As commonly understood, servant leadership is about empowering teams. The servant leader is supposed to stay out of the way, foster self-organizing behavior, and remove impediments. This is understood to require a non-directive style, a taste for productive struggle, and a willingness to “let the team fail” in order that it may learn and grow.
But that idealized and somewhat passive interpretation of servant leadership works “out of the box” only in the most highly motivated and highly competent teams (and even they have their own challenges… see below). For all other teams (i.e. most teams), you will need a more sophisticated repertoire.
My favorite is the repertoire of situational leadership, developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in the 1980s. It refines leadership practice based on a team’s maturity, usually described by the two characteristics of motivation and competence. Here is how I have found servant leadership to fit into the situational framework…
Low Motivation and Low CompetenceServant Leader aims at motivation and competence
For teams that cannot and don’t want to perform, there is nowhere to go but up. So the key to improvement is movement… any movement. As servant leader I overcome low motivation by encouraging the team, often quite bluntly, to consider ways they can improve their competence. I then guide and support them as they attempt to do so.
Low Motivation and High CompetenceServant Leader aims at motivation
For teams that can perform but don’t want to, the performance obstacle must be identified and neutralized. All competent teams were motivated once, before they became discouraged. The discouraging factors are usually in their environment and, as servant leader, I spend most of my time attempting to neutralize those. This often involves challenging the organization, or even championing an organizational change initiative. (How a servant leader pulls that off is another topic for another time.)
High Motivation and Low CompetenceServant Leader aims at competence
Eager teams that don’t have sufficient skills present a unique risk. They are often poorly paid, and they tempt an organization to accept mediocre work because of the cost savings. The organization is often unwilling to trust their ability to learn and perform, and it may fail to provide them with tools and opportunity. I find these teams challenging because their needs (and performance goals!) fly in the face of a disempowering organizational culture. As their servant leader, I focus on gaining organizational support for skill-building and accountability. The resulting performance improvement frequently jump-starts some useful organizational change.
High Motivation and High CompetenceServant Leader aims at harmony
The intense passion and expectations in these “star” teams require both harmony (my job), and clarity of vision (the organization’s job) in order to sustain the team’s performance. Without harmony, this team’s members will fight. And without a clear vision they will quickly (and cleverly) drive the bus off a cliff. Fortunately, harmony can be fostered by a leader skilled in conflict resolution. But harmony is easily undermined by organizational confusion or ambiguity over key roles. And vision in many organizations is often more sizzle than steak, especially where new products are concerned. That’s why, as servant leader for this type of team, I work to help the organization grow and change so that it can fully capitalize on its investment in the team. I also have to be vigilant so the team’s high performance doesn't lead me into complacency.
Empowerment skills (including the ability to influence organizational change) are essential for a good servant leader, and all four kinds of teams require them. But in order to lead most effectively, the servant leader must discern cues from the situation, and must aim empowerment appropriately.
Situational servant leadership is the key.