Servant Leadership and Disruption

Joe Iarocciby Joe Iarocci
Chief Executive Officer
Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership
Thursday, February 28, 2013

March on Washington

People often characterize servant leadership with words like “warm” or “fuzzy” or “soft.”

But I often characterize servant leadership as “disruptive.”

Disruption is defined as “a breaking apart; a rupture; a throwing into disorder.” Why would I say servant leadership is disruptive?

Because, as I see it, servant leadership is often disruptive of the existing status quo.

Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, spent 38 years working for AT&T – in its day the largest business on the planet. He retired in the turbulent 1960s. He wrote his most important essay, The Servant as Leader, in 1970.

That was a disruptive time in U.S. history. People called for change in government. People called for change in business. People called for change in the educational system. People called for change in organized religion. People called for change in the way we guaranteed civil rights.

In short, people called for change in leadership.

Greenleaf’s response to that call was a very disruptive idea: that leaders should be servants first and leaders second. Greenleaf offered a refreshed form of leadership philosophy – servant leadership. He appealed to leaders to take a big picture view of the world and act for the common good. Greenleaf called on leaders to share power and to put the growth of others as a top priority.

Greenleaf’s ideas about servant leadership were disruptive because they turned commonly held notions of leadership success upside down. Greenleaf said true leadership was not a means to fame and fortune. Greenleaf counseled listening rather than talking, humility rather than hubris, trust rather than fear, and selflessness rather than selfishness. Greenleaf denied that leadership was about getting to the top of the corporate ladder or securing a desk in a corner office. To the contrary, Greenleaf urged leaders to “flip the organizational pyramid” and place themselves at the inverted point at the bottom, supporting and serving others.

Reflecting on that call for transformation in the 1960s, I can see some similarities in the U.S. today. People everywhere are demanding change – change in government, change in business, change in the educational system, change in the religious establishment, and change in the way we guarantee civil rights, to name a few. In this modern time, I would add that people are calling for change in the way we take care of our planet.

Just like in the 1960s, I believe people today are calling for change in the way leaders lead, and I believe servant leadership remains the answer to that call.

What do you think?

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  • Kathleen
    Reply

    I enjoyed the stance you took to share how servant leadership is not warm, fuzzy or soft. Which is often the thought pattern I often encounter, and I often advocate that servant leadership is for the brave!

    The article did a good job of showing briefly that the ills we often encounter have a solution—servant leadership.

  • Joe Iarocci
    Reply

    Thanks, Kathleen. I encounter the same thought pattern regularly. I take every opportunity to emphasize that servant leadership is concerned with excellence in performance, results and accountability.

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