The servant leader believes himself "first among equals." This idea is at the very core of servant leadership. A servant leader does not consider himself above those he leads. Rather, he is primus inter pares from Latin, meaning "first among equals." That is, he sees those he leads as peers to teach and to learn from. He is willing to lead others in order to reach an agreed upon goal, but he doesn't believe that being the leader makes him better than others.
Robert Greenleaf, in his essay The Servant as Leader, puts it this way: "It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. 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."
In the interview below, Diann Feldman, Managing Director of the Greanleaf Center for Servant-Leadership in Queensland discusses the Servant-Leadership philosophy from various perspectives including how it compares with some other prominent leadership philosophies, how it can be implemented and her vision for the Greanleaf Center.
Interview with Diann Feldman
Why do you believe in the Servant-Leadership philosophy? What evidence is there to support the usefulness of this style of leadership?
My belief is firmly grounded in that of my Christian faith which is based on the role model of Christ who chose to serve people and their communities whilst as the same time being an effective leader. This has meant that I have long struggled with the leadership and management materials of the 80’s and 90’s that portrayed leaders as heroic rather than serving, and that assumes that leaders are “all knowing” none of which fit with my fundmental faith beliefs. Most materials indicate that the leader has power (even the philosophy of empowering suggest that the leader has more power for them to offer some to others), where as I believe that all people have the power of choice, the power of free will and as such each individual is powerful in their own way. When I started to read Greenleaf’s work I felt like I had finally put aside some of the dissonance I was feeling, and was able to express leadership more closely aligned with my inherent faith and beliefs. Additionally, I found the practical nature, and the approach of Greenleaf heart warming as it focuses on the receipients of service, not on the leader, as evidence of leadership at work. Greenleaf talks about leadership being the result of the in-tact relationship between the leader and the follower, and that leaders can be anyone – not just the appointed or anointed. Everyone has an opportunity to lead in some way when they take on the role of serving others. Additionally, my own corporate experiences up until that time had been of anything but servant-leadership. I had seen corporate violence at its worst (under the disguise of supposedly effective management). Corporate leaders deciding the fate of others not on a caring or concerned approach, but rather on the basis of at times leadership whims and leader ego’s. This is not the type of leader that engages others in leadership, this is the type of leader (heroic no doubt) that has followers because of fear, financial or security necessity, or even alter-ego and potentially nepotistic reasons. Yet, we herald them as worthy leaders – not something that fitted comfortably with me at all. Additionally, amidst all of this I had experienced a couple of senior leaders who were the opposite, who achieved more through people, and were generous and caring and they were able to build effective corporations, work through difficult issues and times, remain committed to the organization, and kept people’s hearts, souls and selves intact through it all. These were my heroes and I wanted to know what was different about them – not hard to work out really, they were servant-leaders. These leaders were not only about to make corporations successful, but the people who worked for the organization successful also. They earned respect and love from the staff with ease, they were available and honest with the staff, yet they took the difficult decisions, and made the difficult stands when necessary, they welcomed input and ideas, and they were able to move people in a way that the other experiences I had did not even come close to.
Do you feel that anyone can become a leader or is leadership a born or acquired trait?
This has been a question that has always challenged me around is a leader born is a leader made. I can only go by my own thoughts and some of Greenleaf’s. Let’s start with Greenleaf. In his description of the servant-leader he says that “conscious choice brings one to lead”, which means that at some time a decision is made to lead, and therefore the journey of self awareness and development begins, which means a leader is developed. Is it an acquired trait specifically? If we take a trait as something learned, then as we journey leadership (and see it as a never fully ending journey), then surely traits build. As a Christian I am so aware that by “grace” we are saved, and that an old life can pass away and a new life emerge. Therefore, why can’t leadership be a similar journey of putting aside old thinking and traits that may be more self or ego oriented, and move toward a other’s focused way of thinking and traits that will encourage and share, rather than dominant or dictate. Does this change occur quickly, no. My experience is that leadership grows over time, and one’s understanding of oneself as a leader grows, and our “in-the-moment” awareness of our leadership and its appropriateness also grows over time. My own experience is that leadership was thrust upon me at an early stage in my life, and I have spent the time since then consciously choosing how I want to lead and make a difference. So, maybe in some part leadership is a natural emergence of something within us, that becomes a consciousness for it to develop further and become whole. Maybe in some part leadership is an accidental occurrence that once an event happens and our leadership moment arrives, something in us changes and we seek the journey of leadership consciously. I don’t have a defined answer as I think for me at least something is in us that emerges and then consciously grows. But not always does life or our choices lead us to the event or moment of leadership in the same way, and for some it may never occur for even if the event occurs, our choice my be not to pursue it.
