In Pursuit of Purpose: A Servant Leadership Primer

Endorsed by ancient philosophy and modern scholars, servant leadership is a timeless approach to living and working based upon an inspiring belief: a single life of virtue can have extraordinary power to change the world. This primer offers a concise overview of the approach's history, its effectiveness, and the sort of person best suited to leverage its potential.

A sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. overlooking the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of purpose, a man of vision, and a prime example of servant leadership in action.

If you're a student of business or an entrepreneur, you're probably familiar with the concept of leadership theory. You may have succumbed to clickbait like, "18 Best Ways to Improve Leadership Skills," as if improving your leadership were as simple as learning a new lifehack. Despite the article's sage advice (e.g. "When you possess an idealized influence, it is another way to improve your leadership quality"), mastering the arts of influence and leadership is not a simple endeavor.

The Power of Virtue

The Tao Te Ching, a text of ancient Chinese wisdom literature attributed to Lao Tzu, dates back to at least the fourth century B.C., though tradition holds it's even older. The title is often translated into English as "Instruction in the Way of Virtue," but it may also be translated: "The Power of the Way." The text has survived because one generation after another for over 2 1/2 millennia have found wisdom and truth in its unlikely claim: that a single life of virtue can have extraordinary power to change the world.

The text addresses a myriad of subjects, including natural law, virtue, war, and our focus here: leadership. Lao Tzu contents that there are only two types of leaders. You may set out, as so many have done before you, to rule with kindness and justice in the hope of being loved and praised. But kindness and justice inevitably give way to laws and punishments, and love inevitably gives way to fear. Force and deceit follow, and a people end up despising the man or woman who set out to lead them.

The other approach involves a deep understanding of how fundamentally problematic and limited words can be as a form of communication. A leader who would leave a true impact recognizes that human beings follow actions more readily than words and that we learn by example more easily than instruction.

"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." -Lao Tzu

This leader, if he wishes to avoid chaos, will give no orders and will take no credit. He will seek not love, praise, fear or hate, but will achieve prosperity by seeking truth and honesty above all else.

Modern Servant Leadership

You'll find similar descriptions in wisdom literature as diverse as the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, the Quran, and the Arthashastra, a Sanskrit discourse on political, economic and military strategy. In business classrooms and modern management textbooks, this approach is summarized by what is now called Servant Leadership. This approach to leadership was reestablished for modernity by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, who explains:

"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."

What separates servant leadership from other approaches is its end. The servant leader chooses to lead in order to serve. The end goal is not power or authority for their own sake, though legitimate authority is deeply powerful. The leader who serves first does so to effect lasting change in the world as she sees it.

Customary approaches to modern leadership, like those found in most corporate structures, involve a pyramid-like structure with a leader at the top. Servant leadership flips the schematic, representing at the bottom the man or woman who is best suited to lead. The servant leader prioritizes the values and goals of those they seek to lead, in the process becoming the visible and invisible foundation on which the prosperity and success of an entire organization are built.

There and Back Again

The pyramid, of course, is only a metaphor, and no one is suggesting entry-level employees know how to run anything. For every proponent of the serve-first approach, you'll find someone claiming that servant leadership is not and cannot be effective in modern organizations. They talk about role confusion and burn-out and declare that servant leadership can actually reduce employee effectiveness and motivation. Others argue servant leadership is only effective in certain circumstances or suitable environments.

These concerns are valid. Servant leadership is not simply another management technique, and treating it this way—as costume you can put on to manipulate others into the belief that you care for them—is bound it backfire. This approach to work and life is more a goal than an end. Greenleaf describes it as "the big dream, the visionary concept, the ultimate consummation which one approaches but never really achieves."

"It is something presently out of reach; it is something to strive for, to move toward, or become." -Robert Greenleaf

It is a journey that requires a lifetime of preparation, practice and soul-searching. You will approach its summit only when your skills, purpose, vision, and approach align. James L. Heskett, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, suggests, "Servant leadership is experienced so rarely because of trends in the leadership environment, the scarcity of human qualities required, demands that the practice places on the practitioner, and the very nature of the practice itself."

