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Servant Leadership

Where there is no strategic servant leadership, an organization or a nation is bound to fail. Many economic projects and businesses without sustainability have failed in Nigeria occasioned by lack of strategic servant leadership. Basically, Nigeria is blessed in every way but without good leadership. To make a nation and the world a better place, we must raise leaders who are change agents that are strategic in serving the people.

Strategic leadership is a practice in which executives, using different management styles, develop a vision for their organization that enables it to adapt to or remain competitive in a changing economic and technological climate. Again, Strategic leadership is the ability to get people to make their own decisions with the vision of the organisation in mind. (The organizational dream is the vision of the organization. The vision is the ideal condition; what the organization expects to see when all issues are addressed.) Strategic leaders create a vision, express vision, passionately possess vision, and persistently drive it to accomplishment.

Characteristics

The following are the qualities of effective strategic leaders that could lead to effective performance:

  • Looking into the future – Being proactive, planning for the future.  (He or she who refused to plan has already planned to fail).
  • Open to questions – open to feedback, clarifications, suggestions, and thus get new ideas.
  • Making calculated decisions – considering available options, carry out consultations, and make informed decisions promptly.  
  • Looking for opportunities to improve – seize the opportunity (Carpe diem), learn from success and failure stories to improve the future.
  • Keeping themselves updated – they ensure that they are up to date about the happenings with the organization.
  • They have a wider perspective on issues – they try to learn and have knowledge about other fields.
  • Motivation – they have the skills to motivate others towards achieving their goals.
  • Compassion – strategic leaders understand the views and feelings of their subordinates.
  • Self-control – they have the ability to control distracting moods and desires. They think before acting.
  • Self-awareness – strategic leaders understand their mood and emotion – Man! Know thy self.
  • Delegation and authorization – such leaders must be ready to distribute and delegate responsibilities.
  • They are selfless at the service of all. They have the spirit of a servant leader. As St. John Paul II would say, “I am the servant of the servants of God.”
  • Effective communication – good leaders must be able to communicate their vision to the organization.
  • Commitment to service or duty- giving it all you have and seeing yourself as working for God.

The Principles of Strategic Leadership

  1. Distribute responsibilities. Efforts must be made to push power downward, delegate, and give out responsibilities among workers.
  2. Create multiple paths for raising and testing ideas. Good leaders welcome ideas and innovations. Do not stifle innovation or ideas but test them. Brainstorm them, review them and march them against researched principles.
  3. Create opportunities for experience-based learning. Expose your followers to available opportunities to learn from each other and outside the organisation.
  4. Find time to reflect and review periodically. It will help to assess performance, learn from mistakes, and improve on past performance. “An unexamined life is not worth living.”
  5.  Ongoing leadership development. Empower yourself, followers, or workers. You must make an effort to engage in ongoing capacity development by going for training, conferences, seminars on leadership.

Being strategic as a leader will not lead to sustainable development in an organisation or country. Therefore, to be an effective leader, one needs to combine strategic leadership and servant leadership. Put differently, you need to be a strategic servant leader.

Strategic Servant Leadership for Effective Economic Development

The philosophy informing servant leadership is service. Consequently, strategic leaders strive to serve in leading others. This agrees with the view of Greenleaf (1977) that true leaders are first servants, and this he refers to as servant leadership. Servant leadership theory was propounded by a leadership guru, Robert Greenleaf (1977). According to Greenleaf (1977), servant means “Fully human … functionally superior because he is closer to the ground- he hears things, sees things, knows things, and his intuitive insight is exceptional [and] because of this he is dependable and trusted” (p. 32). He sees an effective leader as a worthy servant. It suggests that a true leader is one whose leadership is born out of the desire to help and serve others. Such leaders have the desire to serve the people and support them to reach their highest potential. The practice of servant leadership has its root in the world’s great religions. Many scholars have seen the teaching of Jesus to His disciples as a model and example of servant leadership (Ebener & O’Connel, 2010; Lanctot & Irving, 2010; Winston, 2004).

Tao Te Ching (LaFargue, 1992) explained the nature of a servant leader through the following points:

  • One who promotes himself will not become famous.
  • One who shows off will not shine.
  • One who glorifies himself will not become a leader.
  • One who boasts of himself will get no credit (p. 4).

By its nature, a servant leader does not promote self, show-off, glorify, or boast of himself. Silently, he goes about his work with humility and allows the work to speak for him or her.

Strategic servant leadership requires a leader to maintain ethics of care and service. The above definition of servant suggests that a leader must have the quality of humility in order to practise ethics of service and put the needs of others first before personal needs in order to be a true servant leader. Hence, Greenleaf (2002) opined, “the servant-leader is servant first….It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead” (p.27). In corroboration, a mixed-method study carried out among Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles by Valadez (2013) found that most Catholic school principals see the work as a vocation rather than a job. Such principals see their work as their purpose in life. Consequently, it is a call to service, and they see themselves as servants and adopt a servant leadership style.

The idea of leading by example and making sacrifices underline the concept of servant leadership. A servant leader has the natural desire to serve and care for people and empowers others to do the same. It suggests that a good leader initiates a vision, works out the structure and its implementation with the followers, and takes the risk of failure and chance of success (Greenleaf, 2003). The leader’s position should be at the center, not at the top in any organisation (Greenleaf, 2002). Such positioning at the center will enable the leader to be in direct contact and control of the various aspects of the organisation and the people in it. 

