Robert Greenleaf has inspired much of what we know about servant leadership today. Greenleaf instructs us to consider how we apply servant leadership through the lens of a question: “The best test [of a servant-leader], and the most 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?”

While answering this question requires much self-reflection and self-awareness, there has been an inquiry into how this style of leadership can be applied to the workplace. Specifically, when we consider power dynamics within an organization, how can Greenleaf’s best test inspire how our teams function?

Russ S. Moxley, a fellow with the Center for Creative Leadership, states that we need to look at power through the lens of a partnership, not just a singular set of actions or behaviors. When considering leadership, especially servant leadership, we need to understand the five requirements for teams to operate through partnership:

    1. There must be a balance of power. In “Focus on Leadership: Servant-leadership for the Twenty-first Century,” Moxley writes, “A partnership will not work when one person has power and others don’t…Rather, each individual must claim their personal power to create win-win situations and reach a shared goal.”
    2. There must be a shared goal. If we understand that each employee will look at a goal or situation differently, then we acknowledge the need to create goals collaboratively. A shared goal is one where everyone on the team understands and can identify how they personally will accomplish the shared goal.
    3. There must be a shared sense of responsibility. “Everyone on the team needs to be responsible and accountable for the work.” Teams need to emphasize the role of team relationships. Ensuring clear communication and transparent objectives will help every team member see where they fit and where their responsibility lies.
    4. Partnership requires respect for the person. Emphasis should be placed on each team member’s strengths and interests. This is not to say that certain work can only go to certain team members, but if a team member is assigned a task that is not in their zone of strength, the team needs to recognize this and provide appropriate support.
    5. Partnership must be applied in all areas of organizational life. As with most culture changes, teams cannot be selective for when they want to apply certain behaviors. There needs to be a desire from the team members to protect the relationships they have. Additionally, effort toward culture needs to be visible at all levels of the organization. When partnership is espoused, all team members should be able to identify those cultural behaviors regardless of who they are interacting with.

From these five requirements, we can ascertain that power includes goals, responsibility, respect and balance. But does this really define how we think about power? As servant leaders, do we “make” people do what we want? Or do we serve them in a way that inspires or influences them to, as Greenleaf writes, “become healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous?” This wordplay is important when we are developing an understanding of how servant leadership and power connect.

Servant Leadership and Power

Let’s consider the five bases of power that were identified in 1959 by French and Raven.

  1. Legitimate: Positional power you receive based on your position or title.
  2. Reward: Your ability to offer rewards or benefits in exchange for work.
  3. Expert: Comes from having deep technical knowledge and experience.
  4. Referent: Developed through relationships built on trust and respect.
  5. Coercive: Involves using threats to make others complete tasks.

While there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these types of power, we can connect each of these bases to the foundational elements of servant leadership.

Servant leadership deals with the reality of power in everyday life — its legitimacy, the ethical restraints upon it and the beneficial results that can be attained through the appropriate use of power.

Appropriate use is where the power of choice comes in. We know that everyone has the ability to choose how they respond and interact with others. Relationships at work and in life will require different applications of power. For example, Larry Spears writes about 10 characteristics of servant leadership in his book, “Focus on Leadership: Servant-Leadership for the 21st Century”:

    1. Listening (Li): Seeking to identify the will of a group and help clarify that will.
    2. Empathy (Em): Striving to understand and empathize with others.
    3. Healing (He): Ability to heal the broken spirits of self and others.
    4. Awareness (Aw): Understanding issues that involve ethics and values.
    5. Persuasion (Pe): Convince rather than coerce others.
    6. Conceptualization (Co): Embrace broader-based conceptual thinking.
    7. Foresight (Fo): Ability to understand the lessons from the past, realities of the present and consequences of a decision for the future.
    8. Stewardship (St): Committing to the needs of others through openness and persuasion.
    9. Commitment to the growth of people (Gp): Committed to the growth of everyone within their institution.
    10. Building community (Bc): Ability to create a true community through connection.

Making a connection between the bases of power and the 10 characteristics of servant leadership highlights the importance of the choices we make as leaders. As leaders, we have to make a choice to use power for good. When we combine the 10 characteristics and the five bases of power, we create the ability to develop meaningful relationships that realize higher levels of effectiveness.

So, how do we do that?

Servant Leadership in the Workplace

While there are several models of how servant leadership behaviors can be applied in the workplace, Irving and Longbotham conducted research to identify the key behaviors leaders need to consider when infusing servant leadership into their teams. From their research, six behaviors were identified that, if followed, led to higher levels of effectiveness. These behaviors include:

    1. Providing accountability: Leaders have the ability to set and clarify goals. Accountability is used to ensure the successful completion of these work goals.
    2. Supporting and resourcing: Leaders have the ability to provide the resources (training, partnership, etc.) to their team members to ensure completion of their work goals.
    3. Engaging in honest self-evaluation: Leaders have the ability to honestly self-evaluate before evaluating others. In other words, leaders can assess their role in the accomplishment of work goals, constantly seeking to identify where they can have the proper influence on their team.
    4. Fostering collaboration: Leaders have the ability to connect team members within and outside of the team to ensure team members are completing each other and not competing with each other.
    5. Communicating with clarity: Leaders have the ability to communicate in a manner that provides clarity for their team.
    6. Valuing and appreciating: Leaders have the ability to create environments where team members can show their genuine appreciation for those they interact with.

These behaviors give leaders a solid foundation they can base their behaviors around. If we believe that our role is to influence the next generation of leaders within our organizations, then servant leadership is a viable option for functioning as a leader. Leadership is easy. Being a leader is hard. We all have a choice to make when determining the amount of influence we want to have with our teams.

Remember what Greenleaf offers us with his best test: “Do those served grow as persons?” We have the opportunity to serve people daily — both at work and in our personal lives. What choice will you make? Don’t forget, positions and titles don’t matter at the end of the day. It’s about the relationships we create with others. So, how does power play into this? That’s up to you. We all have experienced power in positive and negative manners. When we strive to serve the needs of others, we ensure the long-term sustainability of our teams and organizations.