Servant Leadership

“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.” – Robert Greenleaf

Robert Greenleaf, the father of the term Servant Leadership, is said to have drawn his inspiration from a story by Hermann Hesse called The Journey to the East. The novel tells the tale of several men making a long voyage in search of “ultimate truth.” The group is part of a religious sect called The League and on their way to find ultimate truth, they meet a man named Leo who is a servant. Leo is accommodating and aids the travelers along their journey. He encourages the group when they grow tired, does menial chores for the men, provides them with the tools they need, and offers advice in his kind and quiet manner. At one point during the journey, Leo disappears, and the entire group dissolves, unable to go on. Later in the plot, it is revealed that Leo was actually the leader of The League and had been attempting to help the men the entire time, providing what they needed to progress further, and even acting as a foil to see if they would rise to the challenge of leading themselves.

Encourage followers to keep going. Make sure followers have everything they need to complete the journey. Offer advice. Give followers tools to get the job done.

A Servant Leader’s focus is on the health of the team. They aren’t concerned with their own well-being. Aren’t worried about how they look. They have learned to sacrifice for the good of their followers.

In our latest Leadership U podcast, we spoke with retired Lt. Col. Charles Reif about what it takes to be a good Servant Leader. After many years in the military, leading hundreds of men and women, organizing several tours of duty across various countries, he had this to say about leadership. “The most important thing a leader needs to know about his organization is he’s the least important person there.”

You can listen to the entire episode HERE.

True Servant Leaders have learned to put the interests of their organization, team, and followers ahead of their own.

The fable inspired Greenleaf to explore a concept that was very unintuitive to current leadership practices. Although Greenleaf made the terminology more widespread and part of modern culture, he was not the first one to introduce the idea of Servant Leadership.

As Servant leaders, our model of how to interact with followers should begin and end with Jesus Christ. He demonstrated a leadership style that was utterly foreign to the people of that time and culture. Jesus was an anomaly. He promoted leading from the position of a servant, and he humbled himself instead of promoting himself. No one had ever displayed this kind of meekness while wielding the type of power that Jesus held. He could sway thousands with his words, yet he chose the differential action of washing his disciple’s feet to demonstrate leadership to them (John 13:1-7).

Jesus was demonstrating a leadership style that put the needs of his followers before his desire or ambitions. He humbled himself. And his followers didn’t know how to react to that.

Patterson describes Servant Leadership as containing the constructs of love, humility, altruism, vision, trust, empowerment, and service. These characteristics are not ones that we typically associate with the high-powered position of a leader. The idea that a leader would take the lowly status of a servant and do a menial task such as washing feet was just as strange and unfamiliar to Jesus’ disciples as it is to many of us today. However, the impact of his leadership is still felt today over two thousand years after his ministry.

Servant Leadership is not always our first inclination; it is usually something we have to work at quite a bit. Just like anything else worth doing, it takes a lot of practice. The practice of putting others first. The practice of humbling ourselves. The practice of loving others.

It’s a big commitment to lead with a servant’s heart, but the results are well worth the effort.

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