Servant Leadership

Good leaders must first become good servants. – Robert K. Greenleaf

Back in business school I had an organizational behavior class that had a brief section on leadership. We were divided into groups and assigned leadership topics by the professor. The topic for my group was servant leadership. For those of you who are not familiar with the concept, here is a brief introduction.

Servant Leadership was an idea popularized by Robert Greenleaf, who in 1970 published an essay entitled The Servant as Leader. The basic idea is that by having the mindset of a servant, you will become a better leader. Greenleaf believed that true leaders are chosen by their followers, and that with greater power comes greater responsibility.

What does it take to be a servant leader? First of all, listening is important. Servant leaders aren't the type to bark orders and solve problems without input and feedback from subordinates. Secondly, servant leaders use their power to persuade others, not to manipulate them. Finally, servant leaders seek growth and improvement in their employees, in their company, and in the community.

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As part of our presentation, my group performed a skit about an employee who had contracted AIDS. Then we had a brief class discussion about how servant leaders would handle the situation, and compared that to what we thought would really happen in most companies.

Servant leadership is sometimes described as "soft" or "weak" because it stands in such stark contrast to the power hungry uberleader style we have come to worship in this country. But I think it can still be useful. Like any other leadership fad, some of it is good and some of it isn't. Given the state of corporate America today, a little dose of servant leadership and the humility, patience, and listenting that goes with it, can go a long way.

For more information check out the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, or one of the many books on the topic.