In 1970, Robert Greenleaf wrote an essay titled, “The Servant-Leader Within.” A few years later he revised his essay and since then the concept of servant leadership has become one of the buzz phrases of the management – leadership lexicon. What strikes me about Greenleaf’s writing is not that he says leaders should become servants but that servants should become leaders. The servant – leader concept came up recently when a retail company said that this was their new leadership model for managers. I was a bit surprised to hear that because as a company, they placed a priority on leadership development slightly lower than cleaning the parking lot. And the parking lot is not very clean.
The emphasis on servant-leadership lasted exactly 4 weeks before they moved on, but it rekindled a question I’ve had since reading Greenleaf’s original essay. Should we select leaders from those who serve others, or should we tell leaders to be servants to their teams? Do we develop leaders or do we develop servants?
I believe both. But, in contrast to Greenleaf, I believe the concept of serving should start with leaders. Leaders have a responsibility to the team. At a basic level that responsibility is to provide the necessary instruction, tools, and support to allow the team to accomplish their mission. Pretty basic.
But if servant is added to those responsibilities the picture changes. The servant leader becomes more than the head of the team, but a part of it; helping where needed and providing a different kind of support that emphasizes taking care of team member needs and helping them grow. It’s stepping in to help when the going gets tough.
There are those who feel that the whole servant leadership idea is too touchy-feely, or too rooted in religious doctrine. Others feel that a leader must stay aloof and above the menial everyday tasks of the team. Servant leadership is not touchy-feely and the concept does not relieve a leader of the need to maintain standards and keep the team moving forward. And it certainly doesn’t diminish a leader’s stature. Greenleaf said, “The servant-leader is not necessarily the most popular among his or her contemporaries. The ‘popular’ leader type will very likely gravitate to easier alternatives…Serving (and leading as so defined) is not popular, because it is exacting and hard to attain.” However, I believe a leader’s standing is increased when they serve the team.
When leaders become servants to their team they set the example for team members to also become servants to each other. That’s when the team becomes most successful.
What do you think? Are you a servant leader?