What is Servant-Leadership
Just before the turn of the millennium, I was introduced to Men’s Wearhouse by my father. An off-hand comment from him was the beginning of a journey that has led me to my work with Larry Spears, the world’s foremost living authority on servant-leadership, and second only to Robert Greenleaf himself, who coined the phrase and founded the servant-leadership philosophy.* It’s an honor to sit on the board of the Spears Center for Servant-Leadership, and to write with Larry, being included in such lofty company as Stephen Covey (7 Habits…), Ken Blanchard, Max DePree and numerous other prominent servant-leaders. But what is servant-leadership, and what does it mean to us, and to our society?
The short answer is this: a servant-leader serves his team ahead of himself, because he knows that doing so is better for everyone, including himself. That’s the core of it. Everyone wins, too. The individuals being served by such a leader are happier in their jobs – and in their lives – and therefore bring their best to their work, which means the servant-led team is more successful in achieving its goals, the company is more profitable (for a number of reasons), customers/clients are better served and therefore happier. It’s a win-win-win-win-win situation! Obviously, it gets much deeper than that, and that’s what people like Larry are for. In order to explain, let me backtrack a bit.
After spending four decades at AT&T, climbing from an entry-level position on a crew installing phone poles, to becoming a vice president in the corporate offices, Greenleaf created the Center for Applied Ethics. He spent the rest of his life, writing, speaking and consulting on servant-leadership. He believed, and I agree, that every level of society could benefit, every institution – businesses, universities, government, even religious organizations – could benefit as well. Though he passed almost twenty-five years ago, Greenleaf’s writings live on. Upon his death, the center he founded was renamed in his honor to the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership. Spears assumed leadership of the organization and worked tirelessly to edit a series of anthologies devoted to the servant-leader philosophy. There are now a dozen books in the series, each with numerous essays on the study and implementation of servant-leadership. [I am honored that the latest book – The Spirit of Servant-Leadership (Paulist Press) includes my essay comparing servant-leadership to Native American leadership. Learn more here.]
After seventeen years at the helm of the Greenleaf Center, Larry left to create his own Spears Center in order to concentrate on his writing/editing while also working to increase the teaching of servant-leadership throughout the world. In addition to producing a vast library of materials, he now teaches at several universities, thanks to the Internet.
One of the great things about the servant-leader philosophy is that you don’t have to be the head honcho to begin. As Greenleaf himself learned, you can start at the very bottom, adopting the principles and behaviors in whatever job you hold. And look where his ethic landed him – in the top executive suites of a multi-billion dollar company, the point at which he could instigate institutional change in a major player. He then was able to reach out to hundreds of other companies and large institutions to spread his message. And he started as a hole digger for telephone poles.
I firmly believe servant-leadership is the best philosophy to guide any society, large or small. This belief is constantly bolstered as I discover the same principles in successful societies throughout history, and as I see more successes today. I do my best to practice the principles, which I find to be in perfect harmony with my faith, as do thousands of other servant-leaders of many faiths and walks of life around the world. In addition, I have found my greatest fulfillment in service to others, and a servant-leader has many opportunities to feel fulfilled. (More on fulfillment another day.)
I warmly invite you to explore it with me as we move forward. To begin with, you can investigate the links in this article. Over the next few months I will post reviews of each of the books in the servant-leadership series, as well as others I’ve read on the subject.
In closing, let me offer one of Greenleaf’s cornerstone offerings on the subject, one that is quoted more than anything else he said or wrote:
The servant-leader is servant first . . . it begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.
I hope you’ll join me as I continue to write about this, and that you will find fulfillment in your service as I do mine.
PS – If you have questions or comments, I’d love to read them! Please leave your thoughts in a comment below. ~ LB
* – This entire journey, from my father’s comment to Larry Spears’ door, is recounted across four chapters of Fortuitous Encounters, co-edited by Larry and fellow Spears Center board member Paul Davis. It includes not one but a series of encounters that changed my life in wonderful ways. Learn more here.
** – Larry Spears’ essay, Character and Servant-Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders, is a cornerstone of servant-leadership philosophy. It is the best codification of the traits and behaviors of a true servant-leader. It has been used in dozens of courses in universities around the world, and has been referenced and cited in thousands of papers on the subject.
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