Leading Teams: Adaptive & Situational Servant Leadership

A lot of folks in the business world have senior titles but don’t understand how to lead.

There is a difference between managing people and actually being a true leader. Many managers are task-masters who know how to control and crack the whip, not how to lead.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, a U.S. President (and the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during WWII and during the critical and complex D-Day invasion “Operation Overlord”), famously said “You don’t lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.

Eisenhower also said: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because THEY want to do it.

His approach is worth studying – Eisenhower was an exceptional leader with proven results.  His approach works very well in business as well.

Getting your people to perform at a high level and do great work in a way that THEY want to do it (not because a manager “makes” them) requires genuine, authentic type of leadership whereas your people trust you, respect you and want to follow you as their leader.

Eisenhower led hundreds of thousands of soldiers during the D-Day “Operation Overlord” invasion during which soldiers had to lay their life on the line and put themselves in deadly harm’s way to follow Eisenhower’s orders and execute the mission.  How did Eisenhower lead them?  Eisenhower said that “You must know every single one of your men – it is not enough that you are the best soldier in that unit, that you are the strongest, the toughest, the most durable…  you must be their leader, their father, their mentor, even if you’re half their age. You must understand their problems. You must keep them out of trouble’ if they get in trouble, you must be the one who goes to their rescue.”

Even as the highest-level army general, Eisenhower was not an authoritarian or heavy-handed leader who led by force and cracked the whip.  In other words, Eisenhower was the kind of leader who cared about and wanted to help those whom he led – this is called “Servant Leader” even though during WWII or during Eisenhower’s presidency there was no name for this style of leadership.

This applies very well to a corporate environment where some folks are just Managers (and in some cases unfortunately micro-managers) while others are true leaders (and the talented ones are the Top 10% and hard to find).

But first: Manager vs. Leader

If you read HBR on “Three Differences Between Managers and Leaders” – note these key differences:

a) Managers are “Counting Value” / Leaders are “Creating Value”   

To put it simply, a manager typically “counts value” when they check up on the subordinates, hover over the subordinates and count what has been done – they do it in a way that loses Trust (and this typically leads to reduced value).  They are there to count value, to check in, check up, note what’s been done, do the task-master dance. Does that create value?

Worse yet, the business world is rife with incompetent (bad) managers – those are really fond of meddling and interfering (and controlling, directing, cracking the whip, bossing people around to control them.  They think they get more out of their subordinates by demanding more effort and carry around a virtual “megaphone” demanding perfection and excellence (without clearly defining what they mean specifically). They tell their subordinates they want results being over-bearing about it without adding any value to help deliver such results.  The big problem is that many bad managers (unlike Leaders) don’t support, don’t help, don’t contribute in any useful way to achieve the results.  They are just meddling and interfering to “count value”.  They do not add much of significance and they certainly don’t create any sustainable, tangible value.

And *bad managers* are the ones who are cumbersome to communicate with for their people and they create an unnecessary waste of time (too many emails, too many strong opinions on too many things that don’t really matter as much at moving the needle).  They interject on too many non-essential issues to a point of ad nauseam causing much of the progress to slow down.  These bad managers hover over subordinates (that can happen even by email) like helicopter parents, and they frequently micro-manage the most non-essential things – this erodes trust and, again, creates no value (neither for their people, nor for the business).

But a leader is there for their people – they help, mentor, coach, support with advice, service as a sounding board, unblock the obstacles, and typically ask “how can I be helpful to you today?“, then they get out of the way of execution (to not be a bottleneck). Thus, a leader creates value for their people who then execute well and do their job better and, therefore, this creates more value for the business.

Note – of course, this requires that the leader is very good at recruiting talent and at building great teams.  Thus, by design, talented people don’t need anyone to hover over them and get in their way – they just need those unique leaders who unblock and unencumber the way.

b) Managers are “Controlling Subordinates” /  Leaders are “Influencing People”

Managers only know how to force subordinates.  Too many do the “my way or the highway” approach.  They don’t know any better than to act forcefully, controlling subordinates and even at times with threatening communication.

Leaders have the whole next-level of leadership competence in leading followers / leading people who end up executing better of their own volition and obligation to achieve success.

“The essence of great leadership is influence, not authority (source: Steve Keating – Leadings vs. Managing).  You influence showing you are helpful and care to add value and clear the path for your people, not by forcing them or controlling or micro-managing them.

In fact, if you hire talented people or senior people then you never want to manage them with authority and being a micro-manager, controlling them and being forceful or threatening. That is incompetence on the part of anyone who has a senior title – that is just going to erode trust.  Talented people lose patience and will leave (they can always get a job) and will look for a leader they can trust and with whom they will have good chemistry.

Finally part of being a good leader is cultivating relationships. This is what leaders do well and where regular managers don’t invest the time (and sometimes just don’t care which is a first sign of a lack of leadership).

c) Managers are “Managing work” / Leaders are “Leading People”

As Vineet Nayar says: “Leadership refers to an individual’s ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organizational success.  Influence and inspiration separate leaders from managers, not power and control.”

