Servant leadership is a term used by many people and organizations. Indeed, myriad books have been written on it. Yet, it seems there is still a lack of clarity as to what servant leadership is, who created it and if organizations employ it.
The basic premise of servant leadership is to serve all stakeholders, allowing them to be empowered and make decisions. It is a collaborative leadership approach designed for everyone to say, "We did it!" And, when done effectively, everyone will know what success is because they were led by a great servant leader.
Servant leaders are supposed to have traits such as listening, persuasion, empathy, awareness, stewardship, character and integrity.
While this is fairly accurate, another key component for servant leadership to be successful is creative tension. This is the ability for people to disagree with each other in a constructive manner through facts and dialogue to achieve the greater good for the organization and people.
The list of genuine servant leadership organizations is short because most lack creative tension. Leaders are always trying to please everyone. Conflict is avoided, believing everyone should be happy and agree with each other.
This causes cultures where people do not openly communicate or share disagreeing opinions. Who is being served when this occurs? How can organizations improve with this happening?
Part of the problem may be that we have forgotten where servant leadership really came from. Authors like Jim Hunter or Robert Greenleaf didn't create servant leadership. The best business and leadership book ever written is not Jim Collins' "Good to Great" or Greenleaf's "The Servant as Leader."
It is the Bible and, depending upon one's religious beliefs, it also could be the Torah or Koran. All basic business and leadership principles are in these books, with servant leadership modeled by Jesus Christ.
Before gasping that I brought religion into a leadership discussion, take a breath and consider the following. The most widely read book ever has multiple stories of ordinary people becoming servant leaders and leading others. It provides the model of servant leadership. It discusses not being fearful, not judging others and being humble - all qualities of great servant leaders.
The main servant leader handled criticism, mentored and cared for others, resisted temptation by misuse of power, faced those disagreeing with him, communicated directly, shared a vision for the future, placed himself at personal risk and served a higher purpose.
Great servant leaders should not be fearful of having creative tension in their organizations. They should embrace people who are direct and open communicators vs. judging them as being harmful to organizations. Fear breeds lack of continuous improvement, rather than true servant leadership.
In terms of addressing creative tension, the Bible says Jesus was beloved by some and hated by others, although he served all for what he believed to be a greater good. He always spoke what he believed to be the truth, even if it made people uncomfortable and disagree with him. And he encouraged others to ask questions for clarification so he could more clearly explain through stories and historical facts.
Servant leadership is a fantastic concept and, when practiced well, causes an engaged culture. We must remember it doesn't mean we have to please everyone as long as there is an open dialogue for creative tension.