I've been talking about servant leadership for a long time—in fact, everything I've ever taught has its roots in the philosophy of leaders serving their people. I consider servant leadership to be a major part of my legacy.
But most people have a lot more experience following than they do leading. I've heard we spend an estimated 90 percent of our working lives as followers, not leaders. If that's true, followership may actually be more important than leadership—particularly when the follower is a servant leader.
If you're skeptical about that last phrase, you're not alone—many people don't understand how a follower can be an effective servant leader. Let me give you a great example from my own experience.
Influencing Up the Hierarchy
I'm often asked by managers what to do when they want to implement servant leadership but their organization's top management has a command-and-control philosophy. My response is this: "You can comply, complain, confront, dust off your résumé, or become an effective follower."
Many managers in this situation choose to comply (adapt to the organization's flawed management philosophy) or complain (spend more time grumbling than doing their job). A few will begin looking for a position elsewhere. Fewer still will confront the top manager, which usually doesn't work, anyway. Why? It is because people tend to confront before they connect. In other words, they deliver feedback before they've developed any kind of positive relationship with the person in question.
As a direct report attempting to influence up the hierarchy, remember that you have no position power, which is authority, based on being in the role of owner, manager, CEO, parent, etc. At best, you have personal power, which is potential influence based on the quality of the connection you have with a person — your relationship. However, when you give feedback to someone you haven't yet made a personal connection with, no matter how carefully you do it, you will not improve the relationship. In fact, the relationship may become more strained than it was before, giving a top manager less incentive to develop a strong relationship with you.
Putting People First
Years ago, when I was teaching at a business school, a new dean arrived. He had written a lot about participative management — an early form of servant leadership — but he didn't practice it. He would wheel and deal and make all kinds of top-down decisions without any faculty participation. Some of the faculty leaders confronted him with feedback about his inconsistent behavior, but none of them had made any previous attempts at a personal connection with this man. He essentially threw them out of his office in turn.
I generally agreed with the direction in which the dean wanted to take the school, but remained concerned about his decision-making style. I realized I had to develop a relationship with him before he would be willing to listen to my feedback. You see, to me, building a relationship is like depositing money in the bank. You need to start out with a few deposits—positive experiences—in your interpersonal bank account with the person (that's personal power). Investing in the relationship upfront will serve you later, because when you give that person feedback that is less than positive—no matter how well it is done—you are making a withdrawal from that account. I decided that since I didn't have any position of power over the dean, I'd better build up my interpersonal bank account before talking with him.
With this in mind, one day in the hallway I told the dean I admired his writing skills. I said, "I'm working on a paper I hope to get published in a good journal. Would you have time to meet with me? I'd like to get your feedback on my latest draft." He responded with, "I'd love to."
When we met, the dean gave me all kinds of helpful feedback. Then, at the end of a follow-up meeting, he said, "Ken, how do you think we should deal with some of the jerks in this school?" To my ears, the key word in that sentence was "we." I now knew I had something in my bank account with him—personal power—so I began to talk to him about how a change in his decision-making style might help. I knew he would listen without getting defensive. In retrospect, that's what an effective follower-as-servant-leader does: put the good of the organization ahead of any ego needs.
I often say our world is in desperate need of great leaders—but we also need exemplary followers, a term coined by Robert E. Kelley in his November 1988 Harvard Business Review article "In Praise of Followers." Exemplary followers aren't submissive people who just toe the line, take orders, and color inside the lines of their job description. Exemplary followers are competent, credible people who are committed to a higher cause and can think beyond their own personal gain. In my experience with the dean, I wasn't trying to butter him up to make myself look good in his eyes. I was hoping to get him to simply let down his guard a bit. That way, he and I could have a constructive conversation about the advantages of shifting his leadership style to work side by side with faculty in decision-making.
So how does someone become an exemplary follower? Kelley says that the best followers know how to lead themselves. I've felt that way for a long time. That's why Susan Fowler, Laurie Hawkins, and I developed a self-leadership program for our company, which teaches people how to develop the mindset and skill set for getting what they need to succeed—for both themselves and their organization.
In today's business climate, servant leaders know they can't get much done without effective followers. It's about leading side by side, not top-down. Remember: leadership—and followership—isn't something you do to people—it's something you do with people.