By Rachel E. O’Connell and Patricia L. Fitzgerald 2017-11-06 11:40:46
What does it mean to be a servant leader? Learn more about this popular, contemporary leadership style with an upside-down twist. IF YOU ARE READING THIS MAGAZINE, IT’S VERY LIKELY THAT YOU ARE A LEADER. That’s because the vast majority of School Nutrition readers are engaged in their personal and professional growth. People who embrace life and learning naturally tend to gravitate toward leadership roles. Think about it: You might have a formal leadership position at work, such as a director or manager. But you might lead on a more informal basis, too, such as being the person with the vision for creating cafeteria displays, decorations and promotional activities; or the individual who always remembers and takes charge of coordinating birthdays, anniversaries and showers for team members. You might not have a leadership responsibility at work, but you assume one for your SNA local chapter or state affiliate. Maybe you don’t think you lead on the job, but realize that you do take charge of a church committee, a book club, a youth sports team, a Girl Scouts troop—or just all the busy activities of your family! So, what kind of leader are you? There are many different styles of leadership. But among those who self-identify as leaders in the school nutrition profession, there is one approach that seems to be growing in popularity: the servant leader. TOP-DOWN VS. UPSIDE DOWN You may have heard various leaders in SNA and other organizations define themselves as a servant leader. But what does that mean? To appreciate this unique approach, we need to look the other common styles. Each of the management strategies listed in the box on page 44 have benefits and detractions. But they have one attribute in common: the boss is in control. Whether in charge of a team, a cross-cultural partnership or just one employee, the boss is just that—in charge. Even with approaches that emphasize collaboration (i.e. democratic) and provide autonomy (i.e. laissez-faire), the manager assumes all responsibility, credit and fault. These top-down leadership structures may suit your current operation, as well as your individual skill sets. But leaders—at all levels—should always be open to exploring ways to improve and become more effective. Leadership must be dynamic—indeed, it’s likely that you may be making subtle, ongoing changes all the time to adapt to accommodate and respond to new team members, changing circumstances, fresh challenges and your own skills development. This issue of School Nutrition is an opportunity for you to be more intentional about your leadership growth. As you reflect on your current leadership style, contemplating what does work and what seems less effective, you may want to consider the servant leadership approach, which flips the top-down management structure on its head. In this article, SN will clarify and define this leadership tactic—you might find that its credos fit neatly into your program and its approaches work well with your staff. “RULE” WELL The concept of servant leadership is defined as a philosophy that empowers employees using a bottom-up structure in which employees share power and responsibility; employee needs are put first; and the supervisor or employer is in the front lines assisting with high-quality performance. Servant leaders tend to work toward “big picture” goals, leading lead individuals, small groups or entire organizations. Browse the Internet and you might think that servant leadership is a relatively new concept, speeding through today’s business world as the management style to adopt. (It probably has its own hashtag, it’s that trendy.) But its history is rooted in ancient writings. The first is the Tao Te Ching, the reputed work of a Chinese philosopher named Laozi (or Lau-Tzu), dating as far back as the 4th or 5th century BCE—that’s 2,500 years ago! Within its sage pages is a description of the foundation of the servant leadership concept: What it is to lead unselfishly, with strength and with a great understanding for the perspective of those you “command.” Chanakya (aka Kautilya), an ancient Indian teacher, is another great mind whose life is unsubstantiated. His legacy, however, is fully realized in the Arthashastra, which details the duties of a ruler to his people. The text asserts that a leader should have the best qualities of both head and heart. Chanakya theorizes that a lazy ruler would result in lazy subjects; that a leader should exemplify the attributes he wishes to see in those he oversees. The Tao Te Ching and the Arthashastra are not the only works of aged philosophy that describe a servant leader. Both the Judeo-Christian Bible and the Islamic Qur’an laud characteristics of leaders and rulers who put their people first and who tended to do the heavy lifting themselves, rather than merely compelling others to do so. LEAD IN While the roots of this leadership style approach are deep, it wasn’t until 1970 that management theorist Robert K. Greenleaf published his famed essay, “The Servant as Leader,” and the terminology was well and truly coined. In his writings, Greenleaf defines his philosophy: “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. That person is sharply different from one who is a leader first. … The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are served.” As the servant leadership philosophy spread throughout the business sphere in the ’70s, it was further defined by several other thought leaders, who have put their own stamp on the approach by defining essential characteristics. With small variations from one author to another, these “building blocks” together emphasize building a lasting community, in which the members of an organization or business come first and are able to reach their full potential. Consider the following attributes that define a servant leader and determine if they characterize your own leadership style: » Listening—Do you listen to and value the ideas of others? » Empathy—Do you embrace the perspectives and worldviews of others? Do you accept and recognize others for their unique spirits? » Healing—Do you recognize the opportunity to “help make whole” those with broken spirits? » Awareness—Are you aware of the world around you? Are you self-aware? » Persuasion—Do you make sure to use