The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership held its 21st annual international conference last week in Dallas. More than 600 people attended from throughout the United States and abroad. What started out in the 1970s as a revolutionary (and quirky) idea has grown steadily into a worldwide movement.
The phrase “servant leadership” was coined 40 years ago by Robert K. Greenleaf in a brief essay titled “The Servant as Leader.” In that essay, he articulated a vision that continues to inspire people today: The best leaders are those who have a deep personal commitment to the common good, and out of that commitment comes the desire to lead.
What this means is that leadership cannot be defined in terms of style, or technique, or authority; it is primarily a matter of attitude, originating in love and culminating in effective action.
The dominant conception of leadership in our society is the ability to effectively wield power or authority. Most leadership books focus on techniques that enable one to “get ahead” in the race with competing individuals and organizations.
Greenleaf didn’t see things that way. He thought of leadership as an obligation to improve people’s lives through effective service. Thus, he said, the leader should ask herself: “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 he benefit, or, at least, will he not be further deprived?”
When Greenleaf retired from his 38-year career with AT&T, he founded the Center for Applied Ethics in order to help organizations become more effective. He understood that institutions had become more and more influential in society and that the way to make society better was to work through them.
“Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions — often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.”
Over the years, more and more companies have committed to servant leadership and improved themselves and the communities in which they reside as a result. Every year, Fortune magazine’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For is dominated by servant-led organizations such as W. L. Gore & Associates, SAS, Synovus Financial, S. C. Johnson and FedEx.
Greenleaf was what I like to think of as a “pragmatic idealist.” He knew that there would always be people in power who have little interest in the good for others, whose primary motivations are prestige and self-advancement. To such people, the idea of servant leadership is foolish or perhaps even threatening.
But he also knew that there are a certain number of people for whom the idea of serving others resonates deeply, and that they need to be encouraged to take more responsibility — to speak up at meetings, to run for public office, to resist the temptation to “go along to get along.”
Six hundred people attending a conference is not going to change the world, but that’s OK. The people I talked to last week in Dallas weren’t there because they wanted to change the whole world. They just wanted to be more effective at changing their little corner of the world. And that’s how big changes always start.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.