paradoxical notion of "leader as
servant" by US essayist and consultant
Robert Greenleaf has been around 30 years and is
based on the belief that service to others is
essential to human nature. As Indian poet and
Nobel laureate Tagore reminds us, we find the
meaning of our lives in serving — family,
community and those in our professional lives.
People who embrace the centrality of service
find they need to turn the accepted concept of
leadership upside down. The leader no longer
asks colleagues and employees, "How can I
get you to do what I want?" Rather, the
servant-leader asks, "What can I do to
enable you to do what you need to do?" Such
a shift in thinking has huge implications for
relationships within organizations.
the great ironies of our age is that we have
created organizations designed to constrain our
"problematic human natures." Today's
task is to save these organi-zations precisely
by freeing the expansive and creative potential
locked inside. In Canada, large bureaucracies
typically have the most to gain by unleashing
these creative energies.
Greenleaf continually emphasized, are our means
for getting things done.
leadership task is to enable the creativity of
our natural human capital within organizations
to reveal, express and apply itself to the
fulfillment of the organizational task. If we,
through our organizations, can make gains both
in effectiveness and profitability through the
unleashing of human potential, we gain
fulfillment. People like having their creative
ideas heard, debated and used and will respond
generously. That fulfillment sets the stage for
the second round of creative expression,
application and a self-reinforcing cycle of
total value creation.
can exist anywhere within organizations. The key
is to exercise this different approach within
your sphere of influence. Listening, empathizing
and healing are three important characteristics
of this approach.
Listening is important, but even more important
is listening in a way that demonstrates you have
understood and your new understanding makes a
difference. How can a leader in a group or
organization demonstrate openness to those who
are in contact with product, customers,
suppliers and other employees?
the newly appointed CEO of Nash International
Inc. (not its real name), wanted to institute a
suggestion plan, but employees laughed. A few
years earlier, a suggestion box had been
introduced but employees found their suggestions
would simply enter a void — no response, good
or bad, was ever made. On investigating, Ralph
learned some employees had used the box to vent
frustration. Management eventually tired of the
complaints and abandoned the plan. Everyone was
disappointed and any creative ideas to improve
processes and better serve clients were lost.
did three things.
he listened to the frustrations by engaging
people in informal ways about their work, their
challenges and their difficulties. Being new to
the organization, he put himself in the position
of a learner. His motto was simple: listen,
learn, build. And he did not hesitate to remind
others of this.
he set up a separate system for concrete
suggestions. Suggestions could be made by an
individual or a group and would be acknowledged
within 30 days. If a suggestion was made
anonymously, it was acknowledged by a bulletin
board posting. The acknowledgement would include
plans for debating the merits of the suggestion
and a date by which a decision was expected.
and most important, Ralph paid attention to the
inevitable gripes that found their way into the
suggestion box. While the suggestions were not
concrete, they were important data revealing
obstacles to organizational effectiveness and,
consequently, profitability. The frustrations
were also posted on the bulletin board, inviting
individuals or groups to help clarify the root
of the frustration. He invited those
voices to translate their frustrations into
this process, the organization demonstrated it
was serious about suggestions, understanding
their merits and updating the person or group
with respect to the suggestion. The process
often included additional questions and the
involvement of those offering the suggestion.
Sometimes a suggestion would invite other, even
opposing, opinions. If a suggestion was
rejected, the reasons for the rejection were
point is those putting ideas forward were
respected for doing so. Their ideas were given
consideration and this encouraged them to
continue thinking creatively about how best to
build products and serve clients.
A decade or so ago, there was an organizational
movement called management by walking around, or
MBWA. The idea was for the leader of an
organization to show his or her face on the shop
floor, the customer service area, the shipping
dock or the accounting office and interact with
employees. To some extent it was a feel good
thing — employees liked the attention and the
CEO showed concern about those things employees
dealt with in their day-to-day work.
was an attempt to move beyond the self-imposed
restrictions of the boss's corner office. It
allowed the leader to encounter the complexity
of the workplace. It was the beginning of
MBWA too easily degenerates into glad-handing
— the slap on the back, "attaboy/attagirl"
award. Real empathy is walking in the shoes of
the employees as they face the daily trials and
challenges of their work.
Enterprises Inc. (not its real name), an
international company, asked its new training
manager, Laurie, to institute a sales training
program across its 10 Canadian branches and
expand that program into its international
offices. Laurie reviewed a broad range of proven
sales courses but was not satisfied they met the
requirements. Did she even know what the real
first task was to find out how the world looked
from the perspective of the sales team. Laurie
could have interviewed the sales team and
collected some excellent data on its daily
challenges but she took a more radical approach:
she asked to work alongside the team for a
first hurdle was to build trust. "Why are
you here? What is your purpose?"
salespeople asked. "My job is to make your
job easier, less frustrating and more fun,"
Laurie told them. "I want to accompany you
in your daily work, experience your challenges,
and get a real sense of how the business works
from your vantage point. I need you to tell me
what you need in terms of professional
development." Who could argue with that?
