The Servant Leader
I have been privileged to be able to see myself as a leader. I do bring some native talent to the leadership opportunities I have had, but I also have had a helping hand offered by many different people at a number of junctions in my life. I have had many good leadership models to help me get clear about what leadership style fits my personality and my own Quaker convictions. I also have watched some leaders whom I thought were not very good and were more of a negative model. They showed me ways I never wanted to be seen as a leader.
I remember getting some leadership opportunities as early as elementary school. In the bigger scheme of things, these were miniscule leadership chances. However, they gave me an early chance to practice being a leader. Much to my surprise, some other kids followed my lead! I guess you are a leader if someone follows you.
As I grew, so did some of my leadership opportunities. In high school I became more aware there were different ways to be a leader. In my vainest moments I was attracted to leadership roles where I had authority. Although I could boss people around, I soon realized this was not an effective leadership style for me. I became aware that I am more of a nurturer and encourager. That does not require raw, brute power to boss people around. I developed what I might call a “pull strategy” as opposed to a “push strategy.”
Early in my working days I continued to get some leadership opportunities. I tried to grow and develop and become a more effective leader. As a Quaker, I was reminded time and time again that being a leader was not about me. Some leaders stoke their egos. Quakers insisted we get our egos out of the way. Leadership is more about the vision and about the group. Egomaniacs make lousy Quakers. And I believe, egomaniacs make lousy spiritual leaders!
In the 1970s I became aware of a particular kind of leadership called the servant leader. I was intrigued by that combination of words---servant and leader. The focus was clear. The noun was “leader.” “Servant” was an adjective; it modified the noun. Servant leadership is a particular style of leading. I knew it resonated with my Quaker spirit. And then, I had the opportunity to make a big difference in my leadership life.
I met Robert Greenleaf, then living in a Quaker retirement center near Philadelphia. Greenleaf had coined the term, servant leader, and had begun to write extensively about it. Greenleaf had been in business---AT&T back in the days when it was a corporate giant. Greenleaf happened to be a Quaker. Things began to click for me. I knew I had found my leadership style and tried to hone my skills. I have been trying to practice it ever since.
Greenleaf wrote quite a bit and one younger student of Greenleaf’s began to take up the servant leadership mantle. Larry Spears was his name and he also was a Quaker. I became acquainted with him and, then, became friends. He helped me understand even more about this way of leading. Let’s look at how he defines a servant leader. "The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. The conscious choice brings one to aspire 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?"
I like Spears’ words that the servant leader begins with the feeling that he or she wants to serve. That seems very spiritual to me. An egomaniac has no interest in being served. Instead the egomaniac expects to be served! The servant leader makes a choice; to serve—to be there for the other. Servant leaders willingly sacrifice their own interests and well being for others. It is an act of love.
The test of the servant leader is clear and noble. Do the ones I serve grow as persons? I try to do this as a leader in my classroom. The neat thing about this leadership test is we all can practice leading in almost any situation. Do I help others to grow as people? Do they become healthier, wiser and more free? If the answer is yes, then I have been an effective leader. I may get no credit, but that’s ok. I can be a leader, not an egomaniac!
The servant leadership test goes further. Do the people I serve become more autonomous? That means that my leadership helps the other become more able to operate on their own. Autonomy means I help others stand on their own two feet. And finally, does my leadership help others become inclined to be servant leaders in their own right? If this answer again is yes, then I have done a superb job of unlocking and unleashing more spiritual servant leaders in the world.
In a sneaky spiritual way, the servant leaders have engaged the task of kingdom building in the way Jesus meant for us to work for peace and to bring joy. I am happy to do my share in this work---the work of leading as a servant.