James Heskett, UPS Foundation Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, wrote a highly provocative article in early 2013 that was titled, “Why Isn’t ‘Servant Leadership’ More Prevalent?” In this brief article, Heskett goes a rather long way in answering his own question, though he does not point this answer out to his readers. Also, Heskett falls well short of satisfying any reader who desires to become a better leader and who wonders if servant leadership can help.
By way of background, we all know that several ancient religious traditions have recommended servanthood as a virtue in leadership. Jesus said, in Matthew 20, that “whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant,” adding that He, Himself “did not come to be served but to serve.” Lao-Tzu may have been pointing to this same truth when he said that “the highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware … when his task is completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’”
In the modern age, it was Robert Greenleaf, in his landmark “The Servant as Leader” (published in 1977), who put “Servant Leadership” back into the minds of many leaders. Greenleaf, echoing Lao-Tzu’s emphasis, asked the question, “Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
We can credit Greenleaf’s influence with much of the current conversation – as well as with some of the confusion – surrounding servant leadership. He noticed the impacts of a servant leader – how people around that person grow – more than he provided a blueprint for how to become one, or how to behave in a day-do-day work environment, or even why servant leadership should matter.
In the nearly forty years since Greenleaf, the literature on servant leadership has been expanding, and today it is a burgeoning topic of study, research and writing. This begs two questions, which I will endeavor to answer:
(1) Is Heskett correct when he opines that servant leadership is NOT prevalent? Is servant leadership, possibly, far more prevalent than Heskett realizes? And,
(2) Why does servant leadership SEEM to NOT be prevalent? Indeed, why does Heskett ask his question in the first place?
In the paragraphs below, I will begin by addressing the second question – “Why does servant leadership SEEM to NOT be prevalent.” Then I will turn my attention to the first question – “Might servant leadership actually be far more prevalent than James Heskett realizes?” And, finally, I will endeavor to provide a more useful – and business-sensible – way of thinking about this subject as a whole.
Why Does Servant Leadership Seem to NOT be prevalent?
Even a quick reading of James Heskett’s article on servant leadership reveals an overwhelming problem. Within his very brief article, Dr. Heskett identifies multiple descriptions of servant leadership, with no consensus to unify these descriptions. The problem is this: though “servant leadership” purports to be a field of study, we have absolutely no agreement on what the field comprises!
Some writers say that servant leadership is about the character qualities of the leader. Lao-Tzu speaks of a self-effacing and reticent style. Greenleaf speaks of a “natural feeling that one wants to serve.” Others lift up caring, or self-control, or humility, or even certain “cardinal virtues.”
Other writers say that servant leadership is about a kind of “relationship practice.” Servant leaders show caring for others. They demonstrate generosity toward others. They listen. In some cases, these writers suggest that a servant leader’s caring is even indiscriminate. Heskett describes these writers as believing that servant leaders “don’t waste much time deciding to whom to give and in what order. They give to everyone in their organizations.”
Still other writers turn servant leadership into a general set of universal principles. Most notable in this camp is Larry Spears, who for many years served as the president of the Robert Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Spears read Greenleaf, and then distilled his writings down to twelve principles – Listening, Empathy, Healing, Awareness, Persuasion, Conceptualization, Foresight, Stewardship, Growth, Building Community, Calling, Nurturing the Spirit.
Taken as a whole, we see two overwhelming problems with the literature on servant leadership. First, if servant leadership is all of these things, then it isn’t anything at all. And, second, none of these definitions or descriptions addresses the day-to-day crucible of organizational leadership. We need to know what we are supposed to do, why certain behaviors and disciplines matter, how to practice them, how to improve in these practices, and how to teach others to replicate all of the above.
Why does servant leadership seem to be not more prevalent? First, because the term is confusing. Those who define it don’t agree with one another. As Heskett points out, there is something even oxymoronic about “servant leader.” Second, leaders who are responsible to achieve great accomplishments will not call themselves “servant leaders” if “servant leadership” does not have a body of expertise that is actionable, practical, measurable, and results oriented..
Is Servant Leadership Far More Prevalent than Heskett Realizes?
In short, yes. James Heskett quotes Mark Stanley, who wrote that, "These terms do not fit together – Servant and Leader … the more correct notion is that of a 'Serving Leader.' When Robert Greenleaf coined this phrase … he was talking entirely about how leaders serve, not about leaders being servants."
As soon as we shift the language from “servant leader” to “serving leader,” we realize this; all great leaders serve. They serve their customers. They serve their people. They serve a purpose that is greater than them. They serve their organization, putting the health and vitality of their enterprise above their self-interest. Self-serving leaders bring ruin to organizations, crush people, cheat on quality, and undermine the trust of their customers. There is no great organizational leader who does not understand that they must serve.
