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The Emerging Servant Leadership Paradigm
By James Grinnell

With the greatest leader above them,
people barely know one exists.
The great leader speaks little.
He never speaks carelessly.
He works without self-interest
and leaves no trace.
When all is finished, the people say,
“We did it ourselves.”
– Tao Te Ching

According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s quote above, the most revered leader works from a position of humility and service to others. They operate from the periphery, quietly creating an environment where those they lead take responsibility for their collective destiny. The great leader in effect doesn’t lead anyone! While quaint, Lao Tzu’s 2,500 year old sentiment is clearly ill-suited to the twenty first century workplace. Or is it?

In 1970 Robert Greenleaf flipped the prevailing command-and-control leadership model on its head when he espoused his servant leadership framework. Greenleaf’s premise was simply this– leaders lead best when they adopt a servant mindset. What this means in practice is that the leader sets aside their ego, focuses on building genuine relationships, and cultivates an environment where their direct reports thrive. Their focus on others creates a community where a collection of individuals once existed. According to Greenleaf, the litmus test of servant leadership is the following: “Do those served grow as persons. Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Subsequent to Greenleaf’s passing in 1990, his protege Larry Spears took up the mantle of championing servant leadership. One of his many contributions to the understanding of servant leadership was the delineation of the characteristics of servant leadership. According to Spears, servant leaders display the following ten behaviors:

  1. Listening. Far too often leaders are viewed as experts, thus communications tend to flow in a downward direction. The servant leader recognizes that commitment is enhanced when individuals are allowed input and influence. Thus they always keep in mind that they have two ears and one mouth, which they use in that proportion. Servant leaders appreciate that listening is a gateway to obtaining information and building understanding with others. Listening silently but significantly acknowledges the importance of the other. The servant leader understands that there is often more power in their silence than in their words. They also appreciate that listening is more than hearing– it includes the ability to read how a message is being delivered and hear what is unspoken. As Peter Drucker once said: “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”
  2. Empathy. Servant leaders expend great effort understanding and acknowledging the perspectives of others. They make a good faith effort to arrive at collective solutions that embrace the goals and aspirations of individuals. The goal of empathy is to find the nexus between the desires and aspirations of individuals and the collective. Keep in mind that there is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy means that one is deeply cognizant of the other’s perspective. Sympathy in contrast suggests an affinity with or judgment of the other’s perspective. The reason this distinction is important is that leaders can (and should) always be empathetic, but it may not be wise to be sympathetic. Put differently, servant leaders should always seek to understand where each of their direct reports is coming from, but it doesn’t mean that they should always agree with or acquiesce to those perspectives. As Spears puts it: “One assumes the good intentions of co-workers and colleagues and does not reject them as people, even when one may be forced to refuse to accept certain behaviors or performance.”

  3. Healing. Henry Ford lamented that even though he needed only the services of his employees’ hands, he unfortunately had to hire the whole person. In contrast, the servant leader recognizes that employees bring their whole “self” to the workplace and often that includes personal “messiness” that impacts their work. While it is inappropriate for a leader to fill the role of confidant, minister, or therapist, servant leaders recognize that work can be a forum for individuals to elevate their lives. As Spears elaborates: “Many people have broken spirits and have suffered from a variety of emotional hurts. Although this is a part of being human, servant leaders recognize that they have an opportunity to help make whole those with whom they come in contact.”

  4. Awareness. One cannot effectively be of service to others if they do not first fully understand themselves. Testifying to the centrality of self-awareness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman said the following in a Forbes interview: “The ability to manage yourself – to have self-awareness and self-regulation – is the very basis of managing others, in many ways. For instance, science has learned that if you are tuned out of your own emotions, you will be poor at reading them in other people. And if you can’t fine-tune your own actions – keeping yourself from blowing up or falling to pieces, marshaling positive drives – you’ll be poor at handling the people you deal with. Star leaders are stars at leading themselves, first.”

  5. Persuasion. Servant leaders eschew using formal authority to mandate behaviors. Instead they marshall listening, empathizing, and self-awareness toward building an environment of mutual discovery and problem solving. This is important because decisions arrived at through authority result in fleeting support. Persuasion builds enduring commitment. This is precisely what Dwight Eisenhower meant when he said “I would rather try to persuade a man to go along, because once I have persuaded him, he will stick. If I scare him, he will stay just as long as he is scared, and then he is gone.”

