Servant-leadership is a paradox, but not an oxymoron
Should I read this blog post? Isn’t that one of the first questions you ask when you see a blog entry?
Well, let me help you by providing a multiple choice quiz to help you decide whether to read on or not.
This blog post is for you if you answer YES to any of these 3 questions:
Do you aspire to be a leader?
Are you currently a leader and want to be more effective as a leader?
Are you interested in learning more about servant-leadership?
Great! Let's get cracking.
Because we need more leaders.
However, we don’t need more self-serving leaders, we’ve got plenty of those. You know, those who want to lead only for how it benefits them. Rather, we need those who will use leadership as a vehicle for serving others.
We need an influx of servant-leaders. In case that’s a new concept for you, please allow me the privilege to introduce it to you.
Authentic servant-leadership is first and foremost a lifestyle and then a leadership philosophy. Servant-leadership works from the inside out, not the outside in.
Let me explain.
Robert Greenleaf, the man who coined the term servant-leadership in 1970 and began the codification of its practices, wrote, “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”
This “natural feeling that one wants to serve” is, or should be, a natural concept for those in the social sector because, after all, this sector is fundamentally about serving others. The desire to serve begins internally, in both our heart and our mind. The heart provides the motivation to serve and the mind provides the determination to serve others above serving one’s self.
We see servant-leadership expressed in many quotations that frequently appear in nonprofit publications, brochures, and websites.
Here are a few personal favorites:
Albert Einstein, “Only a life lived in service to others is worth living.”
Mother Teresa, “A life not lived for others is not a life.”
Sir Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Jesus Christ, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Mahatma Gandhi, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others.”
The common characteristic in these quotations is a decision people make, that, then influences the way they live their lives. It’s an internal decision evidenced by external expressions. It’s this idea of being a servant first.
I was introduced to the concept of servant first by my mother’s example. She was always doing for others. She modeled what Mother Teresa taught when she said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” My mom is not chronicled in any history book for a novel discovery or noble accomplishment, however, she left a legacy of service to others. (The picture below is my Mom at age 80 when she was visiting her brother on his farm and insisted she help him bail hay.)
Although she grew up in abject poverty, she was a wealthy woman. Not in the sense that she had a lot, but in the true sense of wealth, in that, she needed very little to be happy and content in life. And what she had, she willingly and joyfully shared with others. She was indeed servant first and imparted the heart of a servant to me and, for that, I am forever grateful. Thanks, Mom.
When someone is servant first, there may come a point in life when, as Greenleaf said, they consciously aspire to lead. For servant-leaders, this leadership is a natural extension of the service they live. As they go about serving others, opportunities arise to take a leadership role in their organization, church, or community. For servant-leaders, these leadership opportunities are viewed as platforms for service at a greater level of impact or a broader sphere of influence to help advance the cause or community they serve.
It’s what Greenleaf meant when he described servant-leadership as stewardship.
I love the word steward and the concept of stewardship. A steward is a person who manages another’s property or financial affairs. Accordingly, a servant-leader is one who views leadership as something loaned to them, not owned by them. It’s just another tool for accomplishing their life mission.
For servant-leaders, the power of a leadership position is directed towards benefitting others rather than benefitting one’s self. You’ve probably witnessed abuses of power where someone at the top of an organizational pyramid, or chart, clung to the perks and privileges associated with their position, rather than redirecting that power to benefit others.
Servant-leadership is a lifestyle, not just a leadership philosophy. If someone attempts to practice servant-leadership solely as a leadership philosophy, eventually it will appear hollow or gimmicky, because it’s not a natural external expression of who they are and what they believe and value.
Authentic servant-leadership occurs when there is alignment between a person’s internal values and beliefs about the nature, purpose, and power of leadership and their external personal practices as a leader.
I hope this provides a brief introduction to servant-leadership; I’ll be sharing more in the weeks ahead. If you have specific questions about servant-leadership ask in the comments or send me a tweet @kevin_monroe.
For now, I’d love to engage in discussing two questions with you:
1. Who are the servant-leaders who have influenced you to adopt servant-leadership?
2. What about their lifestyle and leadership style do you find most attractive?