SL became popular in the modern era when Robert K Greenleaf, coined the phrase in the 1970’s in an essay titled “The Servant as Leader”. He wrote: "The servant-leader is servant first... Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first... The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served”. This approach became the new frontier of leadership at the time, yet 2,500 years ago, Lao-Tzu said: "To lead people, walk beside them ... As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.... When the best leader's work is done the people say, 'We did it ourselves!'" And if one consider the Savoir-Relier protocol of leadership which became poplar more than 25 years ago, the concept of SL is not only well established, but has been applied to good effect for thousands of years.
For generations, we have focused on the individual drivers of success: focus, passion, hard work, talent and luck. But today, the paradox of our time is that we have more information yet less human connection. Our success as people (and leaders) is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. What makes our lives meaningful includes giving and receiving. And despite what we may think of modern technology, at the heart of all successful endeavors is a single person. Companies are not successful, people are. At the foundation of any successful company there is a group of people that made it happen. And it ultimately starts with one.
Servant Leadership may sound like an academical dissection of the concept of leadership. Aren’t all leaders supposed to be servant leaders? There is clearly a contradiction in here. Companies must be successful. And leaders have a responsibility to the “company” to be profitable. But profitability is a result; it comes as the effect of something you have done. And in this context SL is causal. At its essence leadership is about doing the right things (whereas management is more about doing things the right way). So doing the right things may involve many themes at any particular time.
In the final analysis, Leadership is a responsibility not a rank. And it is a choice. Yet to focus on the wellbeing of people to reach the ultimate goals of the organisation at the expense of hard business goals like making a profit or selling more stuff, will come at the peril of any such leader. Whereas it may be noble to be seen or position yourself as a servant leader, there is an ultimate business objective that needs to be honoured as well. Leaders should ideally be versatile enough to adapt to what is needed most at any moment in the companies life cycle. A balance between consistency and creativity, between leading from the front or the back, setting an example or setting a standard. When one considers the ethics for SL, the key characteristics of such a framework from which to lead includes: listening, empathy, awareness, persuasion, engagement, vision, trust and commitment to the growth of people. Because of this, the Servant Leader is a consummate team builder. Call is what you want, if a leader can’t inspire the people to greater things, what is that leader doing then?
So why do we think this is a unique or special approach to leadership? And why are more leaders not serving? Send us your comments.