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Servant Leadership – New wine in old wineskin!


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By Oscar E.V. Fernando

Servant Leadership (SL) is a term, coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his essay on SL first published in 1970 – in propounding a corporate management technique.

The main emphasis of this theory is that a leader should be affectionately considerate towards subordinates, who in turn will make a ripple effect through his subordinates, for the overall benefit of the organisation – through empathy towards employees.

Some readers may remember the tales of Charles Dickens where he describes cruelty to factory workers with the haphazard on set of workplaces in the period of the Industrial Revolution. 

However it is a far cry from then and now, ending somewhat with the Hire and Fire policy of the West and the frequent and violent laying down of tools in our own country – then and now, in an effort to have more share in profits and attention of employers. It is in this backdrop we must read the theory of SL that offers the following guidelines to business entrepreneurs. 

A leader should be