“I CHALLENGE YOU TO BUILD THE MUSCLE OF SERVANT LEADERSHIP.”
That’s the call to action and last line of a speech that I wrote for the chief sustainability officer at a multi-billion dollar manufacturing company.
Researching the speech, given to open a day of service at a world-renowned university, led me to seminal essays by Robert A. Greenleaf from the 1970s.
Greenleaf identified two types of executives: the leader-first and the servant-first.
Traditional leadership, or leader-first, generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.”
A servant leader, Greenleaf proposed, focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.
Servant leadership was groundbreaking thinking then. Is it in play successfully in highly competitive companies today?
Arguably, Greenleaf’s position on servant leadership is aligned with how we might define today’s corporate social responsibility (CSR).
He, in fact, recognized that organizations could be servant-leaders and wrote:
“. . . caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.”
Certainly the imperatives of CSR and business sustainability have driven some organizations to align sustainability with innovation and to change some business operations in order to achieve measurable goals to improve the organization’s social and environmental impact. These goals also reflect the values of the company.
Employees, particularly millennials, are attracted to companies that are mission-oriented and that demonstrate organizational values that align to their own. In fact, a 2017 Deloitte survey found that millennials are beginning to view businesses more positively–76 percent say businesses are having a more positive impact on wider society.
What’s interesting and aligns with the Greenleaf position is that those surveyed, “in general, do not support leaders who take divisive positions, or aim for radical transformation rather than gradual change. They are more comfortable with plain, straight-talking language from both business and political leaders.”
Even so, I have a question: how might workers view the individual servant leader?
Is it a challenge for employees to identify, define and understand servant leadership when they first experience its effects?
An important function of the executive servant leader is to remove obstacles from the path of others so they can reach their highest potential. This definition of servant leadership puts it squarely in the domain of a business culture that empowers employees. (Empower/empowerment are words that I find to border on tired. I’m open to a better term.)
But is the servant leadership approach too often viewed as a position of weakness? Do we always, or even often enough, recognize the opportunities that are created when a manager, executive, teammate or even a client removes obstacles from our path so that we can reach our highest performing state?
More importantly, is the servant as leader a practice that we–as colleagues, managers, customers and service providers–respect and choose to consistently apply and act upon?
And as important, I wonder whether in today’s increasingly polarized political environment whether servant leadership is the management practice that we increasingly need to adopt.