And these are at the foundation of what is called “Servant Leadership”.


What Exactly is Servant Leadership?

First of all, “Servant Leadership” is the most effective leadership style for today’s modern workplace environment.

Secondly, it is not some entirely new or different form of leadership – it’s been around for a very long time (as evidenced by Eisenhower’s leadership style) but just without a specific name.

Below I want to define it and also a bit further down I want to clarify “what it is not” because it is important to not be misled and not to mistake Servant Leadership for some misconceived weak or powerless form of leadership. The word “Servant” may cause some people to incorrectly infer the wrong meaning and I’ll cover the precise meaning of “Servant” in “Servant Leadership” as well.

You can read more about this approach from Robert Greenleaf who wrote the original 1970 essay “Servant as a Leader” (Source: www.greenleaf.org) but here is how I define it:

  • Servant leadership is focused on firstly genuinely caring about your people (those who don’t care shouldn’t be in a leadership role in the first place) and adding value and helping your people to achieve results (not just sitting on top of them as a task-master, micro-managing, and controlling them)
  •  While traditional management involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid” who tells everyone what to do, a servant leader helps people perform at their best by aligning their objectives with the company’s objectives and constantly helping people achieve their and the team’s/organization’s goals
  • Servant leadership is the type where the leader creates an environment in which people want to perform at a high level (people embrace the environment and are inspired by their leader and thus tap into their intrinsic motivation to achieve results – this is the most powerful and effective motivation)
  • It’s more about being a mentor, a coach, a guide, an enabler, a supporter, an “unblocker of obstacles“, a LEADER

Servant Leader is the opposite of the classic old-school boss or an authoritarian enforcer or someone who is just an empty suit and doesn’t do anything helpful but just demands updates and results without helping their people achieve them.

I think Servant Leadership is putting emphasis (like Eisenhower said) on helping your organization achieve its goals by aligning those goals to your people’s goals.

A Servant Leader at a company doesn’t act like “I’m the boss”  (i.e. “you are below me – you must obey me, or else …”) but instead acts like a helpful coach, mentor, a true leader who puts the emphasis – not on coercion or force and micro-management – but on helping their people and enabling them and supporting them in a way that they ultimately, as a result of this positive leadership, will want to do the job that they need to do out of their own desire and volition.  In the end what happens is that the people you lead will achieve their individual goals by helping the organization to achieve its strategic goals. It’s a win-win.


Want a great book relating to practical / hands-on Servant Leadership?


Other helpful articles relating to Servant Leadership:


What is “Adaptive & Situational” form of Servant Leadership?

I also qualify Servant Leadership style for modern organizations with two additional qualities – situational and adaptive – situational + adaptive servant leadership is proven to build better and more effective high-growth business organizations.


The modern application of Servant Leadership a “Situational” form of leadership – “Situational leaders give their people exactly what they need, when they need it. They offer guidance, caring, and autonomy, and provide just the right amount of direction and support to help their team members succeed. -Ken Blanchard, Situational Leadership II.


Also, in my experience in complex and demanding operating environments like in the financial industry (on Wall Street) as well as in high-growth technology companies (where teams have to achieve very aggressive goals in stressful and fast-paced rapid-growth work environments), the modern Servant Leadership style is also an “Adaptive” type of leadership which is “a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments.” Note that “adaptive Leadership emerged from thirty plus years of research at Harvard University by Dr. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky” – Cambridge Leadership. Adaptive leadership has also been written about as a style for army leaders because it allows to adapt to challenging environments: “Adaptive leadership is an accepted leadership practice that facilitates leading in a difficult and changing environment, as we encounter threats that change and evolve their tactics, techniques, and procedures on a weekly to monthly basis.”  While work in Finance or High-Tech is definitely not life-threatening like the battlefield, it is still very stressful with ever-changing aggressive goals and an uncertain operating environment where people’s job is regularly on the line and depending on a high level of performance. Such an environment requires a Servant Leader who is adaptive in helping their team succeed.


Here are some key characteristics that are a natural part of Situational & Adaptive Servant Leadership:

  • Trusting their people
  • Caring about their people
  • Helping their people
  • Creating Value
  • Authenticity
  • Selflessness
  • Humility
  • Openness
  • Fairness
  • No bureaucracy



What does the word “Servant” Really Mean?

