Servant Leadership — Some thoughts

I can’t remember how I stumbled on Robert Greenleaf’s writings but I know I am very late to the game. This is partly because I have long been quite sceptical about leadership and management conceits, thinking that we need to unravel what ‘leadership’ actually means in terms of tasks and roles, rather than bundling various tasks together to create a mythology of ‘leadership training’ that some will have access to and others won’t.

Saying that, whenever one enters a space with cynicism, the best one can do, is to try and challenge oneself about what I might be missing, after all, I don’t have a deeper insight than many before me who espouse these ideas sincerely, indeed, I expect I know far less.

Whatever led me to stumble on these writings, I am glad I found them because the book, while written in the 1970s, held a number of ideas that I feel I can carry with me, regardless of where one is on the ‘leadership’ spectrum, indeed, it sold me the idea of leadership across varying positions of influence and authority, in more traditional senses than any other reading that I have done.

This is the edition I read which is a 25th anniversary edition, published in 2002 so 45 years after publication, one might think the world had changed. There were a number of essays by Greenleaf on wide-ranging issues including servant leadership as a trustee, in education and in business. I was struck particularly, by the use of his faith as a tenet in what he wrote and his perceptions of servant leadership. One does not need to share that faith to understand or acknowledge the points made but it did make me ponder about the role of faith, in general, in setting ethical frameworks and standards and how these religious values can be reinterpreted in secular environments.

The key concepts I have taken from this book relate to the need for humility in leadership. Leadership needs to be malleable and humble. If one thinks one knows better than those who are led, one is in danger of becoming intransigent and backwards thinking. A leader creates and inspires more leaders. This writing is way ahead of networked leadership thinking around the use of social media and social networks because it was published in 1977 with some of the ideas knocking around far before that. It is, at it’s heart, a work on the value of humility in leadership and that may change as different voices are heard but it is no less or more relevant at any moment in history.

Perhaps the sections I read with the most sadness, were the pieces about his hopes for changing leadership styles in the future. Looking back, with the hopefulness he had for the youth who may not be enmeshed in bureaucracy and would look to the larger goals, we can though, learn that these messages need to be shared through every generation. So reading this, as a message to the ‘Baby Boomers’ who were growing up in the 70s, it is all the more resonant.

But this question I would raise with the present generation — especially the outspoken critics: What will the state of affairs be twenty to thirty years from now when this generation will be in control and mine will be gone? What will someone viewing the scene from a vantage point like mine say, someone who has ended his active bureaucratic career and now stands aside with more objectivity? Will such an observer say of your generation, then in control, “Adult practice in all fields is pretty mediocre when judged by what is reasonably possible”? I regret to say I fear the judgement will be the same. It may even be more harshly stated because the disparity between the level of awareness you now have and the performance you then demonstrate may be greater. You may be in greater trouble with the youngsters than my generation is with you. I hold this view because I do not see the preparation by your generation for coping with the growing bureaucratic tendencies. You are better educated than my generation was at your age. You have worked harder. You are more aware of the symptoms and you are more critical. But are you any better prepared to deal with the causes than we were?

Greenleaf’s writing does not seem to have dated, except in the way he refers to some of the institutions like universities and companies that have developed, but the tensions and the need for humility and truth in leadership, that has not changed. The need for honesty and the need to constantly listen and learn in order to lead, that has not changed.

Servant leadership changed many of my perceptions and I expect will continue to do so, not least, because Greenleaf scorns those who see leadership as the responsibility of other people. I have definitely fallen into that category through my life. My fears about ‘leadership’ and training is that it becomes self-selecting and can further marginalise those who have been marginalised if they are seeking to put themselves forward, but Greenleaf’s message is not to wait and that there are many means to lead, but the true leader does not wait for position and in this, he has said far more to me than some of the dross I’ve read in this sphere.

Perhaps it is because the concept of ‘servant leadership’ still rings true, that the leadership is about bringing people up with you — all people, all voices and particularly those voices that may not be easily heard, rather than seeking powerful positions or status for the sake of it.

In teaching me about leadership, it has also been a sharp lesson in humility and assuming one knows because I had dismissed it cynically before giving it a go. An essential lesson in itself.

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