Measuring the Success of a Servant Leader

As I continue on my journey toward servant leadership, I have often wondered about how to feel about my impact. In the dark of night, I sometimes struggle with these questions:

  • What is the value I bring to those I am leading?
  • Are their lives changing for the better?
  • Is there lasting value in my effort?
  • Does my leadership matter?

The founder’s tension

I know that Robert Greenleaf struggled with this question as well – his epitaph speaks volumes:

(in case the bottom is hard to read: “Potentially a good plumber, ruined by a sophisticated education”)

At the end of the day, plumbers can look back on a job well done, even point to the work accomplished. There is a satisfying finality, a recognized completeness to the labor.

Those of us tasked with leadership our impact is people, organizations, even communities. Sometimes there is an end task of our responsibility (i.e. a project, a key-performance indicator, a product, a vision) – but we are to help others achieve the task (otherwise we are not leading). The work is ongoing, and the results are intangible – sometimes even frustratingly elusive.

The founder’s proposal

So, how did Greenleaf resolve this tension, this internal anxiety? He proposed a framework of group assessment – acknowledging its problematic analysis:

The best test [of a servant leader], and difficult to administer, is: 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?

Robert K Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader

Greenleaf, in his economy of words, speaks volumes. In this short quote, he defines a number of elements that bear expansion:

  • Growth – Do those served grow as individuals, personally as well as professionally? The growth of followers is a distinctive feature of servant leadership.
  • Health – Are those served healthier, transformed into whole people. The active pursuit of healing forms the basis of the changes a leader brings to those being served
  • Wisdom – Do those served gain greater experience, knowledge, and good judgment while being served? Do they exhibit conceptualization and foresight in their own decisions?
  • Freedom – Are those served freer, both from their own blocks and inhibitions, and the external barriers placed on them?
  • Autonomy – Do those served have more control over their own decisions and lives? Are they empowered (and feel it)?
  • Leader continuation – Are followers being transformed into servant leaders? Replicating servant leadership in others is a profoundly satisfying result for a servant leader.
  • Common good – As a result of servant leadership, is society better off? Is community being built? Greenleaf suggests that servant leaders should seek out stakeholders that come from many different perspectives and lead with an eye on developing our impacted areas.

Using it it real life

I try to look at my impact using these hallmarks as a baseline to determine my impact, and assuage my questions. While Robert found it “difficult to administer”, I find that a patient, introspective assessment at how the group is doing according to these elements is important for my awareness; to find satisfaction in accomplishment or areas to improve (most often simultaneously).

And, it helps me sleep at night…

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