You'll probably read the title of this post and answered, "That's an easy question: I'm a leader." Let's stop there. If you chose to answer "leader" because you thought "I am not a servant or a server"(insert here: follower). I'll remind you that in this question's context I didn't mean a follower.
A servant is very different. Many people don't pay attention to the question. If this was your answer, you might be missing on one of the most influential and impactful forms of leadership today. In both business and daily life, with family, and in community, "Service Leadership" is a growing philosophy that has proven to deliver exceptional health, growth and profitability to entrepreneurs in multiple sectors around the world. You can be both a servant and a leader.
Let me begin by presenting a significant and relevant problem within leadership in today's business environment, and in other circles, for that matter.
Business 101 tells us that for any company to focus on a vision and meet a number of goals, management must align from top to bottom. The problem with many entrepreneurs (and the one single reason they fail) is because they also manage their human resources with a downward approach. From the summit to the base, and if I could draw a representative image with words or letters, you could see a pyramid.
When a company operates in this way when it comes to people, leaders constantly tend to "go first" toward decision-making and control. They refuse to cede authority in these areas. While effective in performing short-term tasks, this attitude leads to mistrust, disunity and eventually change of personnel.
We don't see this happening in service leadership. Service leaders redefine what matters most, focusing on replacing traditional priorities (such as hierarchy and task orientation) with equality and collaboration. The priority for service leaders will always be the people they serve (note that I didn't say lead) over the task to be completed.
Servant leadership could be a new concept for you, or it can be ancient history. Regardless, I invite you to read today's post and apply it as a fire test. As you read, take several breaks and ask yourself, "How can I effectively represent the elements of a servant leader?", "Where can I apply these concepts more appropriately in my business or work environment?" Good servant leaders should ask themselves these questions constantly. I will assist you in the process; I'll ask you some self-assessment questions while you read.
We'll start with a bit of history. Although the phrase "servant leadership" was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, a retired AT&T executive, in his 1970 essay titled "The Servant as Leader" the root concept has existed for thousands of years. For example, Jesus Christ is regarded as one of the best-known and widely effective teachers of servant leadership more than 2,000 years ago. In the Gospel narrative by the apostle Mark (10:35-45), he described which could be construed into modern language as an attempt to "power-grab. Two brothers approach Jesus, and ask that the two of them sit at his left and right in the Kingdom to come. Jesus said to them: "“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The Gospel of John 13:12-18 offers us another aspect of Jesus' servanthood and His admonition in the the story of washing his disciples feet: When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them".
Since then, countless other recognized leaders (Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and others not easily recognized (Jerry Haak, I'll explain later in this post) have applied the principles Greenleaf put down and paper. Today we are beneficiaries of their courageous decisions.
Jesus, Lincoln, King, and Haak had something in common: the mindset of, "being the last," or a leader who willingly puts himself last (as speaker and author Simon Sinek says). By this, I mean the delegation of responsibility and allowing of appropriation by those being lead. When a leader takes this approach within an organization, they will therefore see more productive team members, less turnover, and higher profitability. In fact, Sinek continues to say in his TEDx Talk "How Great Leaders Inspire Action."
Today's business gurus and economics experts lead us to believe that, while contradictory to traditional leadership tactics, servant leadership is a more fruitful way to lead. Larry Spears, author, speaker and founder of the Spears Center, said in his magazine article "Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective and Understanding Leaders":
"Servant leadership seeks to involve others in decision-making; it is strongly based on ethical and supportive behavior, and improves worker growth while improving the care and quality of organizational life."
Organizations can see these types of results, not just teams. Today we see that effective entrepreneurs build their culture around service, not just by incorporating it slightly into their work environment. I will cite a few companies that have appropriated these principles and are among the Fortune 500 and that I am sure you have heard of them: Marriot International, The Container Store, Starbucks, Nordstrom. Do some internet checking.
On the other side of business, on the side of family, community and spiritual life, servant leadership offers much more in terms of insights.
Jesus submitted his own life to sacrificial service under the will of God (Luke 22:42), and he sacrificed his life freely out of service for others (John 10:30). He came to serve (Matthew 20:28) although he was God’s son and was thus more powerful than any other leader in the world. In John 13:1-17 Jesus gives a very practical example of what it means to serve others He washed the feet of his followers, which was properly the responsibility of the house-servant.
By becoming and exemplifying servanthood to those He was leading:
Jesus’ basic motivation was love for his followers (v. 1).
Jesus was fully aware of his position as leader (v. 14). Before the disciples experienced him as their servant, they had already experienced him many times before as Master, and as a strong and extremely powerful leader.
Jesus voluntarily becomes a servant to his followers (v. 5-12). He did not come primarily as their foot washer, but he was ready to do this service for his followers if needed.
Jesus wants to set an example for his followers to follow (v. 14-15).
In contrast, many congregations today experience spiritual leadership contrary to the example of Jesus.
From Jesus' example and teachings we can learn the difference and are invited to set higher expectations from those who are our spiritual leaders:
A willing and voluntary servant, who submits themselves to a higher purpose, which is beyond their personal interests or the interests of others,
A leader who uses the power that is entrusted to them to serve others,
A servant who, out of love, serves others, their needs before their own,
A teacher who teaches truth to their their followers, in word and deed, and guides them on how to become servant leaders themselves.
The real life example of Jerry Haak, the farmer from Washington State
Jerry was a rancher in the Yakima Valley who for the last decades of his life exemplified the practice of a servant leader in his business; his interactions with his more than 400 employees, the community in which he, and employees lived, and the community of faith he worshipped with were widely known in the small community of Sunnyside, WA.
I met him through mutual acquaintances and had the privilege of developing a deep friendship with Jerry. Our collaborative work took us to distant places and in front of large audiences.
Jerry was of Dutch descent, born in Wisconsin. At a very young age his parents moved to the Yakima Valley to start a dairy ranch. Jerry graduated in economics and soon decided to start his own orchard with the help of others farmers like him later in his life.
A life-long debilitating illness did not allow him to carry out much physical work and limited his daily activities; but he was given an exceptional heart and mind.
He learned the concept of Servant Leadership and practiced it until his departure from this earth. A hundred farm-workers of Mexican origin have a future and better lives thanks to Jerry's dedication to living and working as a servant leader according to the model of Jesus Christ.