Servant Leaders Make Tough Decisions

Often I’ve asked myself the question, “If a servant leader is focused on the group, and a difficult decision needs to be made, doesn’t this bring up a natural dichotomy?” Or, more to the point, isn’t a servant leader supposed to use gentle methods to foster healing and growth?

Wisdom from the Founder

Gentleness, in itself, is not always kindness. The act may seem hard and unreasonable to the recipient at the time, but it may be the most constructive kindness … The point is that seemingly harsh actions … produce a level of constructive tension in some cases without which it is unlikely that the individuals involved will surmount their own life problems

Robert K. Greenleaf, The Requirements of Responsibility

Robert correctly identifies the forcing of “constructive tension” into a person can honestly change the direction of their life.

While it would be easy to retreat into a simple analogy such as making children eat despised vegetables for their own health, there is a more profound element to a servant leader’s dilemma – the exercise of foresight.

Included in all of us — areas where we haven’t considered, general biases from past experiences, latent unhelpful ways, direct challenges — these all move toward spots in which we either ignorantly or willfully press on. Outside views, wisely accepted, can countervail and move us past these gaps. Finding solid servant leaders, giving them license to advise, allows us to move past or accelerate over these blocks.

Sometimes you even make enemies

However, sometimes as a servant leader, we are forced to intervene in situations where we are not invited. This corrective stance, though skillfully deployed, has the potential to hurt feelings and damage relationships.

It is deeply disappointing to the servant leader when these come about, and no amount of reflection can assuage the guilt inherent.

However, wisdom from Proverbs intervenes, putting us back on the balance:

Faithful are the wounds of a friend;

    profuse are the kisses of an enemy.

Proverbs 27:6 (ESV)

Intentional wounding, with the counterbalance of healing, defines the activity of servant leadership; those without the fortitude will only compliment.

Summing it Up

Using all the skills of Servant Leadership (including Listening and Empathy), and focusing on the growth of the person will allow these tough decisions to be made, conceptualizing a future in which the person can move forward, unencumbered and free.

Servant Leader as Hat-Wearer

“Lids..” by Gunnshots is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

A recent conversation with a friend and colleague (Hi Steve!) got me thinking about roles as applied to servant leadership. Specifically, that some positional roles given to the leader are at best under tension, and sometimes in opposition to each other.

Multiple hats aren’t only a business problem

Of course, I have a song running through my head as I think this through – Amy Grant’s Hats, where she describes the tension of her life roles as a mother, a wife, and a worker:

It don’t stop
No, it’s never gonna stop
Why do I have to wear so many things on my head?

All because I’m driven

To be the very best for you

Roles in Conflict

The specific example that Steve and I engaged was a set of roles we have defined in Agile Project Management. At our work, we define three roles:

Product OwnerResponsible for maximizing the value of the product and who is ultimately responsible and accountable for the end product that is built.
Scrum Master The servant-leader of the team who keeps track of user stories, plans sprints, and manages the backlog.  Escalates issues to both the Project Manager and the Project Owner
Project ManagerAssigned by the Project Owner; responsible for achieving the project objectives.  Manages according to time and budget.

In a graphical form, this sets up a three-way balance; a natural pushing, pulling, and reporting structure:

In a triangle, finding a balance point involves either direct experimentation, or a whole lot of math, since the point in which all are in balance is a function of relative weights. It isn’t like a scale, which balances two points. As you can see from the above diagram, achieving balance in this structure by positions can also be challenging.

In reality, the balance resolves itself in the project manager lending weight to the lighter side by supporting (or assuming) one of the two other roles because of missing elements in the project; either the product owner is not available for frequent consultation, or the scrum master need additional support. As such, a good project manager can bolster whichever axis requires attention.

Servant Leader as Multiple-Hats

This brings up the fundamental tension – why can a good project manager shift and slide roles for ultimate project capability?

My simple postulation is that a good project manager is a servant leader. They are not defined by the role given, but are defined by the higher elements of listening, empathy, healing, and awareness, using persuasion, conceptualization, and foresight to bring about growth and community through stewardship. In this way, they are not calling attention to themselves (hierarchical authority), but are instead working behind the scenes for the fundamental progress of the project.

I think this has broader implications for all servant leaders. Because of this ability to focus on the group as the highest goal, they can keep more than one role, more than one idea in their head, navigating the cognitive dissonance as a liminal hotspot without resolving it further.

Lesson from Paul

Paul, as a sent-one (or apostle) of Jesus had one goal – transformation of people into a relationship with Jesus. In this, he took on the role of a servant as well, even defining what this means:

Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 The Message

I love how he expresses the fact that, although he didn’t take on the lifestyle of those he was serving, he engaged them in their own world on their terms – just as Jesus did. Separating himself and requiring others to meet his high standard, he would have not had the impact that this servant-leader life enables.

Summing it up

Multiple hats are a fact of life, and navigating them is best done with a higher goal in mind. Since servant leaders already have the higher goal of group development baked in, they can easily move between the roles.

And, they don’t have to have a big head about it…

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…