It’s About the Who

To my surprise people ask me to guest lecture on the philosophy of servant leadership and the audiences that I speak to are always receptive. Personally, the last thing I would want to do is listen to me talk for an hour. I don’t blame the individuals that invite me, they hear about my background (most likely everybody else in this field was busy), and not knowing the quagmire they are getting themselves into, an invitation is extended. Never being one to back down from an opportunity, I accept, usually asking them in the reply, “are you sure?”.  

I always begin my talks with the teachings and ideas of Greenleaf, spending time on the three pragmatic questions. At the end of every talk, there are those same questions. One of them, without fail, is “what makes servant leadership different than any other leadership approach”. Now the textbook servant leadership 101 answer is simply, because it begins with a desire to serve – to serve first – whereas other theories, styles, and approaches of leadership begin with one’s desire to lead. However, since we discussed the famous quote of Greenleaf at the beginning of the talk, the desire to serve first is no longer my answer in the Q&A session, but rather, a servant leader is who you desire to be and who you desire to work for. This is the ah-ha moment, like in math class when you finally figured it out. You see eyes light up, smiles on faces, and heads nodding throughout the audience. One can practice LMX leadership or transformational leadership, yet these leadership theories can never define “who” you are. This, again in my opinion, is what makes servant leadership beautiful. To be a servant leader is to be humble, a healer, a listener. These are characteristics that make up each of us on this journey– it’s our “who”. In your memoirs after a well-lived career you’re not going to write “situational leadership defined my character” or “that six-sigma blackbelt sure helped build meaningful communities”.

I came to this realization after giving talks to younger audiences. The tail end of the millennial generation as well as the iGeneration after them, are still asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up”? This is the same question that each of us was asked. Sometimes this question would come at us from adults that are just trying to fill the uncomfortable silence because it’s a little too difficult speak to an 11-year-old about the weather. However, this question seems to be to be the wrong one to be asking young people.

According to Forbes magazine an individual has already been born that will see the age of 150. With medical advances, many millennials and iGens will realize lifespans over 100 years old. Asking a young person what you want to be is the wrong question. Because with that many decades ahead of them, their “what” will change many times over. However, each of their “who” will go with them throughout life, regardless of what it is they are doing.

Servant leadership is about, defining one’s “who”. Because let’s face it, the characteristics and constructs that have been identified over the last 50 years converge to form a decent human being, its improbable that one can be a caring, humble jerk. This to me is what makes servant leadership different from any other leadership approach, because being a servant leader is about being the best “who” you can be.

Written by

Eric J. Russell, Ed.D., CHPP


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