Leader as Servant

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.
 
Thank you for your Comments!

 

 

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  • Comments (8)
  1. This is a fantastic post Michelle. You’ve eloquently described the core of servant leadership and the universal principle that is the underpinning of the philosophy: it’s better to give than receive…and the more you give, the more you’re fulfilled in a deep, soul-quenching sort of way.

    Thanks for the valuable reminder.

    Randy

  2. Thanks for the reminder Michelle!

    I especially love the distinction Robert Greenleaf makes when he says,

    “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.”

    What a difference getting the order right makes!

  3. Great reminders here – servant leadership is a great attitude to take to establish the upside down org chart – serve the people who are doing the real work.

  4. Michelle, very succinct way of boiling servant leadership down to its essence. I’ve found the at the more I pour out the greater my capacity to receive. As a business coach, I’d be interested in your insights of how can I best help lead my clients to the “fertile ground” where once planted the seeds of servant leadership will be able to grow and thrive?

  5. Great post. I use servant leadership as part of my leadership platform as well. Continue to model the way!

  6. Michelle,

    This is the first post I have read from you and I must say how impressed I am. You truly have a way with words and an ability to take a complex idea and explain it in its simplest form. Thank you.

    • Joshua
    • February 28th, 2012

    Michelle,

    Thanks for posting. I think that it exposes how the conventional me-first approach to life has cause so many people (including myself) to be unhappy with life/career choices. Deep down inside I think the servant-leader resonates with our conscience and a sense of a greater purpose in life.

    I hope leaders in business, finance and government will begin to take note and see that conventional, self-centric thinking is what got is here in the first place and its time for a fresh approach.

    • John Mandler
    • February 28th, 2012

    This concept of leadership might be something new in the business world, but it has been around for several millennia at least in the religious world. For Christians, the concept of “servant leadership” is a direct command and teaching of Jesus. As reported by the Gospel of St. John, at the Last Supper knelt before each of his Apostles and washed their feet, a task normally assigned to a servant or slave. He told his Apostles that this was to be the new way among them, that the servant is no greater than the one served, and that one who wants to lead must learn to serve those being led. Even the Pope is described in one of his titles as the “servant of the servants of God.” It is interesting to see business borrowing this concept of servant leadership from the spiritual world, because it shows (at least to me) that the best leaders in business are authentically human and are prepared to support and sustain the organization in a way that maximizes the potential of each person in the organization. In every context, the ideal of servant leadership is a goal worth striving to achieve. Imagine if all politicians truly saw themselves as servants of the people who elected them and not the ones to be served.

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