Jesus Christ provided an ideal example of servant leadership
Yesterday was Easter Sunday. In the cherished tradition, Jesus Christ washed the feet of his disciples on Holy Thursday, three days earlier. It showed the world not only the humility of a great leader but the serenity of servant leadership. Today’s column is a reflection on servant leaders, with emphasis on the Sri Lankan business community.
Leadership is not about positions and titles but about decisions and actions. It is essentially a mindset. We look at the leaders at the top but not the leaders at the tap. Servant leadership is one way of looking at the dynamics of leadership.
It is perhaps, one of the most anci
ent forms of leadership, aptly found in all great religious founders. When you consider the 550 Jathaka stories, more than 50% of the time, Bodhisathva is portrayed as a leader. In some cases, as one who serve others. In brief, a servant leader is a servant first. The simple motto is service first.
Chanakya, the famous author of Arthashastra, in the 4th Century B.C wrote: “The king (leader) shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects (followers). The king (leader) is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.”
There are passages that highlight the servant dimension of leadership attributed to Lao Tzu, who is believed to have lived in China sometime between 570 B.C. and 490 B.C.
“The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy. When you are lacking in faith, others will be unfaithful to you. The sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’”
The fascinating point here is that the servant leader appears as a ‘leader breeder’ in developing his/her followers to serve others.
Branding of servant leadership
As in the case of several management concepts, the West ‘branded’ servant leadership. Robert Greenleaf, a scholar from the United States, gets the credit for documenting the features and facets of servant leaders. Having worked for AT&T for several decades, he realised the limitations of typical administrative leaders. Having contemplated an alternative, the resulting model was the repackaged concept of servant leadership.
Let’s look at how he describes the concept further: “The servant leader is servant first. Becoming a servant leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
Servant leaders achieve results for their organisations by giving priority to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve.
Qualities of servant leaders
“Servant leadership is a blend and balance between leader and servant,” says Skip Prichard, who runs a centre on servant leadership. You don’t lose leadership qualities when becoming a servant leader. According to him, the following are the qualities of a servant leader: Values diverse opinions, cultivates a culture of trust, develops other leaders, helps people with life issues, encourages, sells instead of tells, thinks you, not me, thinks long-term and acts with humility.
There is no doubt that the above list is relevant to Sri Lankan business leaders. Special emphasis should be made on the final one. It reaffirms what Jim Collins, in his seminal book, Good to Great, mentioned about great leaders who have a professional will and personal humility. Servant leaders do not get on others’ shoulders but might carry others on their shoulders.
Characteristics of servant leaders
There are many characteristics can be found in a servant leader. Larry C. Spears, who has served as President and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership since 1990, has extracted several characteristics that are central to the development of a servant leader.
You can’t serve others without properly listening to them. A servant leader has the motivation to listen actively to his team and supports them in decision identification. This applies particularly to paying attention to the unspoken. This means relying on his/her inner voice and find out what the body, mind and spirit are communicating.
Mahatma Gandhi did that with his fellow Indians. Managers need to do that with their teams. CEOs need to do that with their employees. In essence, servant leaders listen with care. As we discussed last week, Sri Lankan business leaders can improve their current level of listening to a much higher level.
A servant leader attempts to understand and empathise with others. Workers may be considered not only employees but also people who need respect and appreciation for their personal development. Japanese business leaders have demonstrated this characteristic a lot in their typical approach to work. Here, leadership is seen as a special type of human work, which ultimately generates a competitive advantage.
A great strength of a servant leader is the ability for healing one’s self and others. A servant leader tries to help people solving their problems and conflicts in relationships because he/she wants to develop the capabilities of each individual. This leads to the formation of a business culture in which the working environment is characterised by dynamic, fun and no fear from failure.
Mother Theresa did this with destitute street children. HR professionals can demonstrate this in their coaching and counseling activities. Every manager can be a healer in such a manner that he/she strengthens inter-personal relationships.
A servant leader does not take advantage of his power and his status by forcing others to comply. He/she rather tries to convince them. This element distinguishes servant leadership most clearly from traditional, authoritarian models and can be traced back to the religious views of the inventor Robert Greenleaf. This is one area where Sri Lankan managers can learn. Instead of forcing people to do things, convincing them of the benefits of doing particular things is what is needed.
Servant leadership is seen as an obligation to help and serve others. Openness and persuasion are more important than control. It reminds me of what Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike told the nation. The prime obligation of man is to serve mankind. This offers fresh insights about our traditional leadership hierarchy. Instead of looking up to see how your boss is doing, you should look in front to see whether your customers are delighted or not.
Among many other forms of leadership, the concept of servant leadership stands tall owing to its universality of practice. There has to be training and other aspects to strengthen their capabilities, particularly the mindset.
It is not only a concept for religious leaders but for those from all walks of life. Sri Lanka is eagerly waiting to see many more servant leaders. In essence, those who serve deserve leadership.