Leaders Must Practice Servant-Leadership, Not Expect Others to Serve Them

The term “servant-leadership” was initially coined by Robert Greenleaf, an executive for 40 years with AT&T.  Greenleaf was originally inspired by Herman Hesse’s novel “Journey to the East,” which Greenleaf read in 1958.

As Greenleaf wrote: “In this story, we see a band of men on a mythical journey…The central figure of the story is Leo, who accompanies the party as the servant who does their menial chores, but who also sustains them with his spirit and his song.  He is a person of extraordinary presence.  All goes well until Leo disappears.  Then the group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned.  They cannot make it without the servant Leo.  The narrator, one of the party, after some years of wandering, finds Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored the journey.  There he discovers that Leo, whom he had known first as a servant, was in fact the titular head of the Order, its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader.”

For many years, Greenleaf researched management, professional development and education.  As he read and wrote, Greenleaf developed a suspicion that the authoritarian leadership style prominent among major American companies was not successful.  In 1964, he took early retirement from AT&T to found the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

Greenleaf’s approach has been characterized by others as embodying 10 characteristics:

  • Listening
  • Empathy
  • Healing
  • Awareness
  • Persuasion
  • Conceptualization
  • Foresight
  • Stewardship
  • Commitment to the Growth of People
  • Building Community

Greenleaf’s idea was not that all people who possess each of these traits are automatically excellent leaders, but that leaders must consistently practice and demonstrate each of these traits in an ethical manner to create a lasting framework for a true leadership culture.

Servant-leadership means the leaders are always in service to the people they lead.  This concept is challenging to model because it runs counter to so many traditional views of leadership.  To practice true servant-leadership, we must get to know the people we lead as human beings and not merely as employees.  We should know their professional and personal goals, be cognizant of their family situations, be familiar with their backgrounds, and understand what motivates them.

To get to this level of familiarity with our people, we must do the one thing that is guaranteed to take us away from our phones, our computers and our desks – spend quality time with them over breakfast, lunch, coffee, dinner, after-work drinks or at a professional event.  We do not have to become friends with our colleagues or socialize with them; in fact, many leadership experts would label such behavior a mistake.

However, if we want our people to go the extra mile for us or for our office, we must show them that we are invested in their personal and professional growth, that we “get” them and that we will support them in pursuing their dreams.  The old statement is still valid in 2018 – and I have seen it play out at law firms, government agencies and corporations during my past 40 years in the legal profession: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

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