What essential comparisons do you perceive between the Servant-Leadership philosophy and other dominant theories of Leadership such as the Level 5 Leadership theory?
My experience has been that the Level 5 Leadership Theory is the only one that comes really close to Greenleaf’s writing and intentions around servant-leadership. Although many writing are taking these concepts and putting them to practice and writing more theoretically around them now. Where as when I started my journey there was little or nothing around this type of leadership, just historically it has been an authentic leadership approach by many and admired by many, but never actually penned or named specifically. My experience is that once someone meets the servant-leadership theory they either embrace it or reject it. I believe it says something clearly around their leadership foundations and beliefs. I don’t aim to persuade those who reject, I simply invite them to consider and if it is not for them, to seek something more appropriate. What I find really interesting is most of these people remerge their interest (often after their leadership has failed to be effective, or they have a life crisis that challenges them personally). This says something about the depth of the philosophy and the work around “who I am as a leader” before what I do, and the journey of wholeness inherent in its work.
What are the central tenets of the Servant-Leadership philosophy?
If we took the work that has transpired since Greenleaf’s death, it would be the 10 characteristics of a servant leader. However, Greenleaf himself did not say these were the central tenents. He in fact focused more on the best test and the description of a servant-leader. I’m more inclined to believe the best test and description are the most powerful central tenets, and from these emerge a set of characteristics that are different from the usual archetype of the heroic leader. In fact, Greenleaf points this out in his description:
4@11@9@11@9@5xe" filled="f" stroked="f">“The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The servant-leader is sharply different from the person who is leader first. For such it will be a later choice to serve - after leadership is established. 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.” (Greenleaf, 1991, p. 7)
So, the servant-leader is sharply different, because they take care of other’s highest priority needs first. Now that other may be individuals, it may be a community, and it may even be an organisation. The servant-leader is focused on others – this is so different form the usual leadership model of hero or charismatic leader who is out the front tell others. The servant-leader serves others, and that this is the most natural first choice they have. This tends to suggest a self-less orientation, and a more “holder of trust” orientation.
The best test, then becomes even more important:
“Do those served grow as persons; do they while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants. And what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or at least not be further deprived?” (Greenleaf, 1991, p. 7)
Here is where I fully recognise the Greenleaf was a “realist”. In that not always will our ability to take care of highest priority needs make things better for all. That is not the goal, the goal is to never further deprive, and where possible for benefit to be discovered. I believe that this should be foundational principle upon which all business decisions should be made. For what I see more often than not, is a tendency to care for the already highly privileged, and the already deprived extended further. Let’s take some examples:
An organisation that reduces staff benefits, while increasing shareholder dividends, of which senior managers are shareholders and staff are not,
A church that builds all its care services around its own membership so they are cared for, while the community surrounding the church suffers ,
A small business the almost “slave” drives it staff to make profit, of which only the business owners ever have a share in,
A not-for-profit organisation that serves the community needs only to access government funding that they use for other “less noble” purposes.
These are not servant-leader approaches.
Is the concept of Servant-Leadership rooted in Christian philosophy?
The concept itself has no religious roots specifically as Bob Greenleaf wrote it. However, he had worked extensively with many religious organizations, and he took a keen interest in religion as part of his own journey to wholeness. For me the concept is aligned with the Christian philosophy, and it makes being a Christian leader clearer and more easily grasped in the modern day with the modern day issues and challenges. The role model of both Christ and the Saints of the bible are aligned with those of the servant-leader. One should not those say that servant-leadership as Greenleaf penned it is a “Christian” philosophy for I do not know this to be so. However, it resonates with Christians, and more and more it provides them with a practical way of being a leader within their “world” in a more meaningful way that aligns with their own Christian journey, and desire to be Christ like. For me, I found comfort when I read the materials the first time, for I finally found peace around my leadership approach, that for a long time had been criticised by others. It gives me the confidence to be “Christ-like” in my work, and to be prepared to be a role model of leadership that differs from the norm, but is equally effective, and at times more effective. I have discovered that I can make the tough business decisions that at times have to be made, but can still provide the right support and pathway for others so that they are at least not further deprived from any decision.
What is your vision as Managing Director, Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership?
My vision is to bring this philosophy to those who are open to leadership as a relationship and an opportunity to serve the greater good.
