Why Servant Leadership is so Powerful

a father as servant leader
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels

How I learned what servant leadership really is and where it starts

I never really thought about the leadership ability of my father until I became a leader in my own right. I certainly did not fully appreciate his role as a leader until I became a parent. This was mostly because – when growing up – I never really thought of my dad, and what he did as a father, as a leadership position. To me, leaders were the loud, larger than life characters who led countries, armies, or large corporations. Back then I had a very narrow view of leadership.

My father was not the archetypal leader. He was not some charismatic figure in senior management. He was not a visionary, an intellectual or a great orator. But, to make up for this last point, he has never been shy of sharing a joke (no matter how good the joke or appropriate the context!)

So, what did he do (apart from dad-jokes) that made him a leader?

The father as leader

Well, he led my family – with my mother – through shared sacrifice. He served us as a family and put that team first in his priorities. He worked hard to be a provider, to be a role model for us, and he was true to his values.

As a provider, he set the standard for reliability and hard work. He was employed for the same company for most of his working life and never took a day off sick. When he came home, he read to us children (while trying not to fall asleep) and then was off working around the house or in the garden.

He led with integrity. He kept his own standards, and his actions matched his words. One example of this was that he did not swear in front of us children or bad mouth other people. This was a small but powerful lesson for us. It is only now, as a parent, I realise how hard this is to do!

My father’s values were founded on his faith in God. He was not ostentatious in his faith, but he was always truthful about what he believed and gave straightforward answers when questioned. These values, such as his love for others, service to the community and honesty in his words and dealings, all shone through in the little things of everyday life. In so doing, my father provided a powerful example of good servant leadership.

The servant as leader

The idea of servant leadership was popularized by Robert K Greenleaf in his book by the same name (1977). His phrase, the ‘servant as leader’ has been shortened over time to ‘servant leader’ but it is worth reflecting on the original construction. The ‘servant as leader’ reveals Greenleaf’s premise that we are all servants and, at times, we all need to take the role of leader, while maintaining this servant-heartedness. 

This phrase is a seeming contradiction. Servant and leader are often (mistakenly) seen as opposites. His wording is also both divisive and inclusive. It is divisive, and potentially offensive, by using the term servant. The word servant actually comes from the Latin servus which means slave. Who wants to be a servant, let alone a slave? 

But here again, lies a deeper truth. We are all servants of something. If we chase addictive substances or behaviours we become slaves. We can enslave ourselves to ideas such as wealth, fame, or appearance. And even if we avoid these extremes, we all serve something. That might be others, a higher ideal, God or ourselves, but we all choose to prioritise some thing. That is what makes us servants. The question is:

“Whom do you serve and to what purpose?”

Robert Greenleaf

If we accept the first premise, the second is that, although we are all servants, we all have the capacity and responsibility to lead. This is because the philosophy of this sort of leadership (and much of modern leadership theory) is that leadership is influence; not necessarily an official position. We can also all learn to be better leaders; there are skills we can improve. Therefore, we can lead from whichever position we find ourselves in, with whatever measure of power.

What servant leadership is

The servant as a leader is different to the leader who seeks power, fame and fortune. This serving model of leadership stands in contrast to Great Man theory and the cult of personality, or the Machiavellian, unprincipled manipulation of people to achieve one’s ends. The servant-leader is not driven to acquire power or possessions but motivated instead to serve the community, to serve others. As Greenleaf puts it:

“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.”

Robert Greenleaf

Within this approach, there is an emphasis on serving and developing other people. The servant-leader seeks to share power, prioritise the needs of others and raise up new servant leaders. This is why the true test of the servant leader, their legacy, is in the growth of who they lead.

“Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Robert Greenleaf

The potential pitfall of servant leadership

There are pros and cons to servant leadership. There is a potential danger of this emphasis on serving others if misconstrued. Serving others is not tending to every whim of every individual. That would seem like serving them but would actually be counterproductive. To take an extreme example, you do not best help an alcoholic by giving them a drink whenever they ask for it. Equally, any parent knows, that giving a child everything they want will not serve them in the long run. 

That is why there needs to be a vision, an idea of what the future can look like. Most importantly, in this vision, the servant leader must see the potential of the person they are serving. They seek to guide that person toward their future better self; not just react to the imperfect person standing in front of them. This idea of the leader serving the person, but towards a longer-term mission and goal can be seen in the inspiration that lies behind Greenleaf’s work.

The inspiration behind servant leadership

Greenleaf was inspired, amongst other things, by Herman Hesse’s book Journey to the East. In this story, a group of travellers is on a pilgrimage to find enlightenment. At first, things go well, but they face a crisis and their servant, Leo, goes missing. The group falls into disarray and they abandon their journey. Many years later, the main character – still on his search – discovers that Leo is actually the leader of the spiritual order he had been seeking all along.

Greenleaf also looks to the example of Jesus of Nazareth as a historical example of the servant leader. The Jesus of the Bible did not seek fame, power and riches and yet – by serving those around him and developing his disciples – had an impact as a leader that is unparalleled. 

Greenleaf helped to renew these old truths and has in turn inspired famous leaders and management experts such as Stephen R Covey (author of Principled Centred Leadership), Simon Sinek (author of Leaders Eat Last) and Ken Blanchard (author of The One Minute Manager).

“Servant leaders don’t think less of themselves, they just think of themselves less often”.

Ken Blanchard

Serve to lead

This paradoxical paradigm of leadership has had a great impact, even in unexpected places. I started out my career as an officer in the Army. Stereotypically people think of military leaders as being confident, loud, and directive. If all you watched was war movies you could assume that martial leadership is mostly about shouting!

Directive leadership does have its place when you are storming trenches or kicking down doors to enemy compounds, but it is not the cornerstone of military management. The motto of the British Army’s leadership school, The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is, ‘Serve to Lead’. Equally, ‘Selfless Service’ is one of the seven basic values of the United States Army.

At Sandhurst I was taught to genuinely care about my soldiers, not just lead them into battle. I joined the Army for adventure, but seeing soldiers develop and grow became one of the most satisfying parts of my job. Take this short example:                                                    

When I took over my first troop of 30 soldiers, I was warned by the outgoing lieutenant about one particular soldier who was a troublemaker. After watching this young man for a while, I chose to take a risk, gave him a position of responsibility, and took him on operations. His behaviour changed and he developed into one of my best junior non-commissioned officers. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my young career, seeing someone who was destined for the scrap-pile, turned around and set on a new course.

Why servant leadership?

Without a servant hearted approach, based on a love for others, those with power can fall into two common traps.

The leader, pursuing their dream at any cost, can use people as fuel to the fire. Just resources to be burned in order to achieve the mission. I have worked with organisations led by this type of leader. Entrepreneurs can allow their passion over-ride their compassion. Early on this can get results but it is not sustainable. I have seen start-ups fall due to this sort of approach. 

The manager, concerned with efficiency and output, can see people as just a cog in the machine. That wheel might need the occasional grease but can be run until it is worn out. A cog is easy to throw away and replace. I have also seen this in the workplace. I have seen good people thrown on the pile because they are inexperienced, unconfident or just in the wrong role. It is easy – in our hire-and-fire culture – just to replace someone rather than develop or relocate them. 

As a boss, this also means releasing people. It is tough losing your best team members but if a move to a new position or place is genuinely the best thing for that individual then the manager should support and encourage the move, not coerce that person to stay. 

From small things to great things

The examples of servant leadership, from Abraham Lincoln to Mother Teresa, show that a servant attitude and small acts can compound into great impact, even to the national and international level.

One building trend, through organisations such as B Corps, is that business leaders are once again learning to steward their people, and the resources of the planet, by measuring success against something other than pure profit.

Is this how you are building your organisation?

Starting steps of the servant leader

Whatever your position or role, being a servant leader starts with the inspiration to act and then taking small steps. For me, it was my father who gave me my first role model of servant leadership. Then being taught to ‘serve to lead’ in the army and reading Greenleaf’s writings gave me the inspiration I needed.

Being the ‘servant as leader’ has become ingrained. Wherever I am and whoever I am with, I know that I have the responsibility to serve and to lead.

This has helped me to see people differently and to act differently. I have realised that this type of leadership can be expressed in every interaction we have. It could be in a word of praise for the person serving coffee, words of encouragement to a child who is struggling, or stopping to ask if someone needs help.

It all starts with inspiration to make a difference in the small things. So, what small act of servant leadership can you do today?


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