The Promise of Servant Leadership

The Servant Leadership movement instigated by Robert K. Greenleaf illustrates a particularly instructive application of McGregor’s Theory Y. When Greenleaf graduated from college in 1925, he dreamed of making an important contribution to the world, and he believed that his best chance to do that was in a large corporation. So he went to work for the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, then the world’s largest and probably most effective business. He worked his way up from the bottom to the position of Vice President and Director of Management Research, a role he created for himself that gave him lots of room to explore his own ideas about organizational management and leadership. AT&T gave him extensive freedom to study leadership and management behavior in an attempt to develop the best possible leaders for the company.

After years of research and observation, Greenleaf concluded that the best leaders always start with a desire to serve rather than a desire for power or goal achievement. He also proposed that this desire to serve begins with a simple and natural feeling for people. Near the end of his life, he published a short
pamphlet, The Servant as Leader, in which he stated the following:

“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. . . . 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 difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or at least not be further deprived?” (The Servant as Leader, 1991, p. 7)

The spirit of Greenleaf’s message has grown significantly, thanks largely to the work of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in Indianapolis, though the message has not been widely noticed in mass media. As usual, the top-down authoritarian model of leadership still seems more practical and more attractive to power holders and those who identify with power holders. Ironically, some of the strongest resistance to the servant leadership movement has come from people in groups that have historically been held in subservient roles and have only recently begun to achieve greater prominence in leadership roles. To women and members of minority groups, for example, the notion of actively seeking to become a servant may seem like a giant step backward. Even the meek, it seems, would rather take over the earth than inherit it.

Greenleaf himself anticipated this problem and believed that getting the natural servants to step up and take leadership roles would be even more difficult than getting the power holders to let go of their power. In this dilemma lies the paradox of collaborative leadership. Those with a natural desire to serve must learn to lead, while those with a desire for power must learn to serve. Traditional leaders must learn to step back and servant leaders must learn to step up.

We need collaborative servant leaders now more than ever. As the world has shrunk to the size of a laptop computer, and as lethal weapons have become more powerful and more widely available, the primary challenges for leaders in the twenty-first century will be to tear down walls and build bridges; to listen carefully; to work, play, and learn with each other; in other words, to collaborate. To do all those things, we must have faith in ourselves and in our fellow human beings. Achieving goals and wielding power certainly have their place, but over the long haul the best leaders begin with a simple positive feeling about people — and they follow the lead of their own better angels.

 

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