Leading and serving at the same time

Some takeaways from The Servant as Leader

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7 min read

Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term “servant-leadership” in his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader. A few years earlier, he had founded the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership (originally known as the Center for Applied Ethics) after a long and successful career with AT&T, from which he retired as director of management research.

Greenleaf begins his essay with an important statement. “Servant and leader—can these two roles be fused in one real person, in all levels of status or calling? If so, can that person live and be productive in the real world of the present? My sense of the present leads me to say yes to both questions.”

It is worth noting that he refers to all levels of status and calling. In his view, all are called to be servants and leaders.

In fact, he goes on to express the opinion that a new moral principle was emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a principle that saw authority as not bestowed by the title one held, but as freely and knowingly conferred by the led. Servant-leaders are leaders because they are perceived as such by others.

Origins of the servant-leader

Greenleaf relates how he got the idea for the servant as a leader from Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. In the story, a group of adventurers is on a journey. Leo is the servant who does the menial tasks; he is at the bottom of the power structure, but he is also a person of extraordinary presence. When he disappears, everything falls apart and the journey is abandoned.

“To me,” Greenleaf writes, “this story clearly says that the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness. Leo was actually the leader all of the time, but he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down inside.”

In their interactions with others—whether from a managerial position or not—servant leaders exercise authority rather than power. The episode of Jesus in the synagogue of Capernaum comes to mind (Mk 1:22). The people were astonished, “for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.” Jesus did not have a title, but he was a person of extraordinary presence. And he was a servant.

In his essay, Greenleaf goes on to describe the figure of the servant-leader. He asserts that the servant-first mindset is manifested by the care taken to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. Servant leadership is intrinsically other-centered.

Consequently, servant-leaders ask themselves these questions:

  •  Do those served grow as people?
  • Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?
  • What is the effect on the least privileged in society—will they benefit, or at least not be further deprived?

In my teaching career and in relation to my students, each of those questions is highly relevant. But they are relevant as well in my dealings with colleagues and administrators. They are relevant in any workplace, at home, in the supermarket, on public buses. They point to the fact that servant-leadership is not a managerial theory for the few but a lifestyle for the many.

How does servant-leadership play out?

In any human society, big or small, conflict will inevitably arise. How does the servant-leader handle the inevitable conflict? The servant-leader listens.

“Is our basic attitude, as we approach the confrontation, one of wanting to understand?” Greenleaf asks. “Remember that great line from the prayer of St. Francis, ‘Lord, grant that I may not seek so much to be understood as to understand.’”

Listening requires our silence, both outward and inner silence. And before speaking in response, the listener should ask themselves whether saying what they have in mind will improve on the silence.

Servant-leaders must also learn to pace themselves so as to make the best use of their resources. An afternoon spent at the lake, for example, when there is “so much to do” may be the best use of time at that moment.

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’ People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place.” (Mk 6:31-32)

Greenleaf gives an interesting example of the importance of what he refers to as “appropriate withdrawal” to allow the creative process to operate. He tells the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Jesus is placed in a catch-22 situation. He could have argued logically for mercy.

“He chose instead to withdraw and cut the stress—right in the event itself — in order to open his awareness to creative insight. And a great one came, one that has kept the story of the incident alive for 2,000 years: ‘Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone.’”

Always accepting the person (not necessarily their performance)

The servant-leader always accepts the person without necessarily accepting the person’s performance. It is disingenuous to praise everything that Johnny does as if it were all perfect. It cannot be. Perfection is not of this world, beginning with ourselves.

But the person is not rejected either. This is what happens in a healthy family. For a family to be a real family, no one can ever be rejected. It helps to remember that Jesus does not reject anyone.

Together with listening and acceptance, Greenleaf also insists on the importance of empathy, the ability to enter the world of the other and to look at reality from that perspective. The secret of institution building is to be able to build a team of empathetic people by “lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be.”

Empathetic people build others up; they do not tear them down.

As an example, I don’t remember much from my teacher-training, but I do remember one of the instructors modelling positive reinforcement. As we role-played at being students, he would walk around the classroom, look at our work and say softly, “Good,” “Good work,” “Nice.” He would also say, “Good, but try this instead.” Even while correcting, the positive always preceded the correction, and it was the positive that would be audible to the nearby students.

I practiced this technique and others throughout my career, but always careful to be sincere. Teenagers are very good at spotting phoniness! For me, it was much more than a technique.

My service to them was as simple as picking up erasers that they might have dropped on the floor unintentionally and placing them on their desk without skipping a beat or breaking the flow of the lesson. For me, these types of simple actions were always intentional acts of love or service.

What was the result? Year after year, students would come to see me at the end of the school year to tell me how much they enjoyed my class. It wasn’t unusual to hear: “I hate math, but your class was my favorite. We knew that you cared.”

Maya Angelou’s words resonate: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Servant-leadership’s great potential

But in the school setting, as in any other workplace, there are also colleagues and administrators. Servant-leadership also applies in one’s relationship with them. The key here as well is intentional service or concrete love, something that I tried to practice for years as a result of my commitment to a Christian lifestyle based on the Focolare spirituality.

My service to colleagues and “superiors” took the form of freely sharing all my resources with my colleagues, or helping colleagues to get out of difficult situations, or giving my frank opinion when members of the administration would ask for it. I think that Greenleaf would qualify these as examples of servant-leadership.

Other-centeredness, listening, self-care, acceptance, empathy. These terms are familiar to regular readers of this magazine. They are core values of the spirituality of communion that animates it. They are faith-based values.

In that sense, servant-leadership contains nothing new. Yet its study and systematization, as well as the dissemination that it continues to enjoy, are of great importance and offer immeasurable potential.

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.