The Servant as a Leader

September 19, 2022

by Stephen T. Messenger

I recently sat in a on a portion of a servant leadership class, which is one of my favorite subjects. I like to say that this type of leadership is “talked about by many but understood by few.”

Servant leadership often gets a bad rap. Many see it as a wishy-washy way of leading—a style that only focuses on the well-being of people and ignores the success of the organization. But done correctly, servant leaders both value people and accomplish the mission.

Servant Leadership Defined

I think some of the confusion on the goal of servant leadership stems from the original definition by its creator, Robert Greenleaf. He defined the theory in his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader.

“A servant leader is a servant first. It begins with a natural feeling that one wants to serve first.” This definition is good and true, but it fails to address advancing the mission at the same time. It inadvertently creates a perception that the leader is all sacrifice with no return on investment.

The Purdue University Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership extends this definition as “a philosophy and set of practices that enrich the lives of individuals, build better organizations, and ultimately create a more just and caring world.”

This is a more accurate definition of serving in a leadership capacity. Service is performed to reap the benefit in both people and the organization. While it remains people-centric, it acknowledges that leadership is designed to complete a mission.

The U.S. Army believes the effect of leadership is to “accomplish the mission and improve the organization.” Servant leaders meet both objectives.

The Effects of Serving Others

Take a look at this 3-minute video:

The producer of this video is trying to tell us that helping others is both a gift to the receiver and the giver. The gentleman certainly was going out of his way to serve other people with no expectation of reciprocation. However, I see a man who is both serving people and improving his community.

– Moving the plant beautified his town

– Helping the woman with the cart allowed her to connect to customers

– Giving money to the child provided for a more educated community

These acts of service were from a kind heart and giving spirit. The man cared passionately about others. Yet simultaneously, he made everything around him better beyond just the people.

A Cycle of Success

In essence, servant leadership is about taking care of people AND solving problems that others cannot solve themselves. In the three examples above, each person the man met had an obstacle in which they needed help from a leader. Once the obstacle was removed, the organization thrived.

Leaders come with resources that their followers don’t have themselves. They watch their people and see where they can serve. Leaders provide training, services, and resources when others require assistance to solve problems and improve themselves.

In doing so, servant leaders create a cycle of success:

  • Service. Servant leaders focus on the growth, development, and well-being of their people
  • Growth. Served leaders feel valued and desire to improve
  • Success. Performance increases across the organization
  • Develop. Served leaders become servants themselves

Serve Teams

I have a shirt I picked up from a very large church we once attended. It’s red and simply says, “SERVE” on the front. The church created “Serve Teams,” consisting of hundreds of professionals and laborers with all sorts of talents and resources—doctors, painters, lawn maintainers, counselors, carpenters, sports coaches, etc.

The teams would all don their red shirts and go out in the community to find needs they could address. Sometimes it was cutting grass, painting fences, or post-storm clean-up. Sometimes it was just talking to lonely people or playing basketball in the neighborhood. The intent was to find a need, any need, and solve it.

An amazing thing happened in the community. People felt valued, resources solved problems, the community improved, and the receiver often became the next servant. A cycle of success started to form where people were helping people, and others felt valued and cared for. Moreover, the community improved.

Change the Environment

Servant leaders understand the reason they serve is twofold: to value people and improve the organization. Much like the Greenleaf Center and the U.S. Army’s definition of leadership, serving is about completing the mission and building better teams.

Servant leadership is more than helping individuals, it’s about changing environments.

We invite you to subscribe using the link above. This leadership website is not for profit. There are no ads or fees—simply a desire to have you join in a conversation about leadership. Every Tuesday, you’ll receive an email with a different leadership concept. It’s about getting better… together!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: