What is Servant Leadership ?

Robert Greenleaf once wrote that one of the “marvelous” things about servant leadership was that there was no easy definition for it. We know what it is for – to use and share power wisely with an eye on making the world a better place – and we know what it results in – followers who are healthier, wiser, and freer, servants themselves – but there is no simple answer for what servant leadership actually is. This should not be surprising, though, given that academics and practitioners alike have for decades failed to agree on what the simple word “leadership” actually means.

I claim no ultimate wisdom on this topic, but I have lately been of the mind that leadership represents goal-focused influence, enacted within relationships. As Dwight Eisenhower once opined, leadership “is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Ike’s assessment sounds about right to me: leadership is a process of motivating individuals to deprioritize routine and self-serving goals in favor of something new. And I believe that what that ‘something new’ is, determines what type of a leader they are. A leader who leverages popularity and charisma to motivate followers to support the leader him or herself, for instance, so that the leader could grow in power and profit, would be an amoral or narcissistic leader. A leader who instead inspires a team to work together to accomplish a business’s mission and improves profits, might be termed a goal- or effectiveness-focused leader. Alternatively, a leader who prioritizes ethical compliance in his or her teammates, such that the team will avoid legal issues and scandal, might even be termed an ethical leader.

But servant leadership, I believe, represents a higher bar. A servant leader is not by definition solely self-serving. Servant leadership might lead a business to immense performance (and in fact, evidence from business scholarship suggests they do), but this is only part of being a servant leader, just one outcome of many. And it is possible that a servant leader may guide a team to avoid lawsuits and scandal. But on the other hand… and forgive me if I challenge some assumptions here… on the other hand, the servant leader’s team may be the ones exposing or even creating a scandal, if such events were needed to improve the organization or society in general. Bob Greenleaf believed ethics were of primary importance to leadership, an emphasis that is clear throughout his writing, but his view of ethics was one that was based on caring for one another, rather than rules, laws, and customs. That is, Greenleaf – and his construct of servant leadership – views ethics not necessarily as following norms and legal guidelines, but rather as serving followers, stakeholders, and society. It’s not enough for the servant leader to avoid lawsuits and do as society expects; the servant leader’s role is to find new, possibly disruptive, ways to make the team, organization, and the world a slightly better place.

Servant leadership, then, might be understood as influence and motivation – based on persuasion and role-modeling rather than coercion – focused on meaningful improvement for a wide range of stakeholders. Servant leaders are concerned with the company’s performance, and with their team’s success, but also with each individual member’s well-being, and the good of their customers, and in creating value for their communities. This is what differentiates servant leaders from mere managers: they drive amazing performance in their organizations by and through developing followers, customers, and communities.







By James Lemoine

To read more on Servant Leadership, check out The Contemporary Servant as Leader

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