The concept of Servant Leadership has been around for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until late in the 20th century that the phrase “servant leader” was coined by Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 essay The Servant as Leader. In his essay, he said:
“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.
“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.”
So Servant Leadership is leadership that focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities where they belong. Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation of power by the person at the top of the pyramid. Servant leadership is different. Servant leadership puts the needs of others first and helps people perform at the highest level possible.
It is not a position of weakness
Too many people think that servant leadership is about being submissive and obsequious. That’s not true at all. It is about wanting to help others; about being sensitive to the needs of others, whether they are colleagues, customers or the community and then meeting those needs.
In the May 1, 2013 issue of Forbes magazine, Harvard Business School Professor James Haskett ponders the question, “Why isn’t servant leadership more prevalent?” Dr. Haskett refers to research cited in the Adam Grant book, Give and Take, that suggests that servant leaders are not only thought more highly of by their employees, but they also feel better about themselves at the end of the day and they are more productive. Grant goes on to say that servant leaders benefit from important contacts, information and insights that make them more productive in what they do, even though they spend a great deal of their time sharing what they learn, helping others with such things as career counseling and recommending new ways of doing things.
Is it any surprise that servant led organizations are some of the most successful organizations of their kind? Would you consider Southwest Airlines, TDIndustries, Starbucks, the March of Dimes and the American Heart Association successful? Of course you would – and all are servant led organizations. Servant leaders free their people to achieve superior personal performance, enabling their organization to perform up to its full potential.
Dr. Haskett concludes that servant leadership is only one approach to leading, and it isn’t for everyone. Then he asks a very good question that I will echo:
If servant leadership is as effective as portrayed in recent research, why isn’t it more prevalent? I welcome your thoughts.