There is a religious quality to the original servant leader essay. Robert K. Greenleaf writes of “prophetic voices”, mythical journeys and “optimal growth”.
And yet it is also highly practical, providing a framework for personal development.
In the preface Greenleaf writes about his concerns. His first is for the individual facing the massive challenges of our times (perhaps more relevant today than when the original essay was written in 1970!).
His second concern is for:
… the individual as a serving person and his tendency to deny wholeness and creative fulfillment for himself by failing to lead when he could lead.
It is in the combination of these two contradictory roles – servant and leader – that Greenleaf sees the potential for personal growth.
The servant leader: best test
Greenleaf is clear that 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.
The servant leader makes sure that other people’s highest priority needs are bring 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?
The qualities of the servant leader
Long before Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with why’ and Dan Pink’s theory of motivation, this original servant leader essay highlights the importance of a having an over-arching purpose, a big dream, a visionary concept.
it excites the imagination and challenges people to work for something they do not yet know how to do.
The essay goes on to explore the qualities of the servant leader. For example:
- Listening and understanding: the servant leader’s natural preference is to listen first. To understand, before seeking to be understood.
- Acceptance and empathy. This can be see as early thinking about diversity and inclusion: accepting people for who they are, judging the performance, not the individual.
- Persuasion – sometimes one man at a time: influencing by asking questions.
- Foresight – the central ethic of leadership. This links back to the importance of an over-arching purpose: the ability to see the future and lead, rather than react.
All powerful qualities of leadership which were later developed into the 10 characteristics of servant leadership.
Towards the end of the essay there is more exploration of the servant leader in the context of institutions and society, the basis for his three later essays (the Institution as Servant, Trustees as Servants and Teacher as Servant).
Questions for reflection and discussion
The latest edition finishes with a ‘Questions for reflection and discussion’ section that offers questions structured around the content of the essay.
Useful for personal development, or for group discussion. As you’d expect, there are some though-provoking questions!
The original servant leader essay still has a lot of value. If you’re interested to understand the origins and practical applications of servant leadership, it’s a great place to start.