I want you to think about the people who have been leaders in your life. One of the interesting things about the people who lead us, whether they are good leaders, poor leaders, or indifferent leaders is the fact we learn from all of them. Some teach us how to lead while others have the place of showing us how not to lead. So, what makes the difference in a strong leader and a weak one? Is it personality? Skill sets? The level of life experience they possess? While all of these are indeed factors there is one overriding metric that sets apart strong leaders from weak ones: the best leaders have a developed and well-thought out approach for leading others. While this may seem apparent it’s been my experience that most people who come into their first leadership opportunities often lead from a reactive state instead of a proactive state. What I mean by this is some fall into a trap of letting things happen on their own, only stepping in to “fix” something, and when they do they tend to handle it in ways that they have seen their prior leaders handle situations.

Most have not begun to think through an overarching approach on how they will lead people to influence the organization. One can get by for a while like this but it qualifies less as actual leadership more as simply managing situation to situation. True leadership is the ability to affect change and influence in people and organizations. A coach needs a game plan. A general needs a plan of attack. Someone running for office needs a platform. If one is truly going to effectively lead others than one needs a proactive thought process to approach it. An effective and developed leadership approach positions a person for true leadership and becomes the defining factor for true influence.

First, it’s important to define your leadership philosophy.

So if one is to choose an approach for leadership, an operating system so to speak, then what is the most effective one? What types of leadership approaches are out there from which to choose? There are many strategies out there as a quick look at any book list on leadership will demonstrate. These books, overall, define and offer strategies for influence. That’s getting the cart before the horse. Before deciding on a strategy it’s vital to define your leadership philosophy. This is different from a leadership strategy in that a strategy is more about the “how” you lead while a philosophy provides the important “why” you lead.

A leadership philosophy is an overarching thought process that sets the attitude toward how one views leadership. Without a philosophy it’s impossible to develop an aligned strategy for influence. Is leadership the chance to guide processes and achieve goals or is it the chance to develop people? Is success determined by bottom lines or by the character of the organization? These are the type of philosophical questions one has to consider. I believe in the end there are really only two overall philosophies in leadership: the positional philosophy and the servant model philosophy. One has to know where they fall in this belief before they adopt a strategy for their leadership.

“Do as I say because I am in charge” works for a babysitter, but has no place in organizations.

The core of the positional philosophy would be simply stated as one leads because one is in charge. This is an ancient approach and was rather pragmatic in societies where there were those who had power and those who never would. Order was kept as long as everyone did as they were told. This, of course, makes perfect sense to a society where power and authority is passed down among the same groups of influential people (the “haves”) with the others (the “have nots”) never being provided the chances to move up. In today’s society the positional philosophy, although still practiced, is not tenable and not a recipe for long-term success. “Do as I say because I am in charge” works for a babysitter but has no place in organizations.

The servant philosophy, as one would guess, centers not on positional authority but instead on the concept of leading by investing in and developing others to self-lead. This may ultimately culminate in them becoming better leaders of others in order to grow them for future opportunities or it simply may be helping followers better self-manage themselves in their current work. Either way, the one who leads from this philosophy sets up for a win in the long run. This, as a philosophy, is also an ancient one but really has only seen traction in organizations in the past couple of decades. Robert Greenleaf, the person to whom the phrase “servant leadership” is attributed sums it up the difference in one who puts themselves first as a leader and a servant leader in this way:

The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?

Not only is this a wise approach to develop, it also has long term pay-offs. There is much data to suggest that those who practice a servant leader philosophy are more highly regarded and more productive than those who practice other approaches. Beyond even the benefits of productivity, being a servant leader is the right thing to do.

Seek to grow those whom you lead.

Putting others first should be the foundational peg in any leadership philosophy. Seek to grow those whom you lead. A true practice of this will grow not only organizations but also communities and societies. This, of course is what Jesus teaches his followers throughout his ministry. Key to this is what he shared with his disciples in Mark 10:43-45:

On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life—a ransom for many.

Positional philosophies promote entitlement and pride. Servant leader philosophies seek to honor the gifts and abilities of others.

In these words every Christ-follower should find the basis for their philosophy on leadership, one of service and humility. Positional philosophies promote entitlement and pride. Servant leader philosophies, to the contrary, seek to honor the gifts and abilities of others. The servant leader understands they are in the place of stewarding the people they are entrusted to lead, preparing others to lead and contribute in their own ways someday. All of us are better for having someone in our lives like that and I challenge you to be that person for those whom you have the opportunity to lead.

Next: Adopting a Servant Leader Strategy: Three Practices of a Healthy Servant Leader.