The paradox that is servant leadership

“Good leaders must first become good servants”. This extraordinary, counter-intuitive leadership theory was first proposed by Robert Greenleaf in 1970 and has since become a highly regarded alternative to more traditional, top-down leadership paradigms.

To better understand servant leadership, it is necessary to consider the key principles to servant leadership that were developed by Greenleaf, as follows –

  1. Listening – (to self and others
  2. Empathy – (understanding)
  3. Healing – (search for wholeness of self and others)
  4. Awareness – (of self and of others)
  5. Persuasion – (building consensus)
  6. Conceptualization – (dreams and of day-to-day operations)
  7. Foresight – (intuitive ability to learn from past and see future consequences of actions)
  8. Stewardship – (holding institution in trust for the good of society)
  9. Commitment to Growth – (personal, professional, spiritual of self and others)
  10. Building Community – (benevolent, humane, philanthropic, to benefit others)

Unsurprisingly, in our “dog-eat-dog” world, servant leadership has its critics. Servant leaders may be seen as inefficient, indecisive, or even “soft”. This need not be the case, however. Greenleaf himself recognised that servant leadership will sometimes involve tough love – “Servant leadership always empathises, always accepts the person, but sometimes refuses to accept some of the person’s effort or performance as good enough”.

The main risk I see in adopting the label “servant leader” is when it done purely with an eye to the bottom-line, as the result of a cost-benefit analysis of the leadership theory options. There are undoubted benefits associated with servant leadership, including better staff morale, reduced staff turnover, improved collaboration and innovation, and the emergence of future leaders. However – and especially in organisations that have a Christian worldview – success cannot be defined purely in terms of the bottom-line.

Leaders ought never lose sight of the fact that all of our enterprises are, at their core, human endeavours and that we (leaders) are not only responsible to our shareholders and owners. Ultimately, we are responsible to God.

It is when we grasp this, that the truly paradoxical nature of servant leadership becomes evident. Others may see me as the “boss” but, in fact, I am a servant. Leadership simply happens to be the context in which I serve. Jesus showed this clearly in his own life, in both word and deed.

I love a little-known parable of Jesus, recorded in the seventeenth chapter of Luke’s gospel –

“Will any one of you who has a servant ploughing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

Then, on the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus gave his disciples an unforgettable lesson on what is means to be a servant leader. Nobody else was on hand to wash the disciples’ tired and dirty feet at the end of a long day on the road, so Jesus stooped down and undertook the lowly role himself. In the context of the rabbi-student relationship this was quite revolutionary, so Jusus explained himself –

“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13: 12-17)

Nigel Grant
Nigel Grant

Nigel is the primary consultant at Character Matters