Leadership Insights: Alfred Adler & the Servant Leader

What is a Servant Leader?

Hierarchies grant positional power…

Most organisations with more than a handful of employees have a hierarchy.  It helps get things done – decisions are made, strategic directions are communicated, and performance expectations are set, managed and measured.

Hierarchical Organisation
Photo: Flickr/Tim Abbott

Hierarchy, by definition, provides some employees with ‘positional power’:  that is, the role that they occupy within the organisation has the power to make decisions.  Among the first powers to be provided is the ‘power’ of managing others – hiring, firing, setting salaries, and determining targets and performance expectations.

Hierarchies create the perception that some employees are more important than others – that there is a hierarchy of individual worth and value aligned with the org chart – and conjure up leadership metaphors of military origins.

For those being ‘led’ this is a big deal.  They don’t say that people “join a company and leave a manager” without cause!

What the servant leader knows…

Equal but Different
Photo: Pixabay/alsen

What sets the servant leader apart is their innate understanding that an org chart doesn’t bestow super-powers on some people just because they are closer to the top.  The servant leader knows that it requires every employee doing their best for the organisation to be truly effective.  The servant leader understands that the janitor and the receptionist are just as vital to success as the chief executive.

The Servant Leader recognises that all people are equal – not the same – but equal.  This isn’t limited to his or her workplace, but is something that they also apply in their home and social lives.

What the servant leader does…

Perhaps the most extraordinary  feature of the servant leader is their unrelenting focus on providing value to others.  Not for the credit, not for recognition, not to get promoted, not to ‘show-up’ somebody else.

Just because that is what they do.

Psychology of a Servant Leader

True servant leadership is rare.

While the term “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K Greenleaf in the 1970s, its conceptual genesis lies in the work of prominent psychologist Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Freud.

Alfred Adler
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Isidoricaaa7

Adler’s work posits that true happiness stems from a sense that you are making a contribution.  He argues that this is only possible when you recognise everyone is equal, and truly accept the things about yourself that you cannot change.  This allows the individual to have a sense of belonging to a community.

Adlerian individual psychology posits that we only exist here and now, in this moment.  The events that we experienced in the past do not cause us to behave in, or feel, a particular way.  We choose how we interpret those events, because our remembered experience of them is subjective.

Another critical aspect of Adler’s thesis is that you need to be crystal clear about what you are responsible for, and what is actually somebody else’s responsibility – psychologically speaking.  He refers to this as owning your own ‘life-tasks’.  In essence, you are only a ‘victim’ if you choose to be, either because it provides value to you or gives you an excuse to not take actions that you are scared to take.

In modern day leadership language, we refer to this as having high self-efficacy and an internal locus of control.

How to be a Servant Leader

So now you have some insights into how a Servant Leader thinks – how they see the world, and relate to others – what steps can you take to become a servant leader?

Step 1: Be self aware and self reliant

Mindful Servant Leader
Photo: Pexels/unsplash

Practice mindfulness – you cannot be truly self-aware unless you can quiet your mind and take an objective, critical approach to assessing your own patterns of thinking.

Identify and accept the aspects of your ‘self’ that are fixed – certain physical characteristics, like your height, are hard to change.  So are some aspects of your personality and intellect.  You may not have a good ear for music, you may not understand quadratic equations.  This also includes events that have ‘happened’ to you that you wish hadn’t – a bad boss, a marriage break-up, a rough upbringing – you can’t change the fact these things occurred…

Take responsibility for and seek to improve the aspects of your ‘self’ that are fluid – there are many more characteristics that you can change.  including physical characteristics (weight, strength, health) personality and intellect.  You can learn and hone new skills, you can overcome fears and phobias, you can change your preferences, you can practice being more outgoing, more empathetic, more supportive.  And most importantly, you can re-write how you choose to think about traumatic events from your history – they do not define you.  Perhaps you can redefine them by what you learnt from the experience, or a positive outcome you gained – meeting a new person, or learning a new skill.

Step 2: Treat everyone as an equal – while recognising difference

Not better or worse – just different.  Regardless of where on the organisational hierarchy someone is, they are a human being, worthy of your respect.  This does not mean you treat everyone the same.

Recognise people’s individuality – particularly as it contributes to team dynamics and performance.  Everyone is trying to do the best they can with the tools they have.

Be humble – this job might be perfect for you – you excel at it.  Your co-worker may be struggling, because they really would be better suited to another role – it doesn’t make you better or them worse.  Just different.

Step 3: Don’t praise or punish – encourage

Servant Leaders Encourage
Photo: StaticCommentcomarche.net

You know the saying: “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink”?  As a manager, this can be the toughest aspect of servant  leadership.  We expect others to hold us accountable for results, so how can we deliver if we can’t provide incentives for our team members to do the same?

But the problem with praise and punishment is that it creates a hierarchical relationship – it is patronising, and says “I know better, and I get to decide whether your efforts are good enough or not”.

Instead, say thank you, as an equal.

Offer help, as an equal.

But don’t take over.

If the situation is vitally urgent, and there is no time left – understand that you are not acting as a servant leader at the point you take over the task.

Step 4: Constantly look for ways to contribute

Just doing your own job isn’t enough:

  • Offer your services as coach or mentor
  • Find ways to make others’ work easier
  • Find innovative solutions to long-held problems
  • Recognise and support people with problems from outside of work
  • Develop others by creating new opportunities
  • Share: knowledge, information, access, relationships, time

Step 5: Be consistent

True servant leadership is a way of being not a way of leading.

  • It applies equally at home as it does at work.
  • It applies equally with your customers, co-workers and suppliers – and even your competition.
  • It applies to your family and friends

Step 6: Don’t make excuses

Servant Leader Excuses
Photo: thebluediamondgallery/Nick Youngson

No ifs, ands or buts.

Take ownership of your impact, and strive to improve your own leadership, along with that of everyone around you.

You are in control of what you decide to do – nobody else made you do it.

Empowering.  Scary even.  But well worth it!

4 thoughts on “Leadership Insights: Alfred Adler & the Servant Leader”

  1. Step 3: Don’t praise or punish – encourage
    But the problem with praise and punishment is that it creates a hierarchical relationship – it is patronising, and says “I know better, and I get to decide whether your efforts are good enough or not”.

    The question is : Praise and punishment mean positive and negative stimulation to some extent. If not, how should it be controlled?

    • Hi Pengmei
      The answer is right there in the step. Encourage.

      Praising and punishing implies and reinforces a power relationship. Encouragement is about letting someone know that you value and appreciate some specific things they do – but importantly, it remains a communication about your preferences… not something that is inherently right or wrong about the other person.

      Kind regards


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