To bring to life the authenticity and enormous influence that this philosophy of leadership, this way of being, to as many corporate, religious, community organizations as we can.
To enlighten and enlarge the work of Bob Greenleaf in a way that brings servant-leadership into the hearts and minds of leaders throughout our region.
To advance people’s understanding of leadership through relationship influence rather than positional power.
To acknowledge the journey of wholeness and being that a leader embarks upon when they consciously choose to lead effectively.
To infect communities with a strong desire to serve others and their community more fully so that we can as people change the self-centred nature and at times evil nature of society to a more caring and serving society.
To acknowledge the beauty of humanity that brings to life the lives of others and the great potential of the human spirit for “common good”.
To change the nature of organizations from one of master a slave to all serving each other effectively.
To bring to life the tenants of the ancient to the modern day in a way that creates for us a rennaisance of our thinking, actions, and beliefs around leadership.
What strategies are you using to promote the Servant-Leadership philosophy to organizations and business leaders and what problems have you encountered in persuading others to practice this philosophy?
Our strategy has been to use the power of person-to-person, and so we encourage people who are servant-leaders to “be” in their organizations, to share their leadership, to role model, and to talk about their servant-leadership. From here we hope to raise awareness and interest, and then use these stories (for stories are powerful) around the practical working of servant-leadership and the differences it makes to organizations. We are involved in dialogue groups, internet chat rooms, article production, workshops and retreats and tours as part of the emerging of knowledge and interest in the work. We hope to one day publish a book of Australian stories of servant-leadership which will add to this body. We are not ready for any major launch of the work with any one corporation specifically as their “leadership model”. Much of this is because servant-leadership is not a model, and therefore does not apply itself that easily to a corporation leadership model setting and therefore educational process or program.
Do you see the adoption of the Servant-Leadership philosophy as being necessary for leadership in the new millennium? Can you outline examples of how Australian corporations are adopting this philosophy?
I could be biased as say YES I feel it is an essential to the millennium we currently face. We are only 2 years into the millennium and already we have clearly seen what can occur when leadership emerges that is not for the “common good” or is about control and domination. Additionally, we are in economic times where “fear” is not the best or more appropriate driver for corporations.
I believe that as we become more and more global economy, we will need to raise the leadership bar significantly. This means, we will have to challenge what we believe leadership is. Once we become global, we move into greater diversity, greater differences, greater challenges. As such, I believe the heroic model, or the leader at the head model is unlikely to survive. One of the greatest draw backs of these models, is that most organizations cannot outgrow the ability of the heroic or 1 leader. As we move globally I’m not sure that this type of leadership will survive the test.
Equally, I’m not convinced we are global as yet. I believe that we think we are global, but more than likely we are National with International offices. Most organizations still make all their key decisions at their national headquarters, and then advise this to their international sites. If we are truly global, the we allow each community to make business decisions that are appropriate for that global community, which means individual communities have a say, and can bring their own unique differences, diversity and sometimes chaos to the table. There are some great examples of this, but clearly not everyone is working that way.
We have been involved in a number of organizations that are trying to be global, and constantly meet with “this is how we do it here, so just translate it”, and this will never work. Even more so, most global organizations, only move toward representation within cultures that are similar or closely aligned with their own. They do not tend to try to work in cross-cultural situations.
These are only my perceptions.
We have no specific organisational examples of servant-leadership. We find that leaders have modelled this approach, and recognise it when we describe it more fully. But, at this stage no Australian organisation has taken it on as their leadership model fully.
What are your views about politicians implementing the Servant-Leadership philosophy?
I believe the call to political life, is a call to represent or serve the community. At its central theme servant-leadership would have a natural alignment. We have seen over and over in our political landscape examples of politicians making their own good ahead of the community common good. If more politicians were servant-leaders, maybe this would not occur. However, our party system is such that unless servant-leadership was a part of the party philosophy it would unlikely survive in the political malaise that evolves everyday. Our current prime minister has spoken of his desire to serve the community, yet many of his party and colleagues have no such clear intentions – at least not stated.
What implications do you see the Servant-Leadership philosophy having on the parenting and educating of children?
These are topics I’m far from familiar with enough to state anything appropriate or concrete. However, it has been schools that have shown some great interest in the work over the last 2 years. But these are predominantly private schools, owned by religious communities. So I believe the authenticity of the work is because of a perceive “right” alignment. If educationalist were to take this perspective, I wonder how much more our education systems might be “abundant” by nature, rather than “impoverished”. However, until public schools begin to use this, I cannot say what implications this would bring.