Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Servant Leader : paradoxical but effective leadership style

We are well familiar with autocratic, participative and laissez-faire styles of leadership. They are considered to cover the entire spectrum from controlling to facilitating. Yet, there is another paradoxical approach beyond this spectrum, i.e. a Servant Leader.

Why do we need a Servant Leader? Are the familiar leadership styles not enough. To answer this, let's first understand the relevance of these familiar leadership styles:
  • Autocratic leadership: Leader directs and controls the team. Role of every team member is clear and compliance is important to achieve the objective. Eg: Production, Construction, Military
  • Participative: The team also participates in the decision making. This works with knowledge workers who are self-motivated and eager to share their ideas. Eg: IT industry
  • Laissez-faire: The leader only offers guidance and support. The team members has complete freedom to decide and complete their work. This suits when working with highly skilled and experienced people who are independent. Eg: R&D, Innovation, Creativity works
Other leadership styles like transactional, bureaucratic etc.. also lie in the same spectrum.

There are two basic premise for above leadership styles.
  • There is a team in place 
  • The leader has some formal authority over the team.

What if the above two premise are taken away? Imagine a situation when one needs to achieve an objective with people over whom he/she has no formal authority, who are in different departments, some of them are experts and some other department head themselves. Each having a day job and independent responsibilities. How does one lead then?

This is where Servant Leader comes in. A Servant Leader is outside the spectrum of above familiar leadership styles because he is the doer first. He/she does not control. Instead he/she inspires support and commitment based on the merit of what he proposes and his work.

Based on my personal experience, servant Leader is very effective in  following conditions:

  • The objective is novel and ambitious
  • Uncertainty in how to achieve the objective
  • Requires specialised knowledge and expertise.
  • The team to achieve the objective constitutes other departments, experts and external partners
  • Team members have a day job and general lack of time to support outside their regular work

In above conditions, 'leading by doing' works best. The leader gets access to specialised skillset and benefits from expert knowledge of team members. The team members would be more open to contribute without feeling burdened by extra work. The leader will still be in charge, anchoring the whole initiative and steering it. The team members will also act as ambassadors of the project and contribute to overall buy-in within and outside the organisation.

Servant Leader may sound paradoxical but it is very real and works. The usual management education portrays a leader who is sitting on top of his team, is autocratic or benevolent depending upon the situation and the team does the work. Turn this portrayal on its head and you get a Servant Leader who might be sitting at bottom or side of the team and leads by doing.

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