How Serving Leaders Raise the Performance Bar

Servant leaders’ consistent efforts to demonstrate and signal expectations for high performance create confidence, competence and continuous improvement.
Portrait Of Multiracial Businesspeople Brainstorming In Meeting

Effective leaders stand out. When these individuals build on servant leadership foundations, these “serving leaders” can achieve extraordinary results.

Serving leaders inspire greatness by putting others needs first. They make productive use of what has been learned through extensive organizational behavior research in expectancy theory, goal setting and participatory management. Research embedded in books like Don M. Frick and James W. Sipe’s “The Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership,” and Jim Collins’ “Good to Great,” confirm that companies with serving leader-led cultures enjoy market returns well above their peers.

Shifting to a serving-leader model can enable organizations to improve in critical metrics, as seen at The Cleveland Clinic, where employee engagement and patient satisfaction measures rose from a lower quartile baseline to exemplary levels following implementation of serving leadership beginning in 2008.

To illustrate how the serving leader orchestrates outstanding results, let’s examine a crucial approach to taking action called “Raise the Bar.” It’s a skill all effective leaders must master, yet serving leaders do so in a way that empowers and engages people to give their very best discretionary effort.

First, let’s address underlying, perhaps even unconscious, assumptions about servant leaders: that they are “soft,” they overemphasize employee empowerment and inclusion, and they let their “inmates run the prison.” Effective servant leadership isanything but soft. Serving leaders hold high expectations for team performance, for organizational support systems and for themselves. Each day, they signal high expectations for performance throughout their organizations. Further, they establish a culture of serving leadership with their actions. Effective serving leaders:

  • Set personal goals that are specific and clear. Actions to achieve these goals demonstrate alignment of personal and organizational core values. For example, leaders use actions that bring together leaders from different areas of an organization to work on crucial projects. This process allows individuals and teams to learn how to work collaboratively to set and achieve personal and organizational goals.
  • Help others become goal-focused and aligned to the organization’s greater purpose. Annual reviews are replaced with goal achievement sessions. Firms like Accenture and Deloitte are leading the way in abandoning ineffective evaluation practices.
  • Help teams craft cross-functional shared goals, and facilitate team commitment to shared goals, rooting out internal competition and conflict when it creates barriers to overall success.
  • Push for routines that promote continuous process improvement, creating systems that assist everyone in achieving excellence.
  • Question the status quo and look for strategic transformational change, responding to customers and changes in the competitive landscape.

Effective leaders don’t just set high goals and then hope for the best, or set high expectations and demand compliance. Serving leaders move flexibly between goal setting andgoal getting. And to help others accomplish their goals, leaders deal with potential barriers within themselves — they control their egos. Others are invited to contribute ideas, push harder, collaborate and stay committed. A top leader with humility allows others to share the work and receive the credit.

Traditional learning and development will help institute a consistent approach to goal setting, performance management and coaching. Time-tested programs such as Ken Blanchard’s “Situational Leadership II” encourage a flexible management style that seeks to serve each of an employee’s particular stages of development. The successful serving leader builds on that solid foundation by learning from real world experience. The best learning organizations are fully intentional about providing opportunities for emerging leaders to have developmental experiences and help leaders learn from these events.

For emerging serving leaders, cohort development experiences designed within the context of high-consequence project work that incorporates practices such as those in the “Raise the Bar” approach as well as other serving leader approaches are often beneficial. The opportunity to practice, rebound from setbacks and eventually enjoy achievements will give leaders the confidence and competence to act effectively in future performance situations.

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