gentle, nonjudgmental arguments while creating change? » Conceptualization—How often do you visualize a big future? What are your long-term goals? » Foresight—Are you able to use prior mistakes, past understanding and present knowledge to plan for the future? » Stewardship—Do you take responsibility for your actions and the actions of your team? » Commitment to People—Do you put the needs of others before your own? Do you see people individually, rather than as a collective? » Building a Community—Are you capable of creating a common bond and synergy within your team? TAKE THE LEAD As more contributions have developed this ancient ideal into a modern reality, servant leadership has become practice in all types of organizations, from corporations to schools to associations. While some may consider it the teenager of management theory, it’s been touted for almost 50 years. One can see why it may be considered an attractive style in the school nutrition profession. After all, most people leading in this business aren’t in it for the money or the glory. It’s a complex, highly regulated segment in which the work is largely its own reward. For leaders accustomed to putting in long hours, making repeated sacrifices and doing it all for “the kids,” the servant leadership model is a natural fit. What are some immediate practical applications for servant leadership in school nutrition operations? Keeping its principles in mind will allow you to cultivate valuable traits within your team members and grow to your own full leadership potential. » Treat employees with trust and respect from the get-go. » Set realistic, but challenging goals. » Encourage your team to reach out and be of service to others at school, at home and in their own communities. » Listen intently and offer tailored feedback. Work to understand the perspectives of your employees. » Abandon a “quid pro quo” (“I’ll do this in return for you doing that”) mindset. » Don’t give up. Yes, you may have to choose your battles. But once you pick one, follow it through, demonstrate your willingness to invest the time and effort to create change. » Raise the stakes—and raise your standards. » Walk softly, and carry a big smile. “A life not lived for others is not a life.” Take these words from Mother Teresa to heart and become a servant leader in your community. COMMON LEADERSHIP STYLES There is no greater or lesser method for organizing your troops or preparing tactics and strategy. How you structure your managerial approach tends to be a very individual decision. It may be based on what has been role modeled to you or what comes instinctively, in support of your own innate strengths. Take a look at some common styles and the characteristics that define them, as identified by a wide variety of management experts. » Laissez-Faire Leadership emphasizes a hands-off approach, providing team members with significant freedom, allowing them to work with little interference from a supervisor. » Democratic Leaders ask for team input before decisions are made. This style is centered on delegating authority and accepting contributions from subordinates. » Autocratic Leaders prefer to assume all of the authority and responsibility themselves; they rarely consult with subordinates and there is little room for flexibility. » Transactional Leadership involves a tangible exchange, in which there is an emphasis on motivating team members through both rewards and punishment. This style is applied when strict compliance to rules or procedures is paramount. » Cross-Cultural Leadership occurs in an environment in which a variety of cultures exist and thrive. Leaders not only adjust their approach to each particular subset, but strive to encourage and cultivate such cultural growth throughout the team. » Team Leadership lends itself to success through multiple minds working toward a single purpose at the same leadership level. A LITTLE CLARITY Not everyone is a fan of the servant leadership approach. Following are some common criticisms and misperceptions— countered by arguments from supporters of this style. Servant leadership focuses too heavily on employee feelings and problems, which impedes productivity. The idea is to focus on the needs of your team members, not their feelings. That said, a 2015 study by the Social Market Foundation illustrated that a happy employee is 12% more productive than an unhappy one. As a servant leader, I must avoid giving negative feedback or making unpopular decisions. A servant leader takes responsibility for team members achieving their potential. Critical feedback can be relayed in ways designed to help the growth of the individual, rather than being punitive. Similarly, changes—even those that are met with dismay or opposition—should be explained fully so that employees understand that the intent is for the improvement of the organization. If I adopt this style now, I will have to stick to servant leadership exclusively. No one uses one style of leadership all of the time. While the tenets of the servant leadership model provide great flexibility, many management theorists agree that good leaders find they often must adjust their style to suit the needs of the situation and the people involved. Building the level of trust needed for this method will take too much time and energy. There are simply not enough hours in the day. It’s a fair criticism to note that effective servant leadership takes work and thoughtful consideration. But gaining and retaining trust from employees and team members is an ongoing effort—and essential to the efficacy of the group—no matter what leadership style you adopt. Our organization’s leadership has been a top-down pyramid structure for so long, I’m not sure we can make the change. No one expects you to invert a powerful structure overnight. As with any kind of change, this will take time and careful planning. Trust that the results will be well-worth the effort! BONUS WEB CONTENT Following to Lead Want to learn more? Head online for a list of resources that will help you ensure that the “service first” credo of your school nutrition operation is a literal commitment. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access. Rachel O’Connell is SN’s communications coordinator. Patricia Fitzgerald is SN’s editor.
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