My Leadership Development Goal: Purposeful Servant Leaders

December 3, 2009

My goal is to develop leaders that understand the power of committing to something outside of their own self-interest and see themselves as a resource to help those they have been given the privilege to lead.  I call these purposeful servant leaders, and in my experience they are rare.

If the term servant smacks too hard against your power paradigm, let it go.  This type of leadership goes by several different labels.  The key is the leader sees herself as a resource for her constituents.  The question that drives this leader is “how can I help?”

This is in contrast to the paradigm of leadership where the leader sees herself as THE source.  If you think you are THE source, you are the oracle, the source of all operational insight and leadership wisdom.  If it doesn’t emanate from you, the oracle, it can’t be worth much.  I’d like to tell you this is the old paradigm of leadership, but in my experience it is still very alive and well.  Much of that is OUR fault because we love oracles.  It gives us someone to credit when things go well and someone to blame when they fail; hence, we never have to assume full responsibility ourselves.

Think this is milquetoast leadership? Think again.  For this to work, the leader must get her followers to the place where they are purposeful actors taking autonomous action.  It takes a lot of work to get your followers to the place where the design of their jobs and all other processes under your control (e.g. selection, training, feedback, reward, supervision) necessitates and facilitates their autonomous action.  Everyone in this system has to assume full responsibility for themselves and their role in achieving the shared purpose.

Void of shared purpose, their is no reason to assume full responsibility.  Someone else will take care of things, and someone else will take care of me.  As I have stated before, I think purpose is both a top line and a bottom line issue.

How do you learn to be a purposeful, resourceful leader? This is path dependent and does not happen overnight, but there is little causal ambiguity.

If you don’t learn how to follow, you will never be prepared to lead.  Stay tuned – I will discuss this critical foundation next time.

Related Posts:

Leadership: The Value of Shared Purpose

The Courage To Serve The Purposeful Leader

Value in Serving Others

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Comments (10)

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  1. Bret,

    Thank you for sharing your goal. We need more like you in MBA programs! As Wally might say, we’ve been talking about this for far too long. If we can begin to change the culture of “me” to “we” early on and gain some traction with young leaders, I believe there is hope for the business and corporate world.

    The only point of disagreement I have is the “rarity” of purposeful servant leaders. They are more numerous than many realize, because so many of them are quiet about it. The very concept of servant leadership evokes a sense of “behind the scenes”, so we may miss seeing them if we aren’t looking hard enough.

    If we can think broadly about leadership, as not a “title” or position on an organization chart, we find them everywhere; buried in organizational and community structures, leading non-profits and communities.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    You bring up a very valid point, Mary Jo. I have problem fallen victim to the very paradigm that I lament. These types of leaders are not going to be the visible hero types but the critical behind the scenes folks as you point out. We have to look for them in different ways and in different places. Is it possible for these folks to rise to the top? Do we need them to? Thanks for sharing and thanks for the kind words. Bret

  2. Hey Bret, thanks for the leadership posts. I am having streaming issues and haven’t been able to see the videos, but appreciate the follow up message. I love the idea of shared purpose but how do you foster that in those around you? I look forward to more posts on servant leadership. Who would you say exemplifies this type of leader?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Good question, Jonathan. First and foremost you have to be a purposeful actor yourself. People are watching, and you have more influence than you think. You can’t ask folks to do something you are not doing yourself. I don’t know too many of these types, frankly. But as Mary Jo points out, there are probably many out there but they are “under the radar” so to speak. Thanks for the comment! Bret

  3. Kathleen M. Jackson says:

    Hi,
    I am enrolled in a Doctorate in Leadership program at Mountain State University in West Virginia. I am also the Director of Nursing at MSU Martinsburg. I am absolutely intrigued by servant leadership and your stated goals are of interest to me. Thank you for sharing this.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Kathleen! You must know Becky Robinson, then, from MSU. Lots of folks think this style of leadership is wishing washy. I think it is MUCH more difficult to practice, and it have a much larger effect on the top and bottom line. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  4. Kathleen M. Jackson says:

    P.S.- My father used to say “you can get the credit or the accomplishment but rarely both.” I think this speaks to the servant leader who will pursue accomplishment over credit every time.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Concur, Kathleen. Focus on the accomplishment and credit yourself. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  5. Aschwin Wesselius says:

    I guess it is hard to miss if Jesus says in the bible in Marc 10:42-45. That’s servant leadership and it’s not new or original. But it is needed and the only way a leader can lead.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Ashwin. The idea of service outside of self, as you point out, is certainly not new. Neither are leaders that lead this way, and those that don’t. Thanks! Bret