Building Teams: Adaptive & Situational Servant Leadership (What It Is & What It Is Not)

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the WWII Allied Forces and a U.S. President famously said “You don’t lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”  Dwight D. Eisenhower also said: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because THEY want to do it.

Eisenhower led hundreds of thousands of soldiers during in 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.


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 and 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: but here is how I define it:

  • Servant leadership is focused on caring about your people and being helpful to your people
  • While traditional leadership 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
  • It’s more about being a mentor, a coach, a guiding enabler, a LEADER, but not an old-school boss or an authoritarian enforcer

I think Servant Leadership is putting emphasis (like Eisenhower said) on helping your organization achieve it’s goals by aligning those goals to your people’s goals. A Servant Leader at a company won’t act like a “boss” but instead will act like a mentor, a coach, a leader who puts the emphasis not on force but not helping people and enabling them to 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.


What is “Adaptive & Situational” 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 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:

  • Trust
  • Caring
  • 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 growing their people which grows the organization
  • Empathetic and understands people’s perspectives
  • Active listener and cares about helping his/her people achieve their goals
  • 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 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 little authority (a leader has full authority over their team)
  • 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?