Activities that Characterize Servant Leaders and Amplify Team Potency
John stood at the door of my office, “Ray, how are you doing?”
I let out a sigh that I had not meant to express. “John, I am stressed. I am not sure that I am being effective. I am so busy I’m overwhelmed,” I confessed. I really felt like a hamster running on a wheel going nowhere.
“I see,” said John. “You are working like a jack of all trades.” After an awkwardly long pause he concluded, “And master of none.”
Impotent expressed how I felt that day and John, one of our board members, had observed this in me. John’s real question for me that day was, “I see you working hard, but are you doing the right work?”
I had no way to answer John’s question that day. As we talked it became more clear to me that the act of leading required that I turn insight, moral commitments, and ethical decision-making into measurable action that inspired others to engage planning, execution, and reflection to carry out specific ends and create a healing community in which people experience team potency.
Team potency is the collective belief the team can succeed that influences a team to start action, exert effort to reach goals, and sustain their effort over time. Team potency is the result of authentic leadership like that exhibited by servant leaders. Servant leaders build an environment where people experience self-determination, security, and trust, enabling them to focus their time and abilities on accomplishing goals and on creatively solving problems and responding to opportunities.
Some leaders, like me the day John dropped by, are so absorbed in the stuff that has to get done they fail to do the work that only they can do. So how do leaders amplify the team potency of their people? How do they avoid developing unhealthy leader/follower relationships or unhealthy dependencies that undermine delegation and true team potency? The answer rests on focusing on those activities that contribute to sustained effectiveness and not the flurry of activity many leaders get caught in that look more like a drowning man flailing in the water than a champion swimmer working toward a gold medal.
People rightly expect servant leaders to support the personal and organizational margins needed to sustain effectiveness. Servant leaders recognize that they work in three spheres of activity: (1) actions internal to the leader; (2) actions that involve the follower; and (3) actions engaging the servant leader and the follower.
These activities help leaders rejuvenate, refresh, and review what they are doing in a way that keeps them focused. They define the way a leader spends his or her time. These activities are especially important aspects of the leader’s life when he or she engages the tasks inherent in leading an organization. Without a clear guide to healthy action leaders run a greater risk of task saturation, weariness, and burnout. So what are these critical leadership tasks?
Withdrawal is the ability to exercise systematic neglect i.e., the ability to differentiate between the important and the less important and the urgent from the important. It is sometimes referred to metaphorically as going to the balcony. The ability to withdrawal is often the best way to “changing the game” in situations where conversation has disintegrated to a war of power or fixed positions. I start with this activity because without the commitment to withdrawal leaders often find themselves blindsided by political posturing, competitive pressures, and changing customer preferences they would have seen if they had taken the time to reflect. Why is this important?
The first rule of organizational power is that the person with the greatest power wins. Servant leaders who experience conflict with their boards or an influential stakeholder in the organization must learn to change the game or face the loss inflicted by someone with more power. Servant leaders in business who experience conflict with their boss or another department must also learn to change the game or face termination because they don’t have the right combination of power.
Changing the game is not a one-time effort but a series of repeated efforts that begins to turn the pattern of behavior away from a win/loose orientation to a joint problem-solving exercise.  It is a necessary skill of leadership and one continuously practiced by Jesus cf., Matthew 14:23 and Mark 1:35-37, where Jesus withdraws from the crowd to pray; Matthew 21: 23-27 where Jesus reframed the question of authority. In all of Jesus’ interactions with hostile groups a wealth of information exists describing how to change the game. It behooves all servant leaders to sharpen their political skills.
Foresight emerges from the ability of the leader to understand the lessons of the past (both historical lessons and lessons from his/her own experience), the realities of the present and the likely consequences of a decision in the future. Many leaders do not want to look at the unvarnished present. However, without a clear view of the current realities, future thinking may dissolve into hubris and a quixotic pursuit of fantasy and not hope. Other leaders remain ignorant of the past or have failed to reflect on the past. The foresight of a servant leader can have the prophetic insight expressed as intuition. This ability to understand consequences and see opportunity brings courage and confidence to followers and helps them accepts responsibility for their own actions.
