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!

Titles Can’t Lead

You’ve worked hard to earn your title and position of leadership. You’ve done more than required of you and now you have the opportunity to truly make a difference.

Maybe you’ve just lucked into the title. Maybe you were born into the position, or married into it. Maybe you’ve benefited from the Peter Principle and got the position because “they” tried you in other roles and you did okay.

Either way, whether you lucked into a position or you’ve really earned it, your title and position of leadership does not make you a leader.

Being a leader requires that you actually lead somebody.

If you manage people you’re likely a boss, not a leader.

If you lead people to act as you act and you can influence them to behave in a certain way you’re probably an effective leader. The challenge with being an effective leader is that despite some success you’re likely still not helping your people reach their full potential.

If you lead people to act as you act and you care as much about your followers as you care about yourself, and if you influence your people in a way that helps them become a leader and you celebrate their success as much as or more than your own then you’re almost certainly an Authentic Servant Leader.

When you help people accomplish more than they ever believed possible, because you believed in them even more than they believed in themselves, then you are a leader of leaders.

No one leads merely by sitting in a leader’s chair. If you’re really going to lead you have to do something.

You see, accepting an important sounding title or position does not make you a leader. It may however make it possible to force the compliance of your people. You may be able to “scare” them into doing what you want but fear is a very poor long-term motivator.

If you settle for the compliance of your people you will always have “personnel issues” to deal with. Your people will simply do the bare minimum required to maintain their job. They will always be restless and not in a constructive way. They will underperform and they will frustrate you. And it will all be because of you; you may have filled the office of the leader but you’ve left a leadership void.

A title or position does not make you a leader, nor does it lead for you. It merely gives you a bit of time to earn the opportunity to truly lead. The extent of your leadership will be determined by you and those who you would lead. If you can show that you care enough about your followers as people then they will allow you to lead them. Yes, I said allow.

If you think you can make people follow you then you had better think again. You may be able to make them comply but leading people requires their permission and commitment. If your people are not committed to you then they will not follow you. There is no way to force someone to commit to you. Their commitment must be earned.

Compliance causes people issues, commitment solves them.

People commit to a leader when they discover that the leader cares about them as people. When a leader proactively, intentionally and consistently shows that they care then their followers will know without a doubt that the leader has their best interests in mind.

When they know the leader has their best interests in mind they will go above and beyond to help the leader. You’ll never hear a committed follower say “that’s not in my job description.”

Leadership requires more than a title; it requires action on the part of the leader. If you are counting on your position or title to gain the commitment of your people then you are missing the leadership boat.

Take action to show you care. Invest yourself in the success of your people. Freely give your time and expertise to those you would lead. Make a difference for other people.

That is how Authentic Servant Leadership works!