Servant Leadership and Follower Focus

Excerpted From
Leadership in Christian Perspective
By Justin A. Irving and Mark L. Strauss

How do you prioritize your commitments and practices as a leader? Servant leadership is an approach to leadership that prioritizes followers over leader self-interest.

While many argue that a commitment to organizational goals must be prioritized over the people of the organization, a servant-leadership perspective argues that the most effective way to accomplish organizational commitments is through focus on followers. Barrett and the team at Southwest Airlines modeled this for us. By leaders focusing on followers, these followers are then able to deliver exceptional products or services to those the organization serves.

While the organization as a whole needs to be externally focused (serving its customers, constituents or mission), the primary focus of the leader must be on serving and caring for the followers who are directly responsible for fulfilling the organization’s mission. We prioritize such servant-oriented practice in our reflections on leadership in this book. This leadership commitment is about prioritizing follower focus and empowering followers for service of the team’s mission.

Transformational Leadership and Organizational Transformation

Complementing the follower focus of servant leadership, transformational leadership is about creating broad and intrinsic ownership of the organization’s mission by leaders and followers alike. Transactional leadership is primarily based on a leader-follower exchange that incentivizes followers through extrinsic motivators. In contrast, transformational leadership is based on a leader-follower engagement that motivates followers intrinsically.

Transformational leadership is about engaging followers in such a way that leaders and followers are mutually committed to the organization’s mission and are willing to undergo transformational change with organizational goals in view.

Team Leadership and Collaborative Orientation

In addition to servant- and transformational-leadership principles, we also advocate for collaborative and team-oriented approaches to leadership. Collaborative approaches to leadership and the use of teams recognize and affirm that great wisdom exists within the people of organizations. Rather than providing an overly directive or top-down approach to leadership, collaborative and team-oriented approaches to leadership harness the wisdom and insights of the people who compose the team. This leadership commitment is about leveraging team wisdom and utilizing collaboration toward the end of decentralizing authority and empowering people to carry out local work effectively.

Leader Purposefulness and Meaning-Based Work

Finally, we emphasize the importance of meaning and purpose in the work of leadership. On this point, Eric Eisenberg and Harold Lloyd Goodall write that “employees want to feel that the work they do is worthwhile, rather than just a way to draw a paycheck,” and to see work as “a transformation of its meaning—from drudgery to a source of personal significance and fulfillment.”

While employees bear responsibility for personally engaging their work with purpose, leaders play an important role in helping organizational members understand why the work they do matters. This leadership commitment is about leaders and followers alike seeing their personal work and the work of their colleagues as meaningful and significant.

Collectively, these four leadership priorities call leaders to see their role primarily as equipping and empowering the people they lead for effectiveness.

Throughout the book, we argue that the most effective approaches to leadership move leaders from a focus on follower control to a focus on follower empowerment. Great things can be accomplished in and through teams and organizations when leaders and followers alike are empowered to accomplish great things in service of their mission and the people they serve.

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Excerpted from Leadership in Christian Perspective by Justin A. Irving and Mark L. Strauss ©2019. Used by permission of Baker Publishing

Justin A. Irving and Mark L. Strauss
Justin A. Irving and Mark L. Strauss

Justin Irving is professor of ministry leadership and director of the DMin program at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Mark Strauss is professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary San Diego.