In the context of “Servant Leadership” – does “servant” mean that you are not actually leading but instead serving (or even reporting to people on the org chart) whom you’re supposed to lead?  No, not at all.   The word “Servant” in the context of “Servant Leader” is intended to convey these traits of the Leader:

  • Committed to adding value and helping their people
  • Empathetic and understands people’s perspective
  • Active listener and seeks to understand, not dominate and force their own view
  • Cares about their people as a coach and a mentor and builds genuine trust
  • Helps their people by unblocking them, by clearing the way for them to achieve results (i.e. not just expect them to do it without any help)
  • Understands how to link people’s own goals to the organization’s goals to drive results
  • Has self-awareness and self-control when dealing and communicating with others
  • Has integrity with the highest ethical standards and is thus trusted by his/her people
  • Leads with an even temper, restraint, calm & equanimity during tough situations
  • Decisive and courageous leader, but does not lead in a dictatorial and heavy-handed manner
  • Sets clear goals and then helps people achieve them rather than leave people on their own
  • Shows respect towards others which ensures that his/her people respect the leader in return and exhibit loyalty

I’ve always felt that Leadership (regardless of whether you call it Situational or Servant or anything else) is truly about caring for those you lead and helping them succeed as a result of their contribution to helping the organization win.  I don’t see any other way to succeed at leading or at getting people to follow you.  This is the only thing that actually works effectively (i.e. “effectively” is the key factor here). And I enjoy doing the following as part of leading teams – developing, mentoring, coaching, training and thus growing our people.  Therefore, this “caring & helping) approach to leadership is about growing your people to bring out the best in them.  And this, in turn, positively impacts the organization and helps grow the organization which is directly affected by the growth of its people. The key thing to understand is that this approach helps the organization grow, succeed and win.

This type of leadership is done through the most effective leadership techniques such as Active Listening, 1-on-1 meetings, and being interested in your people at a personal level.  I mentioned a couple of interesting findings in the “Leadership Lessons from 150+ Books on Leadership” but I wanted to post this to emphasize that Servant Leadership is really just “Leadership” because it is the most effective leadership that works in today’s modern organizations. It works effectively because your people will feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from their growth and will thus do their best to help the organization be successful. It’s just common sense that if you help your people then they will help you and if you invest in your people then they will invest equally or more into the organization.

But don’t make a mistake about it, Servant Leadership does not mean any of these:

  • Servant Leadership does not mean that a leader has no authority
  • does not mean that a leader is weak (e.g. think of Eisenhower – he was very strong)
  • does not mean that a leader has no control (Eisenhower had complete control)
  • does not mean that a leader is powerless (Eisenhower had all the power as a leader)
  • does not mean that a leader cannot exercise their power when necessary
  • does not mean that a leader is unable to make hard decisions when necessary
  • does not mean that a leader actually reports to his people on the “Org Chart” (not at all)
  • does not mean that a leader is spineless or gutless (that is as far from the truth as you can get)
  • lastly, it does not mean that a leader cannot be a “benevolent dictator” (as some facetiously people it) – ultimately the final decision can be on the leader and everyone else must follow it but the manner in which to get people to follow consistently is just a bit different and is ultimately also more effective

But it does mean that Servant Leadership is not an authoritarian leadership style that requires cracking the whip as the primary method of getting people to do what you want. An effective leader in today’s modern work environment will not succeed long term by leading via “cracking the whip to command and control”.  Any bossy manager applying a heavy-handed and power-based leadership style will be unable to achieve long-term sustainable results because their people will get burned out from that or will just leave the job for another organization.

Servant Leaders are more effective at attaining the mutually beneficial “win-win” results.  Many successful executives today are effective because they already genuinely care about their people’s success and growth – they are Servant Leaders even if they don’t realize that this is what their approach is called.

Here is a simplified “Action Plan” one can apply to lead as a Servant Leader:

  1. know yourself and lead yourself
  2. create the right culture and environment where people can thrive while helping the company achieve its goals
  3. recruit the right people people for the culture fit whose personal goals are aligned the company’s goals
  4. unite people around a big and exciting vision that motivates and inspires them
  5. set clear objectives for your people that are aligned to the bigger corporate goals and then measure progress towards results
  6. build relationships, trust & rapport with your people – become their Trusted Adviser (a lot of it can be tactically done through 1-on-1 meetings)
  7. understand your direct report’s personal needs and personal goals and show them how they can achieve those by helping the company achieve top goals
  8. work to help your people achieve their personal goals when they are helping the team and the company achieve bigger goals
  9. develop a genuine interest in your people and frequently reinforce the big vision, top goals, and illuminate the path towards their goals and team goals

Additionally, you may be interested to see the Harvard Business Review article “The Fundamentals of Leadership Still Haven’t Changed” by Ron Ashkenas and Brook Manville. There is a list of 6 classic and fundamental practices that they gleaned from several decades Harvard Business Review articles regarding what leaders should do.  As you can see, leadership and Servant Leadership, if applied correctly, are really one and the same (and especially if Servant is defined correctly as mentioned above).

An effective leader should be leading this way anyway (whether we call it Servant Leadership or just leadership).  To be an authentic Servant Leader, you need to have a desire and make a conscious choice to lead in such a way.  It’s ultimately the right way to lead your people because most people today have many jobs options and only want to follow a leader who truly cares about them. And caring for your people is actually what any type of leadership is all about anyway – there should not really be any form of effective leadership besides Servant Leadership if you think about it deeply enough.

What else?  What are some other thoughts about being a Servant Leader in a corporate setting?

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