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VOL. 37 | NO. 16 | Friday, April 19, 2013

Greenleaf on servant leadership

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This weekend I took the time to reread Robert K. Greenleaf’s essay titled “The Servant as a Leader.” I thought some of the ideas in the essay were worth sharing with you.

After spending 40 years researching management development, Greenleaf came to the conclusion that the command and control authoritarian leadership style so prevalent in American institutions and organizations was an ineffective way to lead people. He then spent the next 26 years of his life helping people understand the basics of what he referred to as servant leadership.

In a nutshell, great leaders are servants first. In fact, being a servant and being seen as a servant by those you lead are keys to greatness.

Greenleaf went further to say, “the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.” Greenleaf predicted that the only truly viable institutions would be those that are predominantly servant led.

As I read his words, I thought about how difficult it must be for some people to do everything that it takes to rise to the top of an organization and then, in effect, assume a subordinate position to those you are responsible for leading.

However, knowing what I do about the kind of things that have the potential to truly bring joy into a person’s life, this choice makes perfect sense. Think about it, unless you have some psychological disorder, some of the most joyful moments of your life involve serving someone else or serving an important cause bigger than yourself.

I mentioned the psychological disorder issue because one of the defining characteristics of certain mental disorders is the inability to care about or empathize with others – the opposite of being a servant. Unfortunately, these characteristics can often lead to short-term success in our culture.

In his book “Just Listen,” psychiatrist Mark Goulston says the following when speaking of psychopaths, “About one in every hundred people is a psychopath and most of these people are not behind bars. In fact, the core traits of a classic psychopath – coldness, lack of empathy, self-centeredness, ruthlessness – make them some of the world’s most financially successful business leaders. The not-so-bright ones end up in prison, but the smarter ones sometimes end up as CEOs.”

So, what’ll it be for you? Should you choose the command-and-control model of leadership or the servant-leader model? And now reverse the situation. If you are one of the “among the led,” which model would you choose? Here is a good test to decide: Choose the model you would prefer that your children (or anyone else you care deeply about) experience when they enter the work world.

Here is the ultimate test that Greenleaf articulated: Do those served grow while under your leadership? Do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely to themselves become servants? Perhaps the most prevalent leadership style in American institutions is not always the best style.

Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through www.dmetraining.com.

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