Where Have all the Servants Gone?

When I write or speak about Servant Leadership I often receive a fair amount of feedback that true “Servant Leadership” is some utopian dream that “can’t work” in today’s world. It has been suggested to me that I should “park” this new age Servant Leadership thing.

It sometimes seems as if all the servants have gone away.

The concept of Servant Leadership is hardly new. In fact, it’s been around longer than anyone reading this post.

Lao-Tzu wrote about Servant Leadership in the fifth-century BC: “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware…. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!'”

The concept of serving from a leadership position seemed to go into a type of hibernation for many, many years. It began to surface again with a paper “The Servant as Leader,” written by Robert Greenleaf in 1970. In it, he said: “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 … (vs. one who is leader first…) … The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons … (and become) more likely themselves to become servants?”

Today, Servant Leadership is a much talked about and sadly, little practiced concept. It seems many people like to talk about serving as a leader but aren’t really all that interested in investing the time required to lead while serving. They also struggle with the “people are barely aware of their existence” thing. Leaders, well actually most people, tend to like getting noticed these days.

There are many reasons why people have a hard time buying into the whole “Servant Leader” thing, a big one is the fact that the terms “Servant” and “Leader” don’t actually go together well. Even many of those who would be served see “servant” as a weakness and would prefer a “stronger” leader than a mere servant could ever be.

The average person has a much greater need to be led than to be served. If they have to sacrifice one for the other then the “servant” will be quickly jettisoned in favor of the “leader.”

If “servant” is seen as a weakness in a leader, as it is for many people, then perhaps a better term would be “Serving Leader.” I know I’m kind of splitting hairs here but words do matter. People value people who serve. We thank members of our military, strong, young, and brave men and women, for their “service.” They “serve” the citizens of their country. I wonder if we would feel the same about the members of our military if it was filled with people we thought of as servants.

If the term “Servant Leader” is preventing you from embracing the concept of helping others grow; if it is causing you to delay acceptance of the responsibility that goes with committing yourself to your people; if you or others in your organization believe being a “servant” makes you weaker then adopt the philosophy of a Serving Leader.

In all things Serving Leaders put their people first.

That may sound naive in a competitive business environment but it’s actually a great business strategy.

Serving Leaders understand that their success and the success of their organization is completely dependent upon the success of their people. They know that the fastest, most efficient way to build a stronger business is to grow the people who make up the business.

If you’re a leader who believes your people are an “expense” then you should flat out change your thinking to see your people as an investment. It is not a weakness to “serve” their interests, it is in fact in the best interest of the leader to do so.

Serving Leaders are tireless in their efforts for their people. They are also, almost without exception, the most fulfilled of all leaders. Serving Leaders are held in high regard by their followers, they feel better about themselves at the end of the day and are often more productive than mere effective leaders.

Leadership is a people business. Leaders who skip the people part are limited leaders. Leaders who serve their people are limitless leaders. I understand that serving isn’t the only way to lead but it just might be the best way.

Where are all the Servant Leaders? Feel free to share your examples of serving leaders in a comment. The more “serving” as a leader is recognized the more likely leaders are to serve.

That would be a good thing for everyone!

13 thoughts on “Where Have all the Servants Gone?

  1. Deanna says:

    What are the possibilities of a team taking advantage of the servant nature of a leader? And if this is a possibility, how can one tackle it?

    • That is absolutely a possibility and sadly that is a great deal of evidence that it happens. That is another reason some people see a servant leader as weak. BUT an Authentic Servant Leader is strong and leads where they can make a difference – they give to those who can use the gift for the betterment of the whole team. When they discover a manipulative “taker” they remove them from the team as any strong leader would.

  2. Tom Woltersdorf says:

    Thanks for the new terminology on Servant Leadership. A serving leader’s investment in the people pays high dividends. But then, a true serving leader isn’t about the payoff, they are all about the service.

  3. Another good post Steve.

    Personally, I feel the problems stemming from the idea of ‘servant’ leadership are multi-faceted and complex. Partially because of culture and another due to religion. Our definitions of servant and service will vary greatly depending on what part of the world you are born in and what religion you grow up being most familar with that impact your ‘vision’ an idea for what a servant is.

    Being a sort of movie geek at times, here’s a couple of examples.

    1. The Last Samurai. The Samurai were considered to be ‘servant’ WARRIORS. Although their religious and cultural belief system is ENTIRELY different then that of the Christian western world, the code they lived by was not. The Samurai were a highly disciplined people that practiced what is called Bushido, which contained 7 virtues.

    – Justice (rectitude)
    – Courage
    – Benevolence
    – Respect –
    – Honesty
    – Honor
    – Loyalty

    When it comes to the Samurai, we don’t think of a people who were passive, submissive, humble ‘slaves’. Some of us might think of them as terrifying warriors, not ‘servants’ to a higher creed and calling. A people who were trained since birth to serve as warriors and to die with honor while serving if that was their ‘destiny’. They took it seriously enough to be willing to take their own life rather then live in shame. A far cry different from ‘honor’ in the western world. I’m not saying ‘better”…I’m saying very DIFFERENT.

    2. Gladiator (another fave) I love the script. There were 2 scenes that come to mind. The 1st was early on in the movie following the battle of Germania. Marcus Aurelius seeks a private audience with Maximus and during their conversation, Marcus basically pulls the delusional rug out from under his feet when it comes to shattering his illusions on his own leadership as a man (I brought the sword…nothing more….) and on the ‘idea’ of the glory of Rome. ( Rome is the light…(Maximus)…And you have never been there! …( Marcus)

    The 2nd scene that comes to mind is between Lucilla and her brother Commodus.

