Servant Leadership

April 1, 2018 — Leave a comment

“The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?” ~ Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness

The concept of being a servant leader has been around for centuries, John C. Maxwell states everything he’s learned about leadership he learned from the bible. Being raised a Catholic (8 + years of Catholic school, I was kicked out of the first grade after a couple of months) the main example of servant leadership for me would be Jesus.

It wasn’t until Robert Greenleaf wrote his thesis on Servant Leadership in 1969, which is the first chapter of the book, Servant Leadership, A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, was published in 1977 when it became more popular leadership concept in businesses. Greenleaf worked for the American Telephone & Telegraph Company for 35 years, mostly as a trainer and management consultant, retiring in 1964.  After he retired he started working with colleges and universities during the turmoil’s of the 1960’s and early 70’s, and started to see how the students attitudes where devoid of hope.  There was a loss of trust in American leaders, and as Max Depree states, “Leaders are dealers in hope.”

Over the course of more than twenty years Robert Greenleaf kept adding chapters to his original thesis and book. The 25th anniversary edition contains the original chapters which included;

  1. “The Servant”
  2. “The Institute as Servant” and;
  3. “Trustees as Servants.”

The total list of chapters now are;

  1. “Servant Leadership in Business”
  2. “Servant Leadership in Education”
  3. “Servant Leadership in Foundations”
  4. “Servant Leadership in Churches”
  5. “Servant-Leaders”
  6. “Servant Responsibility in a Bureaucratic Society”
  7. “America and World Leadership”
  8. “An Inward Journey”
  9. “Postscript”

If you don’t want to read the entire book, read the first chapter, and the chapter from the field you’re involved in. Since I’ve been a trustee on a number of different boards I found the chapter on “Trustees as Servants” applicable, and I think it should be required reading for all trustees.

Richard L. Draft in The Leadership Experience, defines servant leadership, “in which the leader transcends self-interest to serve the needs of others, help others grow, and provide opportunities for others to gain materially and emotionally.” Now I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of many leaders I’ve worked for, or even know, who gives up their own self-interests to serve the needs of others. The ones who do have chosen a life of service to a higher power or followed their passion by working for a non-profit. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are people in business who are servant leaders, I just don’t know of any that have meet the above definitions, or all of the following ten characteristics.

Larry Spears, president/CEO of The Larry C. Spears Center of Servant Leadership, past director of The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, outlined “Ten Characteristics of a Servant-Leader;”

  1. Listening

You’ll serve people better when you make a deep commitment to listening intently to them and understanding what they’re saying. To improve your listening skills, give people your full attention, take notice of their body language, avoid interrupting them before they’ve finished speaking, and give feedback on what they say.

  1. Empathy

Servant leaders strive to understand other people’s intentions and perspectives. You can be more empathetic by putting aside your viewpoint temporarily, valuing others’ perspectives, and approaching situations with an open mind.

  1. Healing

This characteristic relates to the emotional health and “wholeness” of people, and involves supporting them both physically and mentally.

  1. Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to look at yourself, think deeply about your emotions and behavior, and consider how they affect the people around you and align with your values.

You can become more self-aware by knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and asking for other people’s feedback on them. Also, learn to manage your emotions, so that you consider how your actions and behavior might affect others.

  1. Persuasion

Servant leaders use persuasion – rather than their authority – to encourage people to take action. They also aim to build consensus in groups, so that everyone supports decisions.

  1. Conceptualization

This characteristic relates to your ability to “dream great dreams,” so that you look beyond day-to-day realities to the bigger picture.

  1. Foresight

Foresight is when you can predict what’s likely to happen in the future by learning from past experiences, identifying what’s happening now, and understanding the consequences of your decisions.

Also, learn to trust your intuition – if your instinct is telling you that something is wrong, listen to it!

  1. Stewardship

Stewardship is about taking responsibility for the actions and performance of your team, and being accountable for the role team members play in your organization.

  1. Commitment to the Growth of People

Servant leaders are committed to the personal and professional development of everyone on their teams.

The best way for a leader to develop employees is to help them track their progress and hold them accountable. One of the best ways to do this is with a proactive performance appraisal process, like the one outlined in the Mastering Leadership Skills seminar “Performance Appraisal – It’s an Ongoing Process.”

  1. Building Community

The last characteristic is to do with building a sense of community within your organization.

My next favorite, and one I read almost yearly, is The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership by James C. Hunter. This is a leadership fable about the businessman John Daily, who was ‘voluntold’ to attend a week at a Benedictine monastery to learn from the teacher, Brother Simeon. It turns out that Simeon was an idol of John’s, his real name was Leon Hoffman, a highly successful business CEO and Wall Street Executive that vanished from the business community after his wife died. All his family told the press was that he was okay and had decided to take some time off.

I think some folks struggle with the concept of being a servant leader, “as one who does as others wish,” but I like the way Simeon explained the difference between being a servant and being a slave as, “leaders should identify and meet the needs of their people, serve them. I did not say that they should identify and meet the wants of their people, be slaves to them. Slaves do what others want, servants do what others need. There is a world of difference between meeting wants and meeting needs.”

Simeon continues to teach his monastery students that Jesus spoke of loving our neighbors and even our enemies. As a servant leader, do you ‘love’ the people you work with? But there’s a difference in the word love, one is feelings, and the other relates to how the bible uses the word agape’ as love, which is when we make a choice on how we behave towards others. A leader doesn’t need to feel love for an employee, but leaders still need to choose to be respectful, “to treat them as you would want to be treated,” which is the Golden Rule. Agape’ love, or the characteristics of a servant leader is; patience, kindness, humility, respectfulness, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty, and commitment. The teacher, Simeon, states that, “Agape’ love and leadership are synonymous.”

Being a servant leader doesn’t mean not holding people accountable for their behaviors and/or performance, Simeon gives his students an example when discussing the servant leadership characteristic honesty as being free of deception, “leaders who do not hold their people accountable to a set standard are, in effect, thieves and liars. Thieves because they are stealing from the stockholders who pays them to hold people accountable, and liars because they pretend that everything is OK with their people when in fact everything is not OK.”

Servant leadership is about focusing on other people’s needs – not their feelings, leaders shouldn’t avoid making unpopular decisions or giving team members negative feedback when it is needed. As leaders, we need to help people we work with become the best person/employee they can be. Unfortunately, some employees resist, and we need to make sure that they are either reformed, or removed – respectfully. Focus your energies as a leader on those who want to improve and hold those accountable who don’t want to improve.

The Mastering Leadership Skills seminar The Three C’s of Leadership (Coaching, Counseling, Conflict) helps leaders with the process to help leaders hold employee accountable.

With all leadership styles, there’s pros and cons. Pamela Spahr in the article, “What is Servant Leadership? Achievement Through Service to Others,” lists the pros and cons of being a servant leader;

Servant leadership pros

  • Servant leaders build strong teams
  • Excel at seeing the big picture
  • Build excellent relationships and rapport with workers
  • Personify a style of leadership that creates a high degree of loyalty from followers
  • Bind people together with trust and encourage high levels of engagement
  • Define success by their service to followers

Servant leadership cons

  • Seen as a long-term strategy that depends on building trust and loyalty in order to get the most from workers, which often takes time
  • Not the leadership style of choice in companies that are in need of structure and a high degree of organization to survive
  • Not a good style for companies that need to be turned around very fast

Great leaders become great because they know what type of leadership style to use in the right situation, with a specific person in the appropriate culture. A leader may even combine servant leadership with transformational leadership to build a strong team, cast an inspiring vision of the future, and motivate people to accomplish it, by helping them become better through the process.


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