Are you a leader if you’re a boss with people who report to you? If you’re a military officer with personnel subject to your orders? Are you a leader if a nonprofit board hires you as their Executive Director? Who determines if you’re a leader?
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Robert Greenleaf (1904-1990), a long-time employee of AT&T as their Director of Management Research, proposed some startling ideas, including the concept of “servant leadership.” Greenleaf said:
“… the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader … .“ -Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness
Greenleaf’s contention is a mind flip. Of course, leaders have followers, but bosses have followers too, don’t they? Whether in business, nonprofits, the military, or religious or educational institutions, every hierarchical organization has bosses. Invariably, these bosses have been appointed by higher level bosses to “boss,” or manage, or control, or “lead” workers. But is such authority over workers true “leadership”? Greenleaf questions that presumption.
The “boss” (called a superintendent, director, VP, Executive Director, or some other title) has authority over workers. He/she can order, direct, demand, manipulate, or control their work. The boss can reward, punish, promote, or terminate the workers.
The workers may accept such a situation because they need the job, or like the work they do, or care for the organization, or more. They may comply with such authority, but are they truly followers of a leader? Or are they merely complying with the boss, happily or unhappily, under a relationship of power?
A manager is not necessarily a leader, nor is a leader necessarily a manager. Management and leadership have commonalities, but they’re also different.
The Power to Determine Who Is a True Leader
Greenleaf posits that the only people who can determine if someone is truly a leader are those who “freely and knowingly” choose to be led by someone. The power to determine who is a true leader rests only with willing followers. True leadership—great leadership—flows from those willing to be led, the followers.
Following from that crucial observation comes Greenleaf’s thesis. Who will people willingly follow? He answers: someone they trust; someone who truly cares for them; someone who has some recognizable characteristics and skills which that person is willing to share for the benefit of the group. Greenleaf calls this phenomenon “servant leadership.”
Who Does a Leader Serve?
People will follow someone whom they believe serves them. The true leader worthy of willing followers doesn’t have a hidden agenda serving someone else.
More importantly, the true leader worthy of willing followers does not have a personal agenda that serves only herself. She/he has many qualities and skills, which we’ll describe in further blogs in this series.
But clearly apparent to the willing followers is that their chosen leader has their ego under control. True leaders emanate humility. True leaders aren’t power-hungry. They don’t see the group as a steppingstone to something better. They’re not greedy, mean, or selfish. They surely have some flaws, but they have admirable qualities and skills that people recognize and appreciate.
Paradoxically, then, the ability to inspire willing followers and lead them derives from giving up the need for personal power in order to serve the followers. People intuitively sense and understand that essence in a person:
“Is he in it for himself, or for me?”
“Is she someone whom I can trust?”
“Does he really care about me and us?”
If you’re a true leader, it’s all about “them,” not “you.”
Servant leadership is not a weak or easy path to follow. It has many challenges and contradictions, such as the term itself, “servant leadership.” It’s vastly different from the leadership model our world has lived with for millennia. But, as we have learned and known through our personal experience, the rewards and benefits from servant leadership are game -changers.
As Greenleaf’s essays and the title of his book state, servant leadership is “a journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness.” Follow us on that fascinating journey through our future essays on servant leadership.
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Postscript: Quotations on Servant Leadership
- “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
- “We must be silent before we can listen. We must listen before we can learn. We must learn before we can prepare. We must prepare before we can serve. We must serve before we can lead.” -William Arthur Ward
- “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” -Matthew 23:11
More Articles from Our Series on Servant Leadership
- How to Become a Better Servant Leader
- The Essential Qualities of Servant Leadership
- Unleashing Leaders in Your Organization
- Why Servant Leaders Outperform Bosses
- Do I Have to Be a Servant Before I Can Lead?
- Why Maximizing Shareholder Value Is Wrong
- How Robert Greenleaf Created Servant Leadership
- The Paradoxes of Servant Leadership
- Boards and Servant Leadership
Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, trainers, and award-winning authors. They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment, complete their Personal Values Exercise, or join their community and sign up for their newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!