A recent blog post by Steve Keating asked, “Where Have all the Servants Gone?” Servant leadership is something that is discussed frequently by several CEOs of member companies at the Center for Higher Ambition Leadership. They embrace their role of working for the success of all stakeholders with the success of one not coming at the expense of the others. Crafting this “simultaneous solve” is a great achievement requiring the skills of strategist, diplomat, visionary, and, yes, humble servant. It is not easy. Though it worth the effort because the process can reveal perspectives that lead to distinctive competitive opportunities.
Robert Greenleaf, who coined the term “servant leadership,” put it this way:
A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
This is not a new concept. For example, as Keating explains:
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!’”
Keating’s larger point, however, is worth considering: why is servant leadership not embraced more widely? He says:
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.”
Keating puts forward an interesting alternative to “servant”: “serving.” He describes it this way:
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.
What do you think? Do you embrace servant leadership? What do you think of “serving” as an alternative? We urge you to read Keating’s full post and weigh in with your thoughts.