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Exploring servant leadership

Bob Vanourek //September 17, 2014//

Exploring servant leadership

Bob Vanourek //September 17, 2014//

“Good leaders must first become good servants.”

 Robert Greenleaf

Decades ago, when I first heard about and read “The Leader as Servant,” by Robert Greenleaf, it was a mind-flip for me that has changed my beliefs about leadership.

Robert Greenleaf (1904–1990) was the founder of the modern Servant leadership movement and the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

Greenleaf worked for AT&T for forty years, researching management and concerned that top-down, command-and-control leadership was a flawed approach. In 1970 he published an essay, “The Servant As Leader”, which introduced the term “servant leadership.”

Greenleaf wrote,

“The servant-leader is servant first… Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead… The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: ‘Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?’ “

For me, up until then, leadership had been all about being in charge, in control, having the answers, telling other people what to do, being distant, and never letting people see that you sweat.

The leader serves? The power is with the followers to determine whom they choose to follow willingly? It was a mind-flip that has stayed with me to this day. Directing people results in begrudging compliance. There is little commitment or engagement from them. Serving people leads to willing followership.

In the 1980’s, my wife and I visited Robert Greenleaf to pay our respects. He was quite elderly at the time, living alone in an assisted-living facility in New Jersey since his wife had died. I told him, as a lifelong student of leadership, his insights had changed my life in a wonderful way.

I have spoken about servant leadership for years, written and conducted workshops on the subject. It is a powerful leadership philosophy. I recently spoke at a sponsored workshop in the Vail area, for more than 100 leaders from all walks of life, and many made the point to express afterward that they were similarly moved. Servant leadership is not the complete or only approach to such a complex task and calling, but it is a practice that may change your leadership perspectives (and your life) too.

In my experience, many leaders have never heard of servant leadership, or they have heard of it but do not know how to reconcile it with other leadership practices. This was one of the key motivations for us in writing our book and developing our website—showing how to turn high-minded principles into practical, powerful results. You might start there. Or, you might “begin at the beginning” with any number of Greenleaf’s essays or books. Or the books of Max De Pree, who wrote in Leadership Is an Art:


“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.

The last is to say thank you.

In between, the leader is servant.”

To introduce the power of servant leadership in your organization, you can conduct a book club discussion of servant leadership principles over a period of several weeks or months. Or, after sharing with your colleagues some of the key concepts of servant leadership, you might conduct a leadership team discussion asking and answering these kinds of questions:

  1. What’s the purpose of an organization? Draw out the conclusion that organizations serve stakeholders.
  2. Recap the concepts of servant leadership. Refer to any pre-reading.
  3. Whom do organizations serve? List various stakeholders (e.g., customers, employees, the community, students, faculty, etc.).
  4. Define the characteristics of servant leadership (e.g., serving, coaching, collaboration, etc.).
  5. What are the benefits of servant leadership (e.g., engagement, commitment, respect, trust, etc.)?
  6. What are the risks of servant leadership (e.g., indecisiveness, giving up control, lost focus, etc.)?
  7. How can we mitigate the risks of servant leadership (e.g., communication, education, shared values, etc.)? (I believe all the risks can be mitigated.)
  8. How, specifically, might we implement servant leadership in our organization (e.g., ask and listen, be authentic, alignment, etc. – see our White Paper on Alignment)?

To help you get started, here is a link to some of our favorite Servant Leadership Quotes. I predict such a discussion of servant leadership within your organization will be rich and rewarding. Your colleagues will start to feel that you are serving them, as well as they are serving you.

Practical Applications:

  1. Do you believe leaders serve?
  2. Have you explored servant leadership within your organization?
  3. Contact me if you wish to explore servant leadership more in your organization: [email protected]