    COMMODUS: Who deign to lecture me?
    LUCILLA: Commodus, the senate has its uses.
    COMMODUS: What uses? All they do is talk. Talk. …It should have been only me, and you, and Rome.
    LUCILLA: Don’t even think that, Commodus. There has always been a senate….
    COMMODUS: Rome has changed. It takes an Emperor to rule an empire.
    LUCILLA: Of course, but leave the people their….
    COMMODUS: Illusions?.
    LUCILLA: …traditions.
    COMMODUS: My father’s war against the barbarians, he said himself it achieved nothing. But people still loved him.
    LUCILLA: People always love victories.
    COMMODUS: But why? They don’t see the battles? What do they care about Germania?
    LUCILLA: They care about the greatness of Rome.
    COMMODUS: Greatness of Rome? But what is that?
    LUCILLA: It’s an idea, greatness. Greatness is a vision.
    COMMODUS: Exactly. A vision. I will give the people a vision and they will love me for it. They will soon forget the tedious sermonizing of a few dry old men. I will give them the greatest vision of their lives.

    In both scenes, we are presented with an impression that an idea is VERY different then reality. And I believe this to be part of why we struggle with the term ‘servant’ leadership. Here in our country, due to our culture and dominant religion (still being Christianity), the idea was a humble ‘servant’ like Jesus. One who washed the feet of his disciples. One who allowed others to take him into custody and beat him without any retaliation or fight whatsoever. etc.

    Here in America, many of us may love the IDEA of something like that, but similar to the ‘illusions’ of Maximum (that Marcus pointed out) and what Lucilla and Commodus discussed when it came to the illusions of their own people, yet in reality, we REVEAL that we want something far different. Why is a violent sport like football still the #1 sport here in America? Modern day gladiators except no one has to play the sport to the death and they get payed big bucks to do it! The people of today love the violence just as much the Roman citizens did when it came to the Gladiators and the arena of the Colosseum.

    What we SAY and what we DO are often very two different things. What we SAY we believe is far more often then not VERY different then what our actions say we believe in each and every day.

    So are we a people that merely believes in the IDEA of servant leadership in our heads, but don’t really BELIEVE in it?

    That’s the question.

    Thanks for bringing up another important topic Steve.

    • Excellent comment once again! Perfect examples…. many things are easy to say and a challenge to do. When it comes to servant leadership I think lots of “leaders” know it’s the right thing to do so they “talk” it but are not willing to invest the time to “do” it. That plus they truly don’t have a servants heart. That is not necessarily a bad thing, we are all different and have different gifts.
      It also needs to be okay to say “I care about people but I know it’s not a strength, there are others with a more caring heart than mine. I work “for” my people in other ways… There are different still effective ways to lead, serving just works for some, not everyone.

      • You’ve brought up some additional and equally important facets to this complex topic Steve. I agree.

        After reflecting on both our comments, it also caused me to wonder if underneath the complexity is our failure to associate a strong warrior with that of a servant? If we lean in the camp that being a servant leader is like Jesus or Gandhi, the use of force is frowned upon. Imagine that in reality for a minute.

        Can you imagine ANY country in the world today NOT having a military to defend itself? Can you imagine what would happen if America announced to the world one day that we no longer believe in violence and war and will immediately dismantle our military? What a heyday that would be for the opportunists in other countries! Just because one nation or people develops a conscience doesn’t mean any other nation or people will….so one would have to be willing to be slaughtered in order to uphold a belief of nonviolence…

        So in light of that, could it be that like you are suggesting in your 2nd paragraph, some of us may have an easier time than others picturing a leader who can be both a servant WARRIOR …AND….the loving shepherd…all at the same time? Yet each is only used when it’s necessary?

        I know I’m being rather black and white and leaving out all of our shades of grey has human in addition to each of our unique gifts that serve the ‘body’….yet it’s not too far off from the ‘idea’ of a God in the O.T. who seemed to be involved with a great deal of war and that of the message in the N.T. where the God of war becomes the humble servant who doesn’t practice violence at all.

        Where Old meets New in a Bible. East and West can come together in a single person and be both a ‘samurai’ when there is a threat and a loving ‘shepherd’ in other contexts in life. Both being utilized as needed….

        Maybe our idea of a ‘servant’ doesn’t have to be only one or the other. Perhaps both are most definitely necessary and equally relevant.

  4. Alison Brown says:

    I completely agree with this perspective. Servant leaders are not weak and passive at all, they are strong and active. The key difference is in the how and the why, an over focus on the ‘what’ servant leadership is has contributed to the current misunderstandings.
    A servant leader is a servant leader by virtue of their focus on leading and developing others, and doing so with and because of a firm ethical values base. Just as Jesus challenged the highest levels of authority on behalf of the people, so should we challenge too.
    Servant leadership should challenge culture that doesnt value all as equal at the same time as supporting individuals to believe they can be more.

    Im not sure the servant leaders have ‘gone’ anywhere. Perhaps they just underestimate their impact, perhaps they have accepted a limiting belief about their impact in organisations.?

    Recently I had a useful opportunity to realise this again for myself. Having had to complete psychometric testing prior to an interview, I wad asked about a low score in drive/ambition. Reflecting on this i realised two things. Firstly the score illustrated my sense of personal ambition, and i used the opprtunity to discuss my ambition for others and the organisation and secondly, that leadership testing does not extol or measure for the leadership skills I necessarily aspire to, or organisations need. It has left me thinking…

    • Thanks Alison. Great point! Many “leadership” tests are really management tests. They take into account things, not people.

      The drive to help others succeed is key to real leadership. As I often say, if you’re doing “it” for the organization it’s likely management’ if you’re doing for the people it’s likely leadership.

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