Jesus said, “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage." Matt 20v25-28 MSG
Jesus demonstrated servant leadership. How does this apply to leadership in an organisation? Robert Greenleaf articulated this in a number of essays in the 1970s onwards based on his experience in business.
Greenleaf was born in 1904 in Terre Haute, Indiana, USA. His father, George, was a mechanic and machinist who also acted as a community steward. Greenleaf said his father was his original model for a servant-leader. Greenleaf had a 38-year career with AT&T, one of the world's largest organizations. He quickly rose in the AT&T organization, participating in its first management training program and travelling for five years as a trouble-shooter for the more than 200 companies associated with the communications giant. He realized that the organizations that thrived had able leadership, with leaders who acted more as supportive coaches and served both the needs of both employees and organizations. As he succinctly put it: “The organization exists for the person as much as the person exists for the organization.” This was not a popular idea at the time.
He became the Director of Management Development and he originated the world’s first corporate assessment centre, promotion of the first females and ethnic minorities to non-menial positions, a program to expose up-and-coming leaders to the humanities, even bringing in famous theologians and psychologists to speak about the wider implications of corporate decisions.
He retired in 1964 and began his second—and most productive—career as a writer, consultant, and teacher. His seminal essay 'The Servant as Leader' was published in 1970. In it, he proposed that the best leaders were servants first. In the next four years, two more essays explored ideas that an entire institution—and a society—could act as servant, and that trustees should act as servants.
In 1976, Paulist Press published Servant Leadership, a book that combined these and other essays. Greenleaf always claimed that although he was informed by the Judeo-Christian ethic (he became a Quaker in mid-life), servant leadership was for people of all faiths and all institutions, secular and religious.
So what is the model for servant leadership?
Serving others is the number one priority;
Having a holistic approach to work;
Promoting a sense of community and
Sharing of power in decision-making.
Servant leadership begins when a leader assumes the position of servant in their interactions with followers. Authentic, legitimate leadership arises not from the exercise of power or self-interested actions, but from a fundamental desire to first help others. A servant-leader’s primary motivation and purpose is to encourage greatness in others, while organizational success is the indirect, derived outcome of servant-leadership.
Servant-leadership holds that “The work exists for the person as much as the person exists for the work”. It challenges organizations to rethink the relationships that exist between people, organizations and society as a whole. The theory promotes a view that individuals should be encouraged to be who they are, in their professional as well as personal lives. This more personal, integrated valuation of individuals, it is theorized, ultimately benefits the long-term interests and performance of the organization.
Greenleaf lamented the loss of community in modern society, calling it “the lost knowledge of these times”. Servant-leadership questions the institution’s ability to provide human services, and argues that only community, defined as groups of individuals that are jointly liable for each other both individually and as a unit, can perform this function. Only by establishing this sense of community among followers can an organization succeed in its objectives. Further, the theory posits that this sense of community can arise only from the actions of individual servant-leaders
Effective servant-leadership is best evidenced by the cultivation of servant-leadership in others. By nurturing participatory, empowering environments, and encouraging the talents of followers, the servant-leader creates a more effective, motivated workforce and ultimately a more successful organization. “Leaders enable others to act not by hoarding the power they have but by giving it away”. The organizational structure resulting from servant-leadership has sometimes been referred to as an “inverted pyramid”, with employees, clients and other stakeholders at the top, and leader(s) at the bottom. Exemplary followers, a product of delegated decision-making, are a further example of servant-leadership’s inverse nature, “another type of leader turned inside out”. Because servant-leadership breaks away from the classic organizational pyramid and promotes flexible, delegated organizational structures, many behavioural scientists see it as a forward-looking, post-industrial paradigm for leadership.
Each of the above-listed tenets of servant-leadership can derive only from the selfless, “others-directed” motivation that resides within the leader. This foundation is distinctive to servant-leadership. Accordingly, aspiring servant-leaders must first scrutinize their personal belief system s and reasons for aspiring to lead. Strong leader ethics, principles and values lie at the core of the theory, and are seen as being key to the long-term interests of the organization being served.
Servant-leadership, therefore, emphasizes core personal characteristics and beliefs over any specific leadership techniques. Behavioural theorists have identified 10 major leadership characteristics, or ‘attributes’ in Greenleaf’s writings:
There are some sermons in here - how did Jesus model servant leadership?
Listening - “Only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first”
Empathy - “The servant always accepts and empathizes, never rejects” and “Men grow taller when those who lead them empathize, and when they are accepted for who they are...”
Healing - recognising the shared human desire to find wholeness in one’s self, and support it in others.
Persuasion - builds group consensus through gentle but clear and persistent persuasion, and does not exert group compliance through position power.
Foresight - “Prescience, or foresight, is a better than average guess about what is going to happen when in the future”
Stewardship - of people, the organisation and society
Commitment to the growth of people - “The secret of institution building is to be able to weld a team of such people by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be”
Building community - “All that is needed to rebuild community as a viable life form...is for enough servant-leaders to show the way”
How are you doing as a servant leader?
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