Thank you for visiting the ISU Ed. Leadershop. Our intent over the past few years has been to field-test community-engaged writings for PK-20 practitioner conversation -- quick, 5-minute "read's" that help put into perspective the challenges and opportunities in our profession. Some of the writings have remained here solely; others have been developed further for other outlets. Our space has been a delightful "sketch board" for some very creative minds in leadership, indeed.

We believe that by kicking around an idea or two and not getting too worked-up over it, the thinking and writing involved have even greater potential to make a difference on behalf of those we serve. In such, please give us a read; share with others. We encourage your thoughts, opinions, feelings, and reactions to our work and thank you for taking your time. You keep us relevant.

[Technical Note: If you find that your particular web browser does not allow you to view our articles for a full-text read, please simply select another browser and enjoy.]

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Serving the Lead

Serving the Lead

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

James Hunter (2004), author and speaker, has written that to lead is to serve.  He also has shared with us the difference between those who are servants and those who are self-serving. Recently asked to speak to the Indiana State University Alliance for Servant Leadership regarding Hunter’s writing, I had the opportunity to review much of his book, The World’s Most Powerful Leadership Principle: How to Become a Servant Leader.  Those who are servants, I believe, have the ability to serve the lead, as it were.

            Three quotes quickly caught my eye as I started, upon which I’ll build this five-minute read this week, as I ask three questions of myself as a leader regarding them and this whole notion of serving the lead.

Question Number One:  Why do we serve the lead?

“A successful marriage, like any successful organization, is 100/100 and requires the players to get their heads fully in the game” (Hunter, 2004, p. 35). 

Mixed metaphor aside, Hunter (2004) noted through this example that leadership is not about being the boss. It is about using one’s talents and skills, wherever one is in the organization, to serve.  I would argue that to serve involves building capacity in others, and to further specify … capacity in their followership.

            “Followership?” you say.  “Aren’t we supposed to be building leaders at all levels?”  Well, yes … if those leaders are creating followers as well.  After all, someone has to follow.  The world needs followers.

            If you’re looking at this askance, consider Kelley’s (1988) definition of effective followership.  Kelley visually depicted followership through the use of two perpendicular axes – on the vertical, the spectrum from dependent, uncritical thinking to independent critical thinking, and on the horizontal, a spectrum from passive to active behavior. 
Four quadrants are formed from these axes. 
The most effective followers are those found in the upper right hand quadrant where they are active in behavior, while exercising the highest degrees of independent, critical thinking toward the goals of the organization (much like golf caddies, who support and provide consult to their pros) (Kelley, 1988).
This type of followership is decisively different than those in the other quadrants, such as that which is active in behavior still, yet exhibits dependent, uncritical thinking (Yes-People), or that which, conversely, is passive in behavior, yet utilizes independent, critical thinking (Alienated Followers) … or even that which is passive in behavior, yet utilizes dependent, uncritical thinking (Sheep) (Kelley, 1988). 
            True servant leadership creates an environment where active, independent-thinking employees are invited into high degrees of self-management, commitment, competence, focus, courage, honesty, and credibility.  Servant leadership defines leadership and followership simply as two separate, yet mutually dependent and equally important roles in any organization.  Yet, there is a bit of leadership in the best of followership, wouldn’t you say (as Phil Jackson of Bulls and Lakers fame oft-engenders)?

Question Number Two:  What is important about serving the lead?

“How we behave as the boss at work today affects what goes on around the dinner table in other people’s lives tonight (Hunter, 2004, p. 40).

            Hunter (2004) noted that leadership is an awesome responsibility. 
Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to take my daughter to dance class and sit in the waiting room as parents often do, thumbing through Hunter’s book.  As I read his quote above, I sat among people of all different professions, in all different circumstances, in a variety of moods … a few seemed to have much on their minds. 
I thought of the door from the dance studio that would eventually open, the children who would eventually reappear, and the evenings that these children would have, based on the level of distress that was present in some of their parents.
            I wondered how much of what the parents were thinking and feeling was created at work earlier that day … by leaders acting like bosses, in all the wrong ways. No doubt some of these leaders even created distress in these parents unintentionally through well-intended misfires of communication and behavior.
How so?
            In our leadership, do we recognize the fact that the golden rule needs an upgrade?  Could it be that leaders who treat others the way they, themselves, wish to be treated, are missing the fact that others may need to be treated differently?
Understanding this need and acting upon it isn’t always easy, and this is why, in part, leadership is such an awesome responsibility.  If employees leave each day with their needs unmet, how often will this roll downhill and stymie their efforts at parenthood or the indelible impressions upon their children later in the evening? 
How often will this indirectly affect the children of our superstars who worry about everything as they take their work home with them, much more so than those of marginal performance, who leave their commitment at the organizational gate?
Can we as servant leaders exert a positive influence and be others-mindful with respect to needs, so that it pays itself forward to those around them, those who might caring for us in our twilight?

Question Number Three:  Are we capable of serving the lead?

“… I have a difficult time believing that the good Lord would reserve the essential skills necessary to being an effective leader to those fortunate few blessed with just the right DNA composition” (Hunter, 2004, p. 43).

Hunter (2004) noted that leadership is a skill, and I would agree.  The skill of serving the lead is especially important.  Consider what one must do in that regard. 
In serving the lead, a proper perspective is to figure out where another stands by discovering where he or she sits.  In other words as leaders, we must be mindful of others’ perceptual frames.  We must know how others process the world around them as they make meaning of what is happening to them.  
Do we ask ourselves if others perceive the world (including all that happens at work around them) through their thoughts?  Do they think about things first or conversely, do they feel about them? Do they filter what they perceive through their values, or do they jump right into things to “get ‘er done”?  Do they react to situations or take time to reflect (Kahler, 2001)? This very much affects the way a leader communicates to followers, if serving them is important.  Those of us who serve the lead speak the language of the people we’re leading.

Of related importance, do we serve the lead through the meeting of others’ psychological needs?  Some in our organizations like to be recognized for a job well done, yet others seek recognition for the persons they are.  Some need to have playful contact with other people; others prefer isolation. 
Leaders who serve the lead will consider their employees’ or students’ psychological needs, because it is the right thing to do, yet also because not meeting them will certainly lead to employee distress, resulting in underperformance that leads to distress for all (Kahler, 2001).

As we close …

In order for success in serving the lead, we must keep the following in mind to establish and maintain their own sense of authenticity:

1.     We must accept responsibility for all that goes wrong in an organization and give away credit for all that goes right.
2.     We must forgive others in advance of their missteps, yet cannot forego their responsibilities for moving the organization forward to its goals;
3.     We must envision those whom we lead at all times as our clients, our customers, and our products, and must lead in such a way that our advice is accepted, our treatment of others is appreciated, and the results of our serving the lead include great people and professionals who can compete robustly in a challenging, global marketplace.

When these are established, leading and serving become much more similar both in definition and result.


Hunter, J. C. (2004). The world’s most powerful leadership principle: How to become a servant leader. New York, NY: Crown Business.

Kahler, T. (2001). Process Communication Model: A contemporary model for organizational development.  Little Rock, AR: Kahler Communications, Inc.

Kelley, R. E. (1988, November-December). In praise of followers. Harvard Business Review, 142-148.


Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached in the Department of Educational Leadership in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University.  He encourages you to extend his thoughts by contacting him at (812) 237-8624 or at

No comments:

Post a Comment