In articulating the characteristics of servant leaders, Greenleaf (2002) stressed the need for the leader to have:

  • essential skills of understanding the needs of the people,
  • to heal the wounds caused by the conflict in the organisation,
  •  to build capacity for the followers,
  • be an effective listener,
  • to effectively lead as servant-leader.

Subscribing to the caring behaviour of the leader in meeting the needs of others, Spears (2010) argued that servant leadership is grounded in an ethical and caring behaviour of the leader, involvement of others in the decision-making process, and the improvement of the environment. In this understanding, Spears (2010) listed the ten characteristics of servant leaders to include:

  • listening to followers and their inner voices,
  • empathy toward others,
  • ability to heal the relationship,
  • awareness,
  • persuasion,
  • conceptualization,
  • foresight,
  • stewardship,
  • commitment to the growth of the people,
  • and community building (Spears, 2010; Parris & Peachey, 2013).

The first characteristic is listening; it allows the leader to receptively listen to what the people are saying and what is left unsaid (Spears, 2010). It requires listening intently to the inner voice, identifying the will of the people, and automatically responding to any problem. The second characteristic is empathy which involves making an effort to accept and understand the background and where the people are coming from and appreciate their talents and gifts uniquely (Spears, 2010). This is important in sustaining economic development in our disadvantaged country because the leader needs to empathize with the people and accept them as they are if such leader must win their followership. Close to empathy is healing which is the third characteristic. A servant leader needs to recognize the need to heal a broken relationship and strive for the wholeness of the people and self.

Additionally, awareness is another characteristic of servant leadership. Awareness of the environment and self will enable a leader to assess, appreciate, and understand the situation and view issues holistically (Parris & Peachey, 2013). It suggests that having a good awareness of what is happening in the organisation will enable the servant leader to make the right decisions in good time and be able to convince others. The fifth characteristic is persuasion. The servant leader uses persuasion to convince the people to follow and comply instead of force. Spears (2010) argued that the fundamental difference between traditional leadership and servant leadership is persuasion over coercion. It suggests that servant leader builds consensus within groups through persuasion.

The sixth characteristic is conceptualization.  The servant leader seeks to create and arouse the abilities to dream great dreams and thinks in broader and conceptual terms. Like an instructional leader, it requires setting goals and objectives and creating a vision, and having the foresight to know the direction of the organisation. Servant leader creates a clear vision for the organisation, articulates the vision to the followers, builds shared vision, intelligently craft a path to achieve the vision, and guide the organisation into a new direction (Parris & Peachey, 2013). This is linked to the seventh characteristic, which is foresight. Foresight is the ability to intuitively understand the lessons of the past, the present realities, and the possible outcome of future decisions (Spears, 2010; Parris & Peachey, 2013). Both Greenleaf (1977) and Spears (2010) see foresight as the central ethic of strategic leadership that is rooted in an intuitive mind and insight. Foresight enables a servant leader to foresee the unforeseeable and work toward it.

The eighth characteristic is stewardship. It entails a leader’s commitment to serving others’ needs. A steward is open to the needs and desires of the people and makes an effort to meet such needs. Stewardship is linked to the ninth characteristic of commitment to the growth of the people (Spears, 2010). A good steward is disposed to helping others to grow personally, spiritually, and professionally.  Finally, the tenth characteristic focuses on community building. In helping others grow, the leader contributes to the growth of the community (Spears, 2010). Creating a sense of community is vital in an organization because it enhances collaboration, communication, and commitment among the members (Hitt & Tucker, 2016). Like distributed leadership, servant leadership includes distribution of work, involvement of stakeholders in the decision-making process, and building team spirit (Hitt & Tucker, 2016).

In conclusion. servant leadership embodies essential components, which include ethics, empathy, and community, and these are crucial to the philosophy of strategic servant leadership. There is a correlation between servant leadership and positive organisational climate, which is deeply underscored by the instructional leadership model (Black, 2010). In a mixed-method study carried out by Black (2010) in Canada, findings indicated that where there is evidence of servant leadership, the climate was perceived as positive, supportive, and collaborative. It suggests that if a servant leader must influence the organisational climate to enhance sustainable economic development, the leadership must be servant leadership (Valadez, 2013). The implication of strategic servant leadership in an organisation is that it will promote the creation of enabling environment and climate for holistic growth for the workers (Valadez, 2013). It influences the way work is distributed and carried out for the benefit of the organization while being conscious of the setting and the needs of the workers. Servant leadership is a viable approach to leadership that is capable of improving organisations and the well-being of followers in challenging contexts (Parris & Peachey, 2013).

Greenleaf, R. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York: Paulist Press. 

Hitt, D. H. & Tucker, P. D. (2016). Systematic Review of Key Leader Practices Found to Influence Student Achievement: A Unified Framework. Review of Educational Research, 86 (2), 531 –569. DOI: 10.3102/0034654315614911

Parris, D. L. & Peachey, J. W. (2013). A systematic literature review of servant leadership theory in organization contexts. Journal of Business Ethics, 113, 377-393

Spears, L. C. (2010). Character and servant leadership: Ten characteristics of effective, caring leaders. The Journal of Virtues & Leadership, 1(1), 25-30. Valadez, D. (2013). Effective leadership practices of Catholic High School principals that support student achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University Southern California.

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