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The Servant as a Leader: Becoming Leo of the 21st century

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Robert Greenleaf popularized the old Christian concept in corporate leadership framework through his essay in the 1970s titled, "the Servant as a Leader." After going through different trials of slavery and colonialism, our human mind might not be able to put "Servant" and "Leadership" in one word. Being a Servant is considered subjugating to others' wishes, while being a Leader motivates people to reach a predetermined goal. How can this ancient paradoxical conjunction define leadership traits of the future? In this article, we reviewed the inspiration behind Robert's work for the 21st-century tasks.

The Servant as a Leader | MQ Learning
The Servant as a Leader | MQ Learning

According to Robert Greenleaf, "The Servant-Leader is a Servant first; it begins with a natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first, as opposed to wanting power, influence, fame, or wealth." He was inspired by the book called "The Journey of the East" by a Nobel prize-winning Swiss-German philosopher, Hermann Hesse.

A league of men volunteered to take an outer journey towards the East to fulfill their inner purpose. They were accompanied by their simple, pleasing, and wise Servant who kept the league together through his humble presence. After his surprising disappearance one day, the league solidarity was tested, and they eventually broke apart. The noble Servant was later revealed to be the leader of the league.

Deeply influenced by the character of Leo, Robert believed that a leader should be a servant first. A servant not of other people's wishes and desires but of higher values, which defines and creates a new meaningful future. Anyone who is just a leader or "leader first" would perpetuate the old systems that conform to normative societal expectations. A Servant leader redefines the old systems with an upgraded vision based on higher pursuits. In the 21st century, we live in the age of technological progress, mass personalization, and the imminent challenge of climate change. What can we learn from Servant Leadership and Leo to work with the challenges of our times?

1. Pursuing a higher pursuit

"If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable." - Seneca

And when we know which port we want to sail towards, all decisions align accordingly. The purpose in life guides us like a north star of meaning. Gandhi, with his truth-force (satyagraha), Nelson Mandela with his strive for freedom, and Martin Luther King Jr., with a focus on justice, redefined the world order by pursuing the higher pursuit. It is not about a small or a big purpose but a resonated purpose for which individuals can go any length.

When a leader inspires purpose, like-minded people come together to form a cluster of shared goals. Leo inspired people to take the journey towards the East to seek inner wisdom through outer travels. The inspiration behind the idea he was serving brought people together even though he was invisible as an outer leader. His pursuit was like the nectar of the flower around which bees gathered to pollinate the idea.

In the 21st century, we live in a globalized world where technological progress has extended the average healthy human life span. However, this is also the time when mental stress, climate change, and technological risks impact our life quality and even threaten human existence. Leading with a higher purpose is becoming a necessity of our times.

2. Encouraging individuals' purpose

"The secret of institution building is to be able to weld a team of people by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be." - Robert Greenleaf

We are individuals with personalized values and purpose. Even though we come together to fulfill a shared goal, our personal work remains. A Servant Leader is also the Servant of the pursuit of the individual purpose of the team members. What does a person want to accomplish in life? How can I support individual growth? Which role in the shared work will fit better with personal aspirations?

When the order to which Leo belongs interviewed individuals to join the journey, they must meet one condition. Each of them must have a deeper individual purpose. For Leo, each league member's particular purpose, which they are passionate about, was as essential as the shared goal. When people know their individual purpose is linked to the shared goal, they work with a renewed meaning.

The 21st century is the age of mass personalizations. We can generate a collective intelligence that can develop innovative solutions to tackle the challenges through individual opinions. A Servant as a Leader can lift individuals to grow taller together and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts by listening, empathizing, encouraging, and coalescing individual's purposes.

3. Doing the work and stepping back

"Fill your bowl to the brim, and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife, and it will blunt...Do your work, and then step back. The only path to serenity." - Lao Tzu

One of the wisdom of ancient traditions like Taoism is balancing action (yang) with comprehension (yin). When we find out what to do, we work. As we work, a new process is set in motion, potentially with results different from what we intended. It is time to step back and check whether our intentions or results are in the right direction. Then we act again, continuing the cycle of action and inaction.

At the peak of the project, Leo disappeared. With Leo, the inspiration behind the initiative was also gone, and league members' solidarity underwent a test. Where were they going? What is the strength of their personal purpose? How essential is the shared goal for them? The worse human instincts of bickering, complaining, and blaming others swept them, and the league has to be dismantled. For Leo, they failed the test. If their purpose was not strong enough to sail through the pressures of the change, they did not deserve the journey.

We call the 21st-century VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) times. The results of our work depend upon factors outside our control. We need resilience to stay on the course even in difficult times and creativity to work together with the new forces while keeping the underlying purpose. When the higher goal is getting decoupled from the actions, we need the strength to letting-go. In the end, it is about being the Servant of the higher pursuit, not the people and not the results.

Most of the leaders who have made a positive and longer-lasting impact on the world were serving a greater purpose than themselves. The chosen higher pursuit is strong enough to face the winds of the challenges and flexible enough to adapt to the times' needs. The leaders of the 21st-century need to be a servant first to redefine the future of work. We might even also find a new type of joy in it. As Indian Nobel prize-winning Rabindranath Tagore wrote, "I slept and dreamt that life was a joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted, and behold, service was the joy."

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