There is an ongoing battle to not lose humanity in both the organization and the classroom. A battle over what truly matters, the person or the process. Central to this fight is the question: is the person a means to an end? Are people simply part of the overall process, or are they much more? Are people simply numbers, no different than the technology or the machine? At present, decisions are quantifiable, data driven. There is only one problem; you cannot quantify the human experience. You cannot quantify the smell of rain, the sound of a loved one’s laughter, a loss, a sunset. You cannot quantify the beautiful.
For centuries the point of higher education was to teach individuals to think critically and make decisions. Academia was there to open and expose minds to what was possible. The aim of education was to immerse learners into the works of the masters, and along the way teach them to apply the meanings of the work to modern concepts and problems. Unfortunately, our society seems to have lost sight of this idea. The rhetoric surrounding higher education’s role is to train the masses for jobs. When those in power cut education spending, the first to go are the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences. The areas of beauty, hope, and people. Each slash dressed with the bandages of standardized curriculum for the masses. Where then do the new ideas come from? What new concept, innovation, or invention emerges from inside the standardized lines?
It was once understood that learning to think advanced the human condition. The application of thinking turned dreams and ideas into reality. Thinking was at the heart of discovery, cure, solution, advancement, and improvement. Thinking was celebrated. Though it stood outside the quantifiable, thinking was appreciated. The act of thinking was poetic grit. To take away thinking was to take away the beautiful. Without thinking there can be no Renaissance. The cave would have remained the homestead of mankind.
When we shed thinking we lose the ability to conceptualize. When we dismiss the beautiful, it is we who suffer. We see this problem come to fruition not just in academia, but also, in so many organizations. People become liabilities, they are expendable. The humanity is far removed. Decisions are based upon numbers and void of names. This is what Greenleaf witnessed so long ago: the toxic, the bureaucratic, the inhumane. In his time of worry and doubt, Greenleaf didn’t turn to the managerial text or leadership book; it wasn’t the acceptable standard that drove his vision. It wasn’t a paint-by-numbers spreadsheet or the possibility of a new process. It was the humanities. Servant leadership emerged from a thinker’s time spent with the unquantifiable works of philosophers, theologians, scholars, and dreamers. It was theoretically conceived in the works of what society today seems to dismiss. With every step away from the works that foster thinking, we as a species inch closer to losing our humanity.
Greenleaf put forth a concept that stemmed from his reflections of his experiences. He spent time in thought. He danced with the prose of masters. He saw only the human. Servant leadership is Greenleaf’s poetic grit. Servant leadership is a lifetime of work focused on what matters, the irreplaceable, the person. What separates the philosophy from other leadership approaches is the fact that servant leadership focuses on people.
Those who subscribe to the philosophy realize that everything else works out when the needs of people are met. It frees people to dream, conceptualize, create, and innovate. It is the people that will bring a vision into reality. A leader’s success comes from followers’ self-actualizing. It is only when the follower self-actualizes to their full potential are they truly free to serve the leader’s needs.
Greenleaf’s vision for servant leadership is unquantifiable because it’s about the human experience. Servant leadership is humanity practiced outwardly. We can study its impact on outcomes and satisfaction; however, its beauty exists in the qualia. We
We must ask ourselves if we continue to lose the beautiful, could the future Greenleaf step forth. What placewill servant leadership have if we become a society where only the quantifiable shapes our experience?
By: Eric J. Russell