Who is the servant-leader? The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first. - Robert K. Greenleaf
I recently had the opportunity to take a course on servant leadership. Its impact on my life was greater than I had anticipated. In today’s world where society continually encourages us to seek fame, fortune, or power for ourselves, servant leadership challenges us to something much greater…and perhaps even more difficult to pursue.
As human beings, I think we naturally have a tendency to think about ourselves; we desire protection and well-being. But our culture feeds this – often distorts it – by telling us to only look out for Number One. Our sense of self becomes the priority across all aspects of life. In the workplace, for example, we often crave leadership. We desire to rise to the top as quickly as possible. Our educational institutions prepare us to climb corporate ladders and become the “leaders of tomorrow.” Personally, we feel we’ve earned it; we deserve something for all our hard work in school and in the workplace, right?
Yet servant leadership challenges all of this. It calls us to higher levels of leadership where the self is no longer king, and others become the priority. It stands in stark contrast to the sense of entitlement we often assume. Given today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world, each of us has more power at our fingertips than ever before. Yet the irony is that this individual empowerment has disconnected us in a sense; we have become somewhat removed from our sense of community. Servant leadership encourages us to face this – to take the focus off of ourselves and to truly put others’ needs first as we nurture relationships and foster community. In fact, it calls us to love and to serve others so much that out of that a desire for leadership is born…not the other way around.
It’s interesting… In general, but particularly in light of our recent recession, it seems as though people are sharing about what is most important in life, more than ever before. Often it boils down to relationships and love. If that is the case, then those things should matter in the workplace as well. Servant leadership offers a revolutionary yet timeless approach to satisfying this need. It fosters trust, teamwork, and collaboration; it revives the sense of connectedness so often lost on our competitive world.
One of my favorite quotes from this class was the following by Studs Terkel:
Work is…about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.
Our world can be a broken place, especially in the workplace. Our endless striving to take care of Number One can be exhausting. But isn’t it amazing how serving others can bring light? Hope? That seems to be the magic of servant leadership. It encourages us to give, to love, to build up, and to cheer each other on in a way that is sustainable. It seems crazy, but perhaps relinquishing our “all about me” mentality can actually be of greater benefit to ourselves, personally?
It has been fascinating to see more and more companies employ this model as their core organizational philosophy around the world. It is inspiring to see more managers desire to invest in the growth, development, and well-being of their direct-reports, and to see more individual contributors grow into leadership positions because of their desire to serve first. And even more, regardless of title or position, it is inspiring to see more of us serve one another – colleague to colleague – as we live out Terkel’s statement and create a Monday through Friday sort of living for one another.
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