“Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed. That are not seekers after solace. They have their own inner serenity”- Robert K. Greenleaf’s The Servant as Leader
Pure fear – that’s what you see in their eyes as they look to you for reassurance. Oh, they’re alphas on solid ground alright, brave, dedicated Airmen. But now, they’re just a powerless bundle of nerves at the mercy of gravity. The toes of their boots digging in as hard as they can into the inches of ledge while their gloved left hand grips the railing with white-knuckle force. Below them, a long drop to concrete. You’re on the other side of that railing calmly reassuring them. You remind them of the training. The safety checks. You tell them, don’t look down (at least for the first time). They’re in a state known as being on rope and tethered to a belay-line. You give them the command to rappel, they repeat it as does the spotter on the ground. They lean back, right hand holding the rope by their side. The training takes over. They push off and bound, touching the wall face two, maybe three, times before landing safely on the ground. They look up and smile. That fear is gone. Before you know it, they’re back on the tower with the other rescue-technician candidates, this time itching to go again.
Though they had butterflies in their stomachs, you as the instructor did not. You trained them. Double safety-checked all of the equipment, anchor points, ropes, and hardware. You worked with them on the land, ensuring they were physically and psychologically ready for the next level of training. You made sure they grew in their abilities on solid ground before they ever entered the tower to climb the stairs. You served them, they grew, and from that growth you were gifted peace, specifically, a state of inner serenity that comes from knowing your people are ready to be empowered. Since you met their needs, they grew and from said growth your followers are now able to move the needle forward. Now, you as a leader have one less thing to worry about.
When I’m asked what makes a person a servant leader, my answer is, a servant leader is one who meets the needs of followers. It’s a simple answer that acts as a place holder for seemingly infinite possibilities. Yet that answer also creates an endless series of questions, the first being, why does one need to serve the needs of followers? You know, they’re employees, I’m paying them so they should just do with their told. My follow up to that is usually, because it’s in your own best interest and that right there opens up Pandora’s box. Individuals push back, and rightfully so. If you don’t understand the underlying aspects of the philosophy, then being a servant leader comes across as desiring to be a second-place finisher. It’s a rigid interpretation of the philosophy. Unfortunately, it’s an all-to-common superficial understanding from those who just read the headlines and not the actual article.
Make no mistake about it, in this high-speed, low-drag world of ours, people fold their arms and huff-and-puff as soon as you say the word “servant”. However, when you study the writings of Greenleaf, it becomes obvious that he rallied against smallminded thinking and orthodoxy for he understood that rigidity was a part of the problem. Greenleaf used the term servant leadership so that we who desire a better way would go deeper, question, reflect. He didn’t speak of second place, nor selfless sacrifice. In now a decade of studying, writing, researching, and speaking on the philosophy, I have never read even a single sentence penned by Greenleaf that sacrifices the leader. Because when you finally understand what it means to meet the needs of followers the servant leader is no longer this selfless victim, but rather, an individual that has consciously made a rationally-selfish, self-serving choice. For the true servant leader is aware that they themselves continuously benefit by meeting the needs of followers.
The stress leaders face because of the responsibilities placed upon them is enough. Added stress isn’t manageable, it’s soul-crushing. It’s an axe chipping away at one’s psyche, not to mention, one’s immune system. Yet, when your people grow they develop self-efficacy, they become autonomous, capable, innovative and creative. They can now serve you. And their growth now becomes your inner-serenity, because you know that when your people find themselves standing on a ledge, they know exactly what to do.
Eric J. Russell