In the dialogue between Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has the young Juliet proclaim,
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet”
In other words, call it what you want, but the characteristics of a rose – the aroma, texture, and other aesthetic qualities remain the same even if you choose to call it a greglestick.
Servant leadership, in its modern iteration, was a concept developed by Robert Greenleaf from a mostly a-religious (or at least unspecified) base of knowledge and experience. As Greenleaf observed leadership behaviors within a corporate setting, he identified those actions and mindsets that lead to a lifting up of individuals. He saw the benefits of a society, whether a workgroup, corporate enterprise, or geographic community, that built success through serving one another.
Since Greenleaf’s development of the servant leader principles in the 1970’s, several have built on his original ideas to provide a clearer framework that can be taught and applied in settings as diverse as corporations, educational institutions, churches, and government entities.
The church and some faith-based nonprofits eagerly embrace servant leadership, seeing the roots in the teachings of Jesus Christ. He said, “But the greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11) Followers of Christ understand the importance of serving others, and the term servant-leadership is widely accepted. Yet even within some Christian circles, the term carries some baggage, and a search is on to rename it.
The concept of service is not unfamiliar outside the church walls, as military members serve their country and politicians serve their constituents. But when it comes to the boardroom and the cubicle farms of our organizations, the idea of serving one another brings unease (although I can’t tell you how many job applicants say, “I like to help others” as a reason to hire them).
The principles of servant leadership are not necessarily the problem. Professor Larry Spears, who teaches servant leadership at Gonzaga University, lists 10 characteristics of a servant leader:
- Commitment to the growth of people
- Building community
Most of these qualities are familiar to us, although terms such as “healing” and “stewardship” seem foreign to our perceptions of what we discuss within our corporations. These unique characteristics, however, are exactly what make the servant leadership approach different from many other leadership models and philosophies.
An even greater step out of the leadership model comfort zone is Kathleen Patterson’s servant leadership model (Regent University), which uses terms like love, humility, and altruism. Similarly, Jeremie Kubicek, author of Leadership is Dead, replaces the term servant leadership with humility-based leadership. Citing baggage that comes with the term servant leadership, Kubicek sees the humility-based leaders as the antithesis of the self-serving and self-protecting leader.
It seems that to truly capture the essence of a type of leadership that promotes the needs of followers, to the extreme that productivity and profit are deemphasized over helping individuals to fully achieve all they are capable of, we may have to get comfortable with calling it what it is. Transformational leadership captures this emphasis on raising others up to their full potential, but the missing link, at least according to Patterson, is the notion that a servant leader serves altruistically, not because it is a means to greater productivity or organizational benefit.
While the title “servant leadership” may not resonate with everyone, especially those prone to a less benevolent style of leadership, I think that’s the point. Those who have seen the value of servant leadership, as Robert Greenleaf did decades ago, and are convinced that it delivers the best organizational and personal outcomes, must dialogue about how to articulate the benefits and principles that go along with it to a skeptical audience.
That being said, perhaps the closest commercialized leadership “model” that embraces the principles of servant leadership is The Leadership Challenge. Based on decades of research by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge promotes the care of followers, which sounds a lot like servant leadership. Their principle of Encourage the Heart is based on the belief that, “As a relationship, leadership requires a connection between leaders and their constituents over matters, in the simplest sense, of the heart. It is personal and it is interpersonal.”
The servant leader enjoys serving, and would do it whether it “pays off” or not (that’s the altruistic nature of the model). Some may view this as “soft” or overly-idealistic. But to call service something other than service because it might offend, makes serving others seem optional, sub-par, and unrealistic.
Though others have tried, I’m not sure calling servant leadership by any other name really makes sense. Instead, I see the need to package servant leadership in a way that is clear, compelling, and convincing. Ben Lichtenwalner, who maintains the site www.modernservantleader.com, provides a list of organizations who have applied servant leadership successfully. The list includes well-known companies like AFLAC, 7-Eleven, The Container Store, Herman Miller, and Southwest Airlines, as well as smaller businesses that operate in a limited geography.
So, my suggestion is we move from re-naming servant leadership and focus on promoting it within our organizations and communities. Find out more at…