Are Servant Leaders Obsolete?

by  Eileen McDargh  |  Leadership Development

It’s a question that has many of us in the leadership resiliency field pondering with great uneasiness. The current public personas of people whom we would title “leaders” are a far cry from the model Robert Greenleaf developed during his 40 years with American Telephone and Telegraph (now AT&T).

After decades in corporate America, Greenleaf’s research led him to a growing suspicion that the power-centered authoritarian leadership style so prominent in U.S. institutions was not working. In 1964 he took an early retirement to found the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

He started a movement that captured many. Today, Greenleaf’s servant leadership can be found in the work of authors and educators like Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey,  Margaret Wheatley, Jack Zenger, and Warren Bennis. We point to the historical leadership examples of Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela.

Consider the hallmarks of servant leadership: In Greenleaf’s own words: “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

Ummm?? In his February newsletter, Wharton professor and best selling author Adam Grant made this observation from the recent World Economic Forum in Davos:

I was shocked to learn that eight men are wealthier than half the world’s population—only to see an update afterward that the eighth wasn’t necessary (sorry Bloomberg), because just seven dudes had it covered. It reinforced how poorly we are doing on behalf of the world’s poor. And people spoke in hushed tones about creeping nationalism and nepotism and narcissism. Before the U.S. presidential inauguration, one group closed a dinner by toasting the last night they could guarantee that America was a democracy.

Now that is one frightening sentence.

Greenleaf ‘s servant leader model did not just look at justice through equality of opportunity but placed an even greater emphasis on how a servant leader behaves.

Read his words very carefully: “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

In short, servant leadership is taking care of the “other.” There is no name-calling or bullying, no temper tantrums and inflated ego. The servant leader listens to others, takes counsel, and continually asks how to help the “other” develop. Whether the “other” is an organization, a family, or a planet, the underlying message is that we can make this work together.

It takes no great leap of the imagination to realize that such servant leaders are horribly lacking. Greed, self- promotion, and narrow-interests abound.   

However,  I believe the finger pointing and the incredibly noxious behavior we are observing across this nation must stop. As my mother used to observe: “If you point one finger at someone, remember the other four fingers are pointing back at you.”

Individually, we can look at our behavior and explore resources like The Greenleaf Center. We can commit to a daily practice such as the one found at True Leader CreedThis is not being passive but rather showing up and holding up  a mirror to self and others.

Our humanity and our collective well-being depend upon it.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this concept!
Photo Credit: Lightwise/123RF

About The Author

Articles By eileen-mcdargh
Eileen McDargh is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, master facilitator, and award-winning author with expertise in resiliency and leadership. Her articles have appeared in countless publications and two of her six books have been awarded national recognition, including the Ben Franklin Gold Award.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Jane Perdue  |  01 Mar 2017  |  Reply

Thoughtful, well-done post, Eileen. Totally agree.

Eileen McDargh  |  02 Mar 2017  |  Reply

Thanks, Jane. Please do share the post. Maybe people will stop and THINK about their behavior–

Sam  |  02 Mar 2017  |  Reply

Great post Eileen, I love the quote from your mother.
“If you point one finger at someone, remember the other four fingers are pointing back at you.”
This couldn’t be more relevant today.

Eileen McDargh  |  02 Mar 2017  |  Reply

Thanks, Sam. Mom always had some great lines. One of other favorites was: “Put your brain in gear before you put your mouth in motion.”

Jane  |  02 Mar 2017  |  Reply

I agree that the world’s wealthiest might not be servant leadership, but without witnessing their behavior or learning from testimonies of those who work for them, I don’t know if they model the servants heart or not. The characteristics of a servant leader have nothing to do with wealth. For example, I believe Max Dupree was a servant leader and he certainly had wealth. I just wanted to add this idea that servant leadership is revealed from the heart rather than the spreadsheet.

Eileen McDargh  |  02 Mar 2017  |  Reply

Absolutely SPOT on. Sadly, I think we are seeing some very wealthy “leaders” who do NOT have a servant heart at all. The observation about wealth came from Adam Grant and what he wrote about attending the world economic forum in Davos. Grant’s point was that seven people hold more wealth than 1/2 the world’s population which means that as a global community, we have a long way to go to aiding the world’s poor.

Thanks so much for writing.

Doug Smith  |  07 Mar 2017  |  Reply

Well said. We’ve been shifting away from servant leadership thanks to the glamorization of boss-like aggressive leaders who always seem to get their way. The price has been a disengaged workforce and such a strong focus on the bottom line that the top line has stopped growing.

How long will this trend continue? It matters. Your article did contain a frightening sentence about the persistence (or lack) of democracy. We need to stand tall and weather this storm, not by pushing back with the aggression we see so often rewarded, but with the patience, centeredness, and compassion of servant leaders.

We need not join the bullying, and we need not surrender.

Eileen McDargh  |  07 Mar 2017  |  Reply

Thankls, Dloug. I appreciate the insights, too, related to what we must do in response. May I invite you to check out I created that as a statement of exactly what you and I must behave in order to regain TRUE leadership.

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