I sometimes wonder if it’s a past life as some sort of self-obsessed dictator that makes me so passionate about the responsibilities of leadership in this lifetime (needing to deal with past karma perhaps). Whatever the reason, leadership, a much-used word and often misunderstood practice is something that in different ways we all have within us.
In my ongoing reflection about leadership, I was struck again recently by the work of Robert Greenleaf on servant leadership in which he says
“[Servant leadership] manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first [leader] to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“
A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. (https://www.greenleaf.org)
Of course, many so-called traditional, hierarchical leaders would rightly argue that they too are focused on the well-being and development of others. And in the contemporary leadership space that’s true to a degree as we see so much more emphasis placed on equality, diversity and inclusion, emotional intelligence and people and cultural development. That said though, there is still a strong sense of the tussle between the need to satisfy shareholders’ financial demands driving a more traditional, ‘production’ mentality to organisational life where tasks and action dominate a more developmental mind-set.
Striking a better balance in defining the scope, responsibility, and practise of hierarchical leadership requires a shift in mind-set across all stakeholders.
And that’s also what’s interesting about this description of servant leadership, in that it defines a more fundamental and essential mind-set about being a decent person committed to holding a wider perspective in the way they engage with life. Wider in the sense of deploying a level of curiosity, openness and willingness to go deeper and further in understanding how to be of use to others. To enter a space where something more than transaction or self-interest informs the way of working, relating and leading.
Attending an executive meeting recently in a spiritual community I was observing the amount of love present in our relationships with and for each other. Not because we are all close friends – some of us barely know each other – but because we start with the principle of love as a cornerstone of our relationships. In this sense the word ‘love’ is describing a quality of engagement that comes from holding each other with a sense of generosity and understanding. This doesn’t mean that we didn’t bring passion, challenge and, at times, polar opposite views to our discussions. What it does mean, though, is that we prioritised respect, understanding and inclusion in our wholehearted attempts to find synthesis through relationship with each other.
The Greenleaf servant leader definition also brings a sense of quality into the equation of leadership. Quality that balances quantity and, in fact, gives meaning and value to quantity. It becomes about more than the transaction of what, where and how many, and brings a powerful added dimension of humanness.
Of course, we speak in traditional leadership development about the how, and yet so often these qualities, capabilities and skills are sacrificed when the pressure to do, to deliver is on. Reminding ourselves that humanness, a focus on others and a desire to be of value to others so that they can bring their value to bear are essential factors in leadership.
The qualities of servant leadership are appropriate whatever the times we inhabit. Surely, they are even more so now – let’s make this vital shift, invert the pyramid and see leadership from a new perspective.