But trust had to be earned and the best way to
do that was to respect the distrust, rigorously
guard confidentiality and engage in
conversations initiated by naive questions.
"work with" approach allowed a level
of engagement not possible in a conventional
needs analysis that relies on detached
observation. She knew from experience that
engagement enables insight. Her approach brought
sales team issues into the forefront and brought
into focus sales management issues that needed
attention. Empathy allowed her to get at the
heart of issues and bridge over to significant
correlative issues. All things are connected and
"work with" strategies bring those
connections into bold relief allowing for a
systems approach to organizational
end, the empathic work with approach resulted in
a comprehensive sales training initiative that
included executive development in sales and
marketing. It also gave Laurie insights into the
learning needs of Nash's product development and
Healing is the process of making people whole.
Healing recognizes that people's organizational
lives are not isolated from their larger
existence as members of families, groups and
communities. Service appeals to people in their
entirety. The desire to serve evokes their
energies and capacities. If our capacity to
serve is diminished in one realm of life, it
will affect our ability to serve in the other
realms — including the organizational realm.
Distribution Inc. (not its real name) runs a
distribution centre where stock pickers fulfill
client contractor orders as they wait. Speed and
accuracy are critical. Petra, the new
vice-president of operations, asked about the
high number of complaints regarding contractors
having to wait an unreasonable amount of time
for their orders. They wanted to be on the job,
not hanging around the warehouse. Also,
absenteeism was higher than the company average.
What Petra heard was stock pickers are run off
their feet and experience high levels of stress.
some discreet inquiries, Petra found that stock
pickers' biggest complaint was the difficulty of
attending to personal matters during work hours,
because of inadequate phone access. When
personal matters had to be attended to, they had
a choice: sneak around to use the shipping
office phone (which was against the rules) or
take a day's sick leave. Those that broke the
rule tied up the shipping office phone and left
the contractor waiting. Others took the simple
way out and called in sick.
pickers are people too, reasoned Petra.
Sometimes they have sick children, a mortgage to
renew or dental appointments to make. They
cannot be expected to ignore those
responsibilities. By failing to provide access
to a phone, StoneWorks had been setting in
motion an interesting series of events that
resulted in fearful employees, absenteeism,
breach of rules and slow or inconsistent
solution was simple: mount a telephone in a
private yet visible location in the warehouse
where employees can make important personal
calls to fulfill their spectrum of service
activities. Employees responded by giving more
loyalty to the company, absenteeism dropped,
customers were served and employees felt
honoured and respected.
holistic approach recognized that employees are
able to act as employees and do their tasks of
serving clients by virtue of their larger
connections with family and community and that
these also require their attention. In most
instances, such shared loyalties can be
accommodated without one set of loyalties
impinging on another. Indeed, the recognition of
shared loyalties helped to reinforce loyalties
in other domains of service.
healing characteristic of servant-leadership
recognizes that employees have multiple contexts
in which they serve. As a servant-leader, Petra
ensured that such multidimensional service
opportunities were granted. By doing so,
StoneWorks' employees felt they were respected,
reinforcing their obligation to serve client
Other related characteristics of
servant-leaders, besides listening, empathizing
and healing, include the use of persuasion
rather than coercion; awareness and
self-awareness; foresight through systems
thinking; the ability to dream big dreams;
commitment to people's growth; stewardship and
trusteeship; and community building.
in the past few years organizations and their
leaders have seen the benefits of treating
employees well and attending to their needs, too
often such employee-related programs and
policies are an overlay on the existing
hierarchical structure. They mask the actual
structure of command and control deeply embedded
in the organization. But no one is really
shows us how to move beyond the concept of the
organization as a command and control system. It
starts with the idea that employees are complex
human beings who want to serve in a meaningful
way. They have hopes and dreams they want to
realize through their natural desire to serve.
And organizations can be designed and led in
ways that allow employees to fulfill them
through their service capacities.
shifts the task of leaders. They now become
responsible for inventing organizational forms
that help people realize complex hopes and
dreams in multiple ways and dimensions.
summary, servant-leadership recognizes the best
way to encourage people to give their utmost in
organizations is to appear to care for them, and
the best way to do that is to actually care.
Through such demonstrations, servant-leadership
is inspired, evoked and enacted across our
organization and to the community beyond.