Are Servant Leaders Obsolete?

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 Creed. This 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.

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