Servant Leadership

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Strength To Love

The Parable of Brother Leo
(source: Josephson Institute)

A legend tells of a French monastery known throughout Europe for the extraordinary leadership of a man known only as Brother Leo. Several monks began a pilgrimage to visit Brother Leo to learn from him. Almost immediately, they began to bicker about who should do various chores.

On the third day they met another monk going to the monastery, and he joined them. This monk never complained or shirked a duty, and whenever the others would fight over a chore, he would gracefully volunteer and do it himself. By the last day, the others were following his example, and from then on they worked together smoothly.

When they reached the monastery and asked to see Brother Leo, the man who greeted them laughed. “But our brother is among you!” And he pointed to the fellow who had joined them.


The Servant as Leader

The servant leader, as described by Robert Greenleaf (1970, The Servant as Leader), the man who coined the phrase,

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. He or she is sharply different from the person who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve – after leadership is established. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature. The difference manifest itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, 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, will they not be further deprived?

Servant-leadership is a practical philosophy which supports people who choose to serve first, and then lead as a way of expanding service to individuals and institutions. Servant-leaders encourage collaboration, trust, foresight, listening, and the ethical use of power and empowerment. Servant-leadership is, in essence, written in our hearts as a natural law, a changeless principle; it is not imposed from without. Echoing Greenleaf, Covey says “the power to cultivate servant-leadership comes from the individual. It’s an inside-out approach.”

And this brings me to my love, admiration, and deep appreciation for Native America. In the interest of keeping this short, you generally do not rise to a position of leadership unless you first demonstrate your capacity to love others through your willingness to serve them. At its height, there were over sixty distinct tribes of Indians on this continent. Some of the names ring familiar: Anasazi, Apache, Arapaho, Blackfoot, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chinooks, Comanche, Creeks, Hopi, Iroquois, Kiowa, Lakota, Navajo, Nez Perce, Paiute, Pawnee, Pueblo, Shoshone, Sioux, Ute, and Wampanoag. Each tribe boasted its notable men: Red Cloud, Cochise, Squanto, Crazy Horse, Sacajawea, Pontiac, Geronimo, Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Black Hawk, Sequoya, Pocahontas, Black Elk, Hiawatha, Chief Joseph, Standing Bear, Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, and Little Crow.

Do you see where this is going? It is reasonable to conclude every Native American leader was/is a servant leader. It is, perhaps, for this reason alone the dominant culture through the centuries has so misunderstood Native Americans. Every tribe, every band, every Indian nation was/is governed by servant leaders. Indeed, the history of Native America is replete with servant leaders for one reason: no one could lead until they proved their willingness to serve. From the time they can walk, Native Americans were/are taught that service to others is the highest calling to which one can aspire. And as they grew up watching the adults serve, they were encouraged to actively seek their own ways to serve their community. Indeed, throughout their life, they were/are servants first – servants always. When you stop to consider the Native American culture, you cannot help but wonder (in amazement!) why they spend so much time helping others. The answer you will receive is simple: “This is what life is about: service to others.”


Why Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is not something new. It derives its power from the people, and its traditions hail from the Middle East and the ancient Orient. According to the ancient Hebrew texts (about 900BC), Rehoboam was a king of ancient Israel and later king of the Kingdom of Judah after the ten northern tribes of Israel rebelled to form the independent Kingdom of Israel. Seeking advice from those who once stood before Solomon, King Rehoboam was encouraged “to be a servant unto his people, to serve them and answer them, and speak good words unto them; only then would they be thy servants forever.” Lao-Tzu, in the 6th century BC, said, “I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.”

Some two hundred years later in India, Chanakya, writing in the Arthaśhāstra, explains the Indian way of life, expressing the general concept of servant leadership through the walk of the king: “the king [leader] shall consider as good not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects [followers].” About 400 years later, Jesus urges his followers to be servants first: “You know that the rulers … lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave …” In a more contemporary time, Martin Luther King, Jr., a personal hero for me, taught, “If you want to be important—Wonderful! If you want to be recognized—Wonderful! If you want to be great—Wonderful! But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness … Everybody can be great because everybody can serve … you only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love and you can be that servant.” By extension, you can then be a leader.

From a business perspective, leadership development—especially servant leadership development—produces higher performing organizations. For example, developing effective leaders has the potential to confer incredible competitive advantages in the out-years, especially for organizations that recognize the centrality of flexible and adaptable approaches for sustaining leadership. Recent studies (2007) indicate 70% of Fortune 500 companies link leadership development efforts directly to business strategy—succession planning, recruiting, and performance management are inextricably linked to successful business growth as central tenets of leadership development. The best leadership development systems foster an ability to execute business strategy. Predictably, as leadership development is more integrated with strategic activities, it becomes more measurable and its value more readily apparent to the organization. Executive involvement and sponsorship are key enablers.

Indeed, the greater majority of Fortune 500 organizations recognize executive commitment and sponsorship as cornerstones of their approach to developing future leaders. Senior leaders, in effect, take off their boss hat to become teachers, mentors, and coaches that recognize the advantages of blended, experiential learning for individuals positioned for future leadership roles. What is the benefit of all of this exposure? Performance! The targeted development of leadership potential drives desirable business outcomes: engaged strategy setting, effective operations, empowered people, and expanded revenue opportunity. The very best leaders, however, are servants first.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, and his team prove the point. In their research, companies that made the leap from good to great, led by Level 5 leaders described as “self-effacing, quiet, always courteous, gracious, modest and willful, humble and fearless, reserved, even shy,” attained what Collins called “extraordinary results, averaging cumulative stock returns 6.9 times the general market in the fifteen years following their transition point.” “Furthermore,” Collins notes, “if you invested $1 in a mutual fund of the good-to-great companies in 1965, holding each company at the general market rate until the date of transition, and simultaneously invested $1 in a general market stock fund, your $1 in the good-to-great fund taken out on January 1, 2000, would have multiplied 471 times, compared to a 56 fold increase in the market.”

Level 5 leaders—individuals who blend extreme personal humility with intense professional will—were at the helm of every good-to-great company during the transition era. “Those who worked with or wrote about the good-to-great leaders,” Collins points out, “continually used words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, and did not believe his own clippings” to describe them. “Despite their remarkable results,” Collins highlights, “almost no one has ever remarked about them!” How many of these other-centered leaders—George Cain, Alan Wurtzel, David Maxwell, Colman Mockler, Darwin Smith, Jim Herring, Lyle Everingham, Joe Cullman, Fred Allen, Cork Walgreen, Carl Reichardt—do you know? You likely do not know them because, to an individual, these leaders, Collins tells us, “never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes. They never aspired to be put on a pedestal or become unreachable icons. They were seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results.” Such is the essence of servant leadership.


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