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Meiss Education Institute

Servant Leadership: Can a Business Leader Be in Charge and Still Be a Leader?
By Rich Meiss

Servant Leadership:
Can a Business Leader Be in Charge and Still Be a Servant? 

Many people have told us that when they hear the words “servant leadership”, they think about:

          1)   Always pleasing people – something “touchy-feely”
          2)   The “inmates are running the prison”
          3)   A religious movement

They also scoff at the idea that leaders today could be anything but selfish, greedy, and “looking out for #1”. In this age of Wall Street greed, corporate scandal, and government ineffectiveness, it is difficult to believe that many organizations and their leaders are discovering a leadership movement that runs counter to all of these ideas. But many successful companies are embracing a leadership model called servant leadership.

The concept of servant leadership was launched in modern times by AT & T executive Robert K. Greenleaf in the 1970’s. Greenleaf coined the terms “servant-leader” and “servant leadership”. In his classic essay, The Servant as Leader (1970), Greenleaf suggested that servant leadership is about “the nature of legitimate power and greatness.” He described the servant-leader in this way:

"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. 
            
That person is sharply different from one who is leader first…. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types….

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure  that other people’s needs are being served. The best test … is: Do those served  grow as persons?  Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"

The History of Servant Leadership

The concept of servant leadership dates back to ancient times, where some kings were regarded as servants of their subjects. In the 4th Century B.C., Indian author Chanakya wrote: “The king shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects. The king is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.” 

Many religious leaders have also espoused the philosophy of servant leadership. Lao-Tzu (5th Century B.C.), Chinese founder of Taoism wrote about this kind of ruler in the Tao Te Ching: “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it.’”

Jesus Christ also urged His followers to be servants first. In The Gospel of Matthew from the New Testament (Matt. 20:25-26) we read:

“You know that the 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,...” (NIV)

Introduction to Business

Since Greenleaf introduced this servant leadership concept to business in the 1970’s, considerable interest has been generated in studying its effects. After his death in 1990, the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership was established in Indianapolis, IN. Today, there are Servant Leadership Centers in 10 countries and growing. Many leadership and management experts are spreading the message and advocating the philosophy of servant leadership, including Jim Autry, Ken Blanchard, Peter Block, Jim Collins, Stephen Covey, Peter Senge, and Margaret Wheatley. They point to the effectiveness of recent and current servant-leaders, such as Gandhi, Martin Luther-King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa. 

Many people have no problem with this concept of servant leadership as it applies to living out spiritual beliefs. But they sometimes struggle with how it applies to business. Can a business leader be in charge and still be a servant? In Leading at a Higher Level (2007),Ken Blanchard shares his insights into how someone can be both leader and servant. Blanchard says:
 
"Leadership has two parts: vision and implementation. 

In the visionary role, leaders define the direction. It’s their responsibility to communicate what the organization stands for and wants to accomplish…. 

The visionary role is the leadership aspect of servant leadership.

Once people are clear on where they are going, the leader’s role shifts to a 
service mindset for the task of implementation – the second aspect of leader-
ship…. Servant leaders… feel their role is to help people achieve their goals."

A growing list of companies is embracing this philosophy of servant leadership. Included among them are Chick-fil-A, Medtronic, Men’s Warehouse, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Toro, Vanguard Investment Group, and Yum Brands.

Medtronic is one of the companies that has embraced servant leadership. A manager of Employee Involvement at Medtronic says that “part of our mission is volunteerism. Medtronic has a number of programs that help promote its commitment to servant leadership…. We don’t tell them where they have to give their time. With volunteerism, they have to feel a connection.” 

The Bottom Line

So does doing good equate to doing well? Does servant leadership lead to greater profits for a company? Would it make sense for you to study and develop more of the qualities of a good servant leader? What’s the bottom line?

Frankly, the research regarding improved financial performance is somewhat inconclusive. Results have been positive, negative and neutral. Some studies have indicated the financial benefits of creating a high-involvement workplace. Utilizing data from the U.S. Department of Labor and surveys of over 1500 firms, researchers Huselid and Becker showed that participative practices (practicing shared power and high employee involvement – characteristics of servant leadership) increased productivity and improved financial performance (Huselid, 1995). 

What most studies do clearly point to, however, is higher employee engagement. The Blanchard companies, for example, have shown the following correlations:

         - Effective operational leadership (leader serving the people) directly predicts
            positive employee passion
          - Positive employee passion directly predicts positive customer devotion
         - Positive customer devotion directly predicts positive organizational vitality
          (Blanchard, S. Essary, V. and Zigarmi, D., 2006)

So to create a vital organization with happy, engaged employees and devoted customers, consider studying the benefits of employing a servant leadership style.  Smart leaders today are looking at ideas for how to become more of a servant leader. And as they do, they and their companies will be the benefactors!

Author’s Note: Take a survey to see how you rate as a servant leader. See the article: 10 Characteristics of a Servant Leader. And for those of you with Christian beliefs, consider joining us for the workshop Lead Like Jesus.

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