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The Genius of Servant-Leadership

Sometimes I wonder when I first encounter a concept that has become important to me and my life’s work.  Sometimes I can remember, but most of the time I have no clue.  Often we bump into new concepts and there would be no way of knowing the concept will become important later in life.  Such it is with the concept of servant-leadership.           

The idea of servant-leadership defines how I have tried to be a leader.  A leader is a leader, but many leaders are not servant-leaders.  And there are countless servants, but few would be servant-leaders.  The reason this concept is important to me is simple.  I think it is a spiritual approach to leadership.  I also happen to think most of the major world religions have championed this kind of leadership.  I think this is the style of leadership evidenced by Jesus.  That seems true for the one called the Buddha.  Within many of the other religious traditions, we will find leaders who also are servants.           

The person who coined this idea---at least, in contemporary times---is Robert Greenleaf.  Greenleaf worked at a major corporation---AT&T back in the mid-twentieth century.  He was a Quaker, which may partly explain why I was drawn to this idea.  Greenleaf acknowledges that he got his idea of the leader as servant from reading the German novelist, Hermann Hesse.           

I had the good fortune of being with Greenleaf a few times in the late 1970s and 80s.  He was a captivating man who was knowledgeable, curious and experienced.  He was the kind of person who wondered how he could make everyone’s life better and more meaningful.  He was one who wanted our lives at work to have some significance.  The leaders in our world were largely responsible for aiding the process of helping people live meaningful lives---at work, at home and at play.  If the leaders could be servant-leaders, they would probably be even more effective.           

This is how Greenleaf describes a servant-leader.  “The servant-leader is leader first…Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to serve to lead…The best test…is this: Do those served grow as persons?  Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And what is the effect on the least privileged in society, will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”             

I continue to be fascinated with this approach to leadership.  How amazing would it be if everyone who aspires to lead has the commitment to lead by first serving?  Again, this sounds so much like Jesus or any responsible spiritual leader.  To aspire to serve first grounds my leadership in a humility that means I am more likely to use power responsibly.  It would mean that people in positions of authority would have the best interests of their followers in mind.          

I also admire the way Greenleaf offers to test leadership.  What a great question to ask: do the ones served grow as persons?  How many leaders ponder this question?  No one who is arrogant or power-hungry would care to ask this question.  But don’t you think Jesus would have asked it?  Of course!           

Greenleaf continues to make perfect sense to me.  Do the people served become healthier?  I would suggest this question is posed with respect to health in its multiple facets: physical, mental and spiritual.  I must ask whether the ones I am leader of are more healthy as a result of my leadership.  Greenleaf pushes further.  Do the ones served become wiser and more free?  It is easy to think of leaders in our community and around the world who seem to be imprisoning people, rather than freeing them.  It is a good question to ask of our own leaders.             

Do those leading enable the served to become more autonomous?  Do the men and women being served actually become more of the people they are capable of becoming?  Or does the leadership make people smaller, more scared, less and less genuine people.  Unfortunately many work places are doing just that to people.  People sometimes go to work as a person and leave work as a mess!           

Effective servant-leaders should be sources of healing and not hurting.  They should be encouragers and not discouragers.  This ties in with Greenleaf’s last query.  Do the least-privileged in our society come away from my leadership better off…or at least, no worse off?  If a leader’s effect on the less privileged is negative, then that leadership is a travesty.             

I am sure Robert Greenleaf would have said that he did not invent this idea of servant-leadership.  It is a genius form of leadership because it is spiritual and that is why Jesus and so many spiritual giants were servant-leaders.  Their work was to heal, free, enlighten.  They had followers and they wanted all their followers and disciples to find wholeness, significance and meaning.  Contemporary leaders---all of us---should want nothing more.

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