Servant Leadership 101…How do you lead?


45 years ago, the phrase “Servant Leadership” was first coined by Robert Greenleaf. Since then there have been a number of business books written about this type of leadership and what it means.  Today, the topic of leadership in general is hotter than ever. We’re all looking for better answers.  And although, servant leadership isn’t always specifically referenced, I think most successful leaders practice it to some degree.

Servant Leadership at its core is simply the desire for the leader to serve first.   In traditional leadership, we think of the pyramid with the leader positioned on top directing all of those below.  Servant leaders flip that image and put the needs of those on their team above their own personal needs.  They don’t view their leadership position as one that is more significant than another role in the company, but rather a position that is required for the whole to succeed.  When success is achieved, they are quick to share the success with words like “we” and “our”.   Accordingly, their business model is more likely to include profit sharing and other incentives and a focus on giving back in their communities.

This past weekend, Monsignor Thomas Tank reminded his congregation in Overland Park, KS that Greenleaf may have been the first to coin the phrase but another man had also shared his thoughts on this style of leadership about 2,000 years in  ago; it was recorded in another Book.  He referenced it in the 10th Chapter of Mark’s Gospel.

“For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45

He went on to share a story from the late 1,700’s when a group of soldiers were trying to raise a heavy beam into position during a battle.  Their superior, a Corporal was yelling words of encouragement but to no avail; the soldiers did not have enough manpower to lift it into place.   Another man showed up on a horse and asked why he just didn’t jump in and try to help and he explained because he was a Corporal.   With that the man dismounted his horse and helped the soldiers complete the task.   Then he remounted his horse and told the Corporal “If you should need help again, call on George Washington, your Commander-In-Chief, and I will come.”

On a personal note, I recently became aware of a situation involving someone that would be viewed by his peers as a very effective servant leader with a track record that speaks for itself.  Unfortunately, he found himself in a corporate management pyramid under another leader who clearly didn’t share the same servant leadership attributes.  There was affirmation of this conclusion on a regular basis in the way employees were treated and the way projects were handled.  In short, all successes came from the top down and any failures grew from the bottom up.  It was an unhealthy environment.  But I am happy to report it has a happy ending as he is now in a new role that will allow him to again leverage his servant style leadership.

“Good leaders must first become good servants.” Robert K. Greenleaf

The one thing I know for sure is that leaders who don’t embrace some level of servant leadership will typically run out of rungs as they climb their ladder of success.  If you are part of management in a private or public company with a desire to reach a senior level position, mastering the challenge of servant leadership will be part of your journey.   If you own your own business and never model servant style leadership with your team, your business is likely to reach a ceiling it will not be able to break through.  Serve as you lead.

What do you think?  Do you spend all your time leading from above or behind a desk?   Do you ever jump in the trenches and let your team know you aren’t above them?  As always we value any thoughts you may have this topic.

Chris Steinlage Kansas City Business Coach