And, this is where Lao-Tzu – and, yes, also Robert Greenleaf – err. While everything that is written about the servant leader is true, so far as it goes – their character qualities, their self-effacing style, their “natural feeling” to serve – these qualities nevertheless miss the point. Yes, a servant leader is a person of humility and integrity, but the question is “Why?” Why is a servant leader a person of humility and integrity? Why, in fact, does a servant leader do anything that a servant leader does?
The reason is that servant leaders, what I call Serving Leaders, know that their life does not belong to them. Serving leaders know that they are on earth to serve. Serving leaders put themselves second because they have a purpose that is bigger than them. Serving leaders pursue great results because it’s not about them. And, over time, when we know that we are on earth to serve – rather than to be served, as Jesus framed it – we enter a crucible of growth and learning and character formation that produces everything that Greenleaf and so many other writers are trying to describe.
This is why we prefer the term “Serving Leader.” And, in point of fact, there are many great serving leaders in organizations around the world. They serve their customers. They serve quality and safety and excellence. They serve their workers, because they know that great people create a great company. They serve their conscience. They serve their investors. They put others above self, organization above self, integrity above self, purpose above self.
The so-called “Servant Leader” – what I call the “Serving Leader” – is far more prevalent than Heskett realizes. Visit any highly effective organization, and you will find a man or woman at the helm who remembers that there is a customer that must be excellently served. This leader has come to realize that a customer cannot be excellently served if the people who serve that customer are not, themselves, excellently served.
Here’s an example: Mark DeCocinis, the Regional Vice President for Ritz-Carlton, Asia Pacific, and General Manager of the new Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong says, “It is simply impossible for leaders to ask human beings to do extraordinarily creative and compassionate things for customers unlessthose human beings know beyond any doubt that the leaders will show the very same extraordinary caring and service for them.”
In short, if the enterprise is flourishing, there is a leader at the helm who serves. That person may not call himself or herself a servant leader – for all the reasons discussed above – but they most certainly are a serving leader. And they are driving outstanding results for their organization.
How Should We Talk About Serving Leadership Going Forward?
“Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant!” Jesus’ words are the right starting line for our discussion. The reason great leaders serve is that they understand that this is the path to great contribution and great results. At the starting line for our commitment to a serving kind of leadership must be this thought: We are responsible, as stewards of our time, treasure and talent, to bring about great results for the good of the world.
This is not, first and foremost, a “natural feeling” that we want to serve. It is, first and foremost, a realization that we are responsible to our Maker to be useful over a lifetime of great contribution. Oftentimes, there is nothing natural at all about serving. But always, committing our lives and leadership to serving is driven by a clear-eyed understanding that we are not God, and that we owe our lives to the One who gave us our lives.
So, we should begin our conversations about serving leadership with the premise that we are responsible to dare – and achieve – great things. This is our duty, for we are servants, not masters, of our lives and relationships.
That being the case, we should then ask the right questions about what we must learn and what we must become if we are to achieve great things. Allow me, in this final few sentences, to suggest the beginnings of a “curriculum” for our development as serving leaders.
- We must serve our customers! Our “customers” are found in many different forms. They need things that we have been equipped to build, serve, create, deliver, invent, improve. When we excellently do what we are able to do, in service to men, women and children whose lives are improved because we do it, we are serving leaders.
- We must serve our workers. The greatest value we can deliver to the world – to customers – is delivered by the people who work with us. Our people will be imaginative or fearful, generous or stingy, loving or cold-hearted, responsive or rigid. Our people will go the second mile for our customers if they know that we will go the second mile for them. When we excellently love and grow our people, we are serving leaders.
- We must serve our investors and partners. The leadership we exercise is done with the support of many others. Donors, boards of directors, investors, partners, suppliers – all make it possible for us to do the work that we do every day. When we excellently steward the trust and the investment that others make in our leadership, we are serving leaders.
- We must serve the world. At the heart of value creation is doing good. Everything we do for customers, for workers and for investors and partners must be done with a view to the greatest good. Indeed, lasting value creation – and, yes, profitability – is rooted in bringing true value and true good to the world. We “seek the peace and prosperity” of the world where we live and serve, because “in its prosperity, we will find our prosperity.”
Why isn’t servant leadership more prevalent? It is! But, sadly, servant leadership has not been excellently explained or promoted.
But, no worry, the practiceof serving leadership is very alive and well. And whenever men and women decide where they will shop, where they will go to school, and where they will work, serving leaders excel.
Are we ready, finally, to become serving leaders?
Dr. John Stahl-Wert is coauthor of the international best-seller, The Serving Leader, founder and CEO of Serving Ventures (www.servingventures.com) and adjunct faculty member of Bethel Bible Seminary. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Unites States.