Awareness looks two directions; it is self-awareness (the leader’s awareness of their own strengths and needs and potential stress points) and situational awareness.
In situational awareness, it is the leader’s ability to sense, see and analyze what is going on around him or her with different frames. By frame I mean the mental models by which people make sense of the world around them. When the servant leader assesses the organization the use of four different frames helps to limit blind spots in the servant leader’s assessment and perspective. The practice of seeing through each of these four frames is a way to exercise moral reasoning and strategic thinking. These frames include:
- Structural: an understanding of how social and organizational structures work as a whole system. What are the hierarchies of power and tasks needed in the organization?
- Relational: an understanding of how interpersonal relationships often work together, such as in family systems theory.
- Political: an understanding of how power is used and valued within an organization or social group.
- Symbolic: an understanding of the meanings assigned inanimate objects that are used to short-hand a groups’ relationship to important values, such as the way buildings are decorated or in symbols of authority like academic regalia or boardroom decor.
In exercising personal awareness the servant leader seeks to know how he or she approaches different aspects of relationship. Everyone has three layers to who they are: their visible and usual behavior, the need that must be met for their usual behavior to be useful, and the stress that results when needs are not met. Aware leaders use their stress points to recognize when their needs are not being met and then exercise vulnerability to discuss those needs to support their most effective self and to avoid the knee-jerk responses that emanate from stress that end up damaging relationships with others.
The act of listening allows the leader to find the needs of the group and the true barriers the group experiences in the movement toward accomplishing their aims. Listening keeps the leader from seeing situations through their own bias and thus acting prematurely, disproportionately, or erroneously. The activity of listening is asking questions until one understands the intent of the communicator. Listening helps clarify values, fears, and needs while uncovering new perspectives.
Listening is also an act of prayer – when used in prayer listening spends deliberate time remaining silent toward God with attentiveness to God’s still small voice that is God’s intimate communication with friends.
Empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of another. It is clear in the life of Jesus and precedes many of his miraculous works. Empathy is visible in the phrase, “…and being moved with compassion.” For example:
Mk 9:22; the demonic father’s request for compassion (sometimes translated “pity”).
Mt 15:32; Jesus announced his compassion for the hungry crowd.
Mt 20:29-34; Jesus had compassion on the blind man.
The list goes on. The simple fact is that servant leaders act because they love people. There is a great joy in loving others as well as a significant vulnerability to pain and disappointment. Servant leaders embrace both joy and pain.
Servant leaders have a profound opportunity to heal follower’s hurts, disappointments, and brokenness resulting from being around toxic leaders. Healing is making people whole and does not happen overnight.
Rita, a manager in one company I worked with, had become trapped in psychologically and spiritually in an affair with one of our department heads. She told me one day in tears that her promotion to manager was a quid pro quo result of an ultimatum to have sex to advance in the company or be terminated for poor performance. As a single mom termination was untenable to her. The warping that occurred in Rita’s life was painful to hear. After reporting the offense and after the proper investigation and response by the company Rita remained in our employment. Rita and I had many long conversations that helped her over time begin to untie the Gordian knot of shame and guilt and to step up to her need for training and development so she could actually succeed as a manager. Part of the challenge for Rita as she became healthier was the need to re-approach authority and leaders with a new sense of self and not the whipping post her former department had induced fear, shame, and guilt.
Conceptualization is the ability to see the big picture and to act on more than the day-to-day realities that engage people’s energies. The ability to conceptualize sees threats and opportunities in the long-term and uses this orientation to keep short-term decisions moving in the right direction for the health of the organization. It is the ability to name core principles (values) of operation and structure that allows others to also frame their daily events in the big picture. It is the ability to see the future of the group or organization in terms of an inspiring picture of the future and to invite people to contribute to this preferred future by their actions. Conceptualization sees a future of promise and possibility and lays hold of that promise to influence and bring change to the present realities.
Persuasion is the ability to convince others of a decision or action or show a previously unseen need so that people accept an idea as their own. It is the opposite of coercion. Questions are a significant tool in persuasion because questions, properly framed, can help others understand that their current views may not be adequate for the future far faster than trying to describe inadequacies. Stories also help. Nathan persuaded David to repent for his sin with Bathsheba with a story (2 Samuel 12:1-7). Steve Jobs persuaded his early partners at Apple to work like slaves for a vision of the future (he also manipulated and threatened – neither quality is one that can be used with effectiveness over time). While not a paragon of servant leadership Jobs’ ability to inspire by story far outstripped is technical expertise and on his better days out shined his manipulation. Persuasion happens with groups or people. Persuasion is an ability every servant leader must humbly develop.
Execution is the link between vision and results. It is the ability to align actions in such a way that the group achieves what they set out to do. Execution is the ability of defining a course from a series of options (seeing what is, what is not and what could be), leading to a specific goal that maintains a competitive advantage or overcomes specific opposition, to successfully meet an end. Part of defining a course of options rests in knowing what outcomes should characterize the work of servant leadership. Jesus described what to expect in servant leadership when he said;
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to Preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”
Characterizing the aims of execution either in the church or in business can start with Jesus’ description and then move toward how to apply this to specific settings. Servant leaders keep three things in mind:
- Execution is a discipline and integral to strategy
- Execution is the major job of the servant leader
- Execution must be a core element of the organization’s culture
If we dare to execute on what we really believe all heaven could break loose. To encourage a culture of execution in my last pastorate, I had small placards made for everyone’s computer monitor that read, “Just do it!” Some people thought I had borrowed the slogan of the Nike Company when in fact I borrowed Nike’s slogan to point the team to the epistle of James who wrote, “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” Every leader understands two things about execution. First it is far easier to direct and develop people who have hope for the future of the type Jesus aims at in Luke 4. Second, that it is far easier to direct and develop others who already have a bias toward action like that described by James than it is to redirect or develop people who have become accustomed to inaction and blame shifting.
A community is a group of people with a common characteristic or interest in living together within a larger society. The servant leader works to build a sense of community at work or in the congregation. It is community that characterized the church of Acts and drew people to the church (Acts 4:32-5:6).
Servant leaders show the ability to influence or command thought, opinion, and behavior. They do this from a place legitimized by those who follow them because followers see leadership character and actions that end in clarity, healing, mission and flourishing. This is the essence of authority.
Servant leaders put their values (virtues or ethical decision-making) to work in actions that are internal to themselves, actions that involve followers and actions that engage the leader and the followers. Servant leaders understand that it is the application of values in daily activities that make up work and thus build something great that stands the test of time.
- Rate your use of the activities of a servant leader. Are you engaging the right activities in the use of your time and resources? Think about: withdrawal, foresight, awareness, listening, empathy, healing, conceptualization, persuasion, execution and building community.
- In what ways have you nurtured authority in your life when exerting power would have been faster or easier?
- Think about how people legitimize your leadership. What specific observations about you have they made?
- If you cannot answer number 2 ask some of those who follow you to give you feedback on what you are doing well as a leader and what you might improve.
- In light of the insights you glean from either question 2 or 3, how to you feel about the affirming words or in what way does affirmation help you develop as a leader?
- In light of the feedback you have received what help do you need to ask for from others to continue to grow as a servant leader?
 This article adapted from Raymond L Wheeler. “The Servant Leader’s Unique Authority – Focusing on Influence not Power” in An Inconvenient Power: the Practice of Servant Leadership (Claremont, CA: Unpublished Manuscript, 2013), 56-80. Used with Permission.
 Arménio Rego, Andreia Vitória, Ana Magalhães, Neuza Riberio, Miguel Pina e Cunha. “Are Authentic Leaders Associated with More Virtuous, Committed and Potent Teams?” The Leadership Quarterly 24 (2013):62
 Rego et al, 65.
 Greenleaf 2002, 32. Greenleaf identified many of these same behavioral characteristics. I have adapted his work and added my own research to the descriptions of these traits as well as later synthesizing them with the leader’s tasks see Chapter 4.
 William Ury. Getting Past No (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1993), 13.
 Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal. Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership 3rd ed. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 12-19.
 Luke 4: 18-19 (NASB)
 James 1:22 (NASB)