Is It For You?

For some, this journey is one of faith as well as purpose. There are simpler management techniques, and there are certainly easier ways to advance your career. Until about 10 years ago, there was little empirical evidence demonstrating servant leadership's effectiveness. This mattered little to its proponents; it's value was not as a means to an end but in its capacity to leverage the very nature of human connection and community to effect lasting change.

Since then, there has been a veritable eruption of academic study on the subject. Empirical research now suggests that servant leadership can increase employee retention, boost productivity, deepen satisfaction and strengthen employee commitment to an organization.

That doesn't mean the approach is going to be effective for everyone. In fact, it may not be the best approach for most of those who set out to become successful in business. How can you know whether or not it may be right for you? You'll have pretty good idea if you can honestly answer three simple questions:

Question #1: Are you satisfied?

Is it possible to lead without vision? Absolutely. Many modern day visionaries are supported or succeeded by technocratic leaders who are more suited to details and process than foresight and imagination. But the work of increasing efficiency and streamlining logistics is rarely inspirational. It's vision that motivates others to work and sacrifice on behalf of a more hopeful future.

When many of us think of vision, we picture larger-than-life personalities: John F. Kennedy daring us to put a man on the moon; Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a society in which we live by our belief that all men are created equal; Steve Jobs' vision that the personal computer would revolutionize everything we knew about the world in which we work, learn and live. But we're limiting ourselves if we only talk about vision with the hindsight of history. You're not John F. Kennedy, and you probably don't want to be.

You don't have to know what you will become. You need only a mental image—as vague as a dream or as definitive as a mission statement—of an achievable, promising, better future.

Greenleaf himself predicted (in the 1970's, no less) that we were entering an age in which a growing number of "thoughtful and aware people [would] see more clearly the world as it is" and decide they are not satisfied with it. Are you satisfied?

Question #2: Are you credible?

In his seminal work On Leadership, John W. Gardner makes the case that a leader will inspire a loyal constituency only to the degree that they judge him or her capable, consciously or unconsciously, of solving their problems and meeting their needs. You don't have to be able to solve the world's problems in order to start a journey of service to others, but you do need to be credible.

There can be no trust without credibility, and trust is the foundation upon which all working relationships are built.

In The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey explains that trust is built on integrity, which for most people means honesty: honesty in your motives, honesty in your agenda, and honesty in your behaviors. This means you may need to embark on an exploration of your values; you will inspire trust only if you're willing and able to live out your convictions in the company of others.

You may also need to take a close look at your own abilities. Credibility requires an accurate appraisal of where you're genuinely confident and where you're not. It's difficult to fully trust someone who's always downplaying their competency, and it's impossible to trust someone who feigns self-confidence where none exists. To this end, participants in the Servant Leadership Bootcamp are marshaled through a rigorous assessment of their values and their strengths.

Question #3: Are you willing to serve?

If you're paying attention, you may be asking yourself why, if a serving mindset is the first, most important and fundamental aspect of servant leadership, this question is last. I've listed it last because it is often the question aspiring leaders answer most quickly (and most thoughtlessly). You're read this far—of course you want to serve!

Are you sure? Have you considered that service requires sacrifice? Are you willing to sacrifice your time to explore and fully understand the needs and goals of those you serve? Are you willing to surrender control in an effort to help others become more autonomous? Do you realize you'll have to forfeit some efficiency to encourage independence?

In short, are you prepared to sacrifice your ambitions in service to the goals of those you serve?

Answering no to this question does not make you a bad person. Admitting that you are not (yet?) fully committed to the service of others requires a level of honesty and self-knowledge that many people are unwilling to pursue.

The simple reality is that genuine service is never quick or easy, and servant leadership is no different. It is a lifestyle, a transformation that requires time, energy, dedication and sacrifice. I believe the effort to be worthwhile in the long run. Not only will your teams be more successful and your value increase, you'll discover purpose in your work and in your life.

Not everyone sets out to change the world. For some of us, this alignment of vision, integrity and sacrifice is the very definition of fulfillment.

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