  6. Conceptualization. Thinking about what needs to happen today, tomorrow, and next week is relatively easy. It thus makes sense that short-term horizons tend to be more comfortable for most managers. But bringing people into the fold wholeheartedly requires something greater than achieving this quarter’s targets. People truly invest themselves when they believe they are shooting for something big. Walt Disney put it best when he said “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” Servant leaders recognize the importance of dreaming big dreams. They facilitate commitment to bold visions (not their vision, but the collective vision). As Spears elaborates: “Servant leaders seek to nurture their abilities to dream great dreams. The ability to look at a problem or an organization from a conceptualizing perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities.” Once people buy into a bold vision, once they truly believe in it, they will run through walls to turn it into reality. Nothing will stop them. As Henry Ford once quipped “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.”

  7. Foresight. Peter Drucker asserted that “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Thus, foresight is more than merely predicting the future– it is in large part building the future. Servant leaders are keenly aware that they stand at the precipice of the past, present, and future. Through foresight they are able to decipher the lessons of past experiences and use those lessons to create the future through present actions. Servant leaders recognize that there are no mistakes as even “bad” decisions can inform decisions about the future. Keep in mind that foresight is not the sole product of the leader’s mind. Instead it emerges when the leader connects collective insights and experiences in order to create the future. In fact, foresight is strengthened by each person who participates in its construction.

  8. Stewardship. Leaders are the guardians of the interests of others. They must therefore produce a track record of championing others before themselves. As James Kouzes and Barry Posner articulate: “Leaders we admire do not place themselves at the center; they place others there. They do not seek the attention of people; they give it to others. They do not focus on satisfying their own aims and desires; they look for ways to respond to the needs and interests of their constituents. They are not self-centered, they concentrate on the constituent.” Diligent stewardship produces trust and trust begets commitment.

  9. Commitment to the Growth of People. Servant leaders understand that by elevating others, they elevate themselves and the teams, departments and organizations they lead. Therefore they expend substantial time, energy, and financial resources on helping people grow and develop. Servant leaders firmly believe that people present a nearly inextinguishable supply of potential. They may not be able to tap this potential on their own, thus the servant leader must foster an environment where it can emerge. It is important to note that the focus is on developing people in ways genuine to themselves, not to develop in ways the leader wants them to develop. The successful servant leader will adeptly connect each individual’s growth to the betterment of the collective.

  10. Building Community. As noted throughout this article, servant leadership is rooted in the belief that a championship team inevitably beats a team of champions. A strong sense of community is a natural byproduct of strictly adhering to the previous nine servant leader characteristics. In the end, the servant leader seeks to create a community of servant leaders. Keep in mind, this is not a “Manchurian Candidate” or “Stepford Wives” scenario. The outcome is not a slew of soulless employees mindlessly doing the leader’s bidding. To the contrary, the result is a community of fulfilled and engaged individuals simultaneously expressing themselves while contributing to the collective.

Before anyone dismisses Greenleaf’s philosophy as academic gobbledygook, it is important to appreciate his background. Greenleaf didn’t formulate his framework until after he retired from a long and distinguished career at AT&T. Greenleaf fully appreciated the intricacies and constraints of modern organizational life. He was a student of organizational life from the trenches, not from the abstruse world of the ivory tower. Greenleaf was convinced that servant leadership is as appropriate to big business as it is to ministry and social service. Indeed, companies such as Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, and Herman Miller have successfully built servant leadership into their cultural fabric. Even the tough-as-nails Jack Welch (AKA Neutron Jack) proselytizes servant leadership in the following statement: “Being a leader changes everything. Before you are a leader, success is all about you. It’s about your performance, your contributions. It’s about getting called upon and having the right answers. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others. Your success as a leader comes not from what you do but from the reflected glory of the people you lead”

James Grinnell is an Associate Professor of Management at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Studies from the University of Massachusetts. His areas of focus include leadership, organizational change & development, high-performance teams, and strategic management. You can read more from James on his blog.

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