adaptive tool that owns personal emotions and encourages others to take responsibility for their emotions.  Vulnerability is accepting the uncertainty and risk associated with emotional exposure. What is the benefit to this approach? This approach gives opportunity for love to grow.  “Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”[7]  Love is no stranger to servant leadership. Love has everything to do with engaging work as the real you not the “you” others think you should be.


High capacity servant leaders understand their strengths and needs and have developed the skills needed to approach people differently depending upon the unique strengths and needs of their team.  Servant leaders engage interpersonal relationships authentically with attention to the needs and aspirations of the person. Jesus’ illustrates how to use the skepticism so common in organizations today as a foundation for commitment and contribution by identifying the person’s desire for authenticity and interaction.

Those people who understand the importance of relationships and work to enhance their skill in building strong authentic interpersonal connections set the stage to multiply the effectiveness of their organization and multiply leaders around them. Will you be a servant leader?

[1] John 1:45-48 (NASV)

[2] William Barclay.  The Gospel of John, Volume 1, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1956), 78.

[3] Daniel H. Pink. Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us ( New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2009), 204

[4] Pink, 90.

[5] Douglas McGregor. The Human Side of the Enterprise, Annotated  ed., (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006), xii.

[6] Sharon Birkman Fink and Stephanie Capparell. The Birkman Method: Your Personality at Work (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 65.

[7] Brené Brown. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (City Center, MN: Hazelden, 2010), .

One Reply to “Servant Leaders Show Up With Great Effect”

  1. Great stuff as always. You are a wonderful example of what you write about. I think of the week in DR and many times on the phone when you engaged me, attentive. listening. That has meant so much to me. I have felt believed in and valued. I never quite made the connection to all of that with servant leadership. Thanks for helping me connect the dots.

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