top of page

Unleashing Organizational Talent Through Servant Leadership and Discretionary Performance

Early in my career as a young engineer, I worked on a team tasked with starting up a new power plant. We tended to do things alike, not knowing that our management was already watching for differentiators among us. My goal was to be as good as my teammates were. It never entered my mind that if I could, I should do better...even if it made me stand out. Later, I realized that my manager was encouraging me to be myself, to pull away from the group, to share my ideas, and to suggest changes in the processes we were using. This became evident to me in one conversation.

In making a report to my manager, I went into great detail about the steps taken to address a problem. My manager said, "Don't tell me about the labor pains, just show me the baby." While this common country saying meant something to most folks, I had not heard it.

But at that moment, I understood what my manager had been telling me for months… “I have confidence in you. I trust you with the details. Just tell me the end of the story so I can make a judgment about the final answer, accept it, or ask for more information or action.”

I was fired up from that day forward and amazed at how much extra energy I had to do the job. I struck out more on my own but still supported the team.

That trust caused me to give a great deal more in discretionary effort. Servant leaders provide that trust that unleashes discretionary effort, and oftentimes, extraordinary performance.

Going from Average to Extraordinary Performance

In most organizations, employees have some level of performance that is reasonably expected to maintain employment.

It is often indescribable but something that everyone knows. It’s one of those unwritten norms of the organizations. Most employees are capable of performing at higher levels than the minimum expectations. Many are capable of performing at significantly higher levels than the minimum. The difference in minimum expectations of performance and the higher levels of performance is referred to as discretionary performance.

Discretionary performance is more under the control of the worker than of the organization. However, there are many things that an organization can do to motivate an employee to higher levels of performance. Lasting higher levels of discretionary performance are clearly under the control of the employee but are seen as levels of satisfaction, rewards, self-motivation or even happiness, all secondary indicators. The internal motivators for employees are seldom visible to the organization.

One of the business reasons that I support Servant Leadership is I believe it helps establish a culture that motivates employees to a higher level of discretionary performance. Many employees respond personally to servant-leaders in a way that gives that extra effort, and discretionary performance, to the organization.

Is it worth it to the organization? A Hay Group study indicates that the extra effort available from motivated employees ranges from about 20% to as much as 120%. So a highly motivated employee can provide more than double their normal effort in the right environment. Realize that this may be many times the minimally expected performance.

Leveraging the Area in the Circle

AMCA describes the transition from traditional leadership to Servant Leadership with the figure shown below.

The figure not only contrasts the traits of traditional leaders and servant-leaders, it also symbolizes the difference in normal performance and discretionary performance. If the area in the triangle indicates the amount of employee performance available in a traditionally- led organization then the area in the circle indicates the amount of employee performance available in a servant-led organization. The difference is discretionary performance. (For you math wizards, the Hay Group study previously mentioned would say that the area inside the circle but outside the triangle is an extra 20% to 120% over the area in inside the triangle.)

So, is Servant Leadership worth it?

High-performance organizations that have started the journey to Servant Leadership would say yes. Yes for the many positive cultural aspects of an organization led by servant-leaders and also for the positive results seen in the productivity of employees contributing their discretionary performance to the organization. I would argue that Servant Leadership can be the foundation for sustaining high levels of performance, a truly elusive outcome.


Mike Blevins is Adjunct Partner for Senior Executive Coaching and Development. He is the former COO of Luminant, the power generation subsidiary of Energy Future Holdings. Mike is a champion of servant leadership, has developed winning teams, and is a highly respected leader in the nuclear industry. He now works with profits and non-profits in leadership development.

112 views1 comment

1 opmerking

Great educational and motivational read Mike. Love the saying, ‘don’t tell me about the labor, just show me the baby’. I have to admit, I oftentimes have a hard time ‘only showing the baby’😊.

bottom of page