The Servant Leader

Recently I was with a wonderful group of people who were thinking about servant leadership.  It is a concept that has rich meaning to me.  As I thought about it, I realized that I have probably been trying to be a leader since elementary school days.  I don’t know that I started out to be a servant leader, but that idea came to be part of my leadership style fairly early in my career.           

Part of what attracts me to the idea of being a servant leader is my own personality.  As I think about it, I have always preferred being part of a group and helping a group along.  I certainly have played the role of the lone ranger, but that is not as much fun for me as leading a group.  I also think my own Quaker tradition values encourage a kind of servant leadership model.  Quakers have always felt like the group is more important than any single individual.  I agree with this and have tried to support the group’s progress and success.           

As I anticipated being with this group of folks, I realized I had not thought deeply about servant leadership.  So I turned to the founding father of servant leadership---at least in the 20th century version of that idea goes.  Robert Greenleaf is usually credited with making the servant leadership idea known and available to people.  He was a business leader who also read theology, philosophy, English and was a well-rounded guy.          

In the middle of the 20th century he was working at AT&T, when it was a huge company.  He was astutely aware of both problems and potential and how leadership could affect both issues.  He published some essays in the 1970s and these were put together in a book, The Servant Leader, published in 1976.  It has become a classic.  It may be worth noting that Greenleaf also was a Quaker.  So when I read the book, I see traces of that spirituality in his work.           

I find his style of leadership to be very spiritual.  It is not religious in any doctrinal or dogmatic way.  It would not have become famous had that been the case.  And it is a leadership style that anyone can do in any kind of situation.  We do not have to have positions of power or authority to be servant leaders.  Let’s look at some of the key pieces of this leadership style.           

There is a powerful paragraph near the beginning of Greenleaf’s book that summarizes what servant leaders aim to do.  First, Greenleaf says, the servant is “to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”  Of course, this means my needs and wants do not come first.  This is bad news for egocentric people.  Their needs and desires always top the needs of others.  So clearly, egocentric people cannot make good servant leaders.             

As this understanding of servant leadership begins to develop, it should remind you of Jesus, the Buddha and what all the other religiously folks sought to do.  This should become clear with Greenleaf’s next point.  He says, “The best test, and difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons?”  This is a great goal.  Do those served grow as persons?  Just imagine what kind of society we would have if all of our leaders around the globe served in this fashion.  It might be difficult to find wars!           

Greenleaf adds another powerful description of the servant leader.  He asks about the effect servant leaders have on other people, “Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”  I think about how to apply that to myself.  There is no doubt; in some situations I am a leader.  My question now can be, do those I serve become healthier?  Do they become more free?  Are they more autonomous---that is, not dependent on other people?           

The last thing Greenleaf asks about servant leaders is insightful.  About servant leaders he asks, “what is the effect on the least privileged in society?  Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”  Simply put, Greenleaf expresses his concern for the poor and the destitute in our society.  Greenleaf thinks the servant leader has a responsibility for the folks on the margin of our society.             

He warns us not to forget a segment of people.  This really sounds like the kind of thing Jesus would enjoin all of us to do.  A servant leader has to be clear that it’s not about you!  It is always about the other.  Even if you are the boss, you can be the boss as a servant leader.  And if you are not the boss, perhaps it is even easier for you to be a servant leader.           

Servant leadership is paradoxical.  In the first place you are a leader.  Leaders lead; it’s that simple.  But your leadership is exercised through being a servant.  You enable others to succeed.  You facilitate their growth and development.  You give them the credit and you are willing to take the blame when there is blame.  To be an effective servant leader, you need to be spiritual and mature.   

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