The term and philosophy of Servant Leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in the early 1970s in his book of the same name. Though I’d never read the book, I was aware of it via articles I had read on the topic and it continued to resurface in conversations with colleagues in recent years.
Earlier this year, as I was preparing for another trip to the Peruvian Amazon, it seemed fitting to take along a book by an author named Greenleaf. ;) As well, it felt aligned with the humility infused in the leadership qualities I’ve witnessed in Juan Flores, the healer and teacher with whom I’d be visiting.
Greenleaf’s book was published at a time of societal change and upheaval in the early 1970s and his voice has a weary optimism to it. As I watch the world turn today, I couldn’t help but wonder what Robert Greenleaf would think now and feel a little sad for him. His concise diagnosis of society and the need for a new type of leadership struck me.
“We live in a mediocre society when judged in terms of what is reasonable and possible with available resources.” - Robert Greenleaf
Still, like Greenleaf, I’m an optimist. I do believe the world has made amazing gains both big and small towards improving the human condition, but I am also aware how much farther we must go. I also sense we are at a point in time where, to paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith, “what got us here, won’t get us there.”
Greenleaf’s solution to the above statement was for institutions to be led by servant leaders. His focus was on very large institutions and ones that he was familiar with, business, education, church and philanthropies, but the concepts really apply to all sizes and types.
“The servant-leader is servant first ... It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.”
Characteristics of Servant Leadership include:
Active Listening - Servant leaders actively listen to others. Active listening is a communication method where the listener listens and provides feedback to the speaker to ensure that the listener understands what is being communicated.
Empathy - They can empathize. Empathy is the ability to detect and understand emotions being felt by others.
Healer - Servant leaders have the ability to 'heal' themselves and others through creating a sense of well-being.
Awareness - They are generally aware of their environment and issues affecting their organization and its members.
Persuasion - Servant leaders influence others through persuasion rather than through exercise of authority or coercion.
Foresight - Servant leaders have the ability to foresee consequences of events or actions involving their organization and its members.
Conceptualization - They can conceptualize their vision and goals into strategies and objects that serve the organization and its members.
Stewardship - They are stewards, which means they view their position as having a caretaking responsibility over their organization and members as opposed to dominion over them.
Commitment to Growth - Servant leaders are personally committed to the personal and professional growth of others.
Community Building - They are committed to building a sense of community and mutual commitment between themselves, the organization and its members.
If you find yourself in a leadership position, whether leading teams, communities or whole organizations, and are practicing several or all these characteristics regularly, I truly believe you will be successful. We are a society for better or worse which relies on organizations of all kinds: business, education, church, non-profits and government. Having these organizations led by servant leaders would dramatically improve the value these organizations offer.
My hope is that Greenleaf’s solution was ahead of its time and that now, at a critical point in history, it will take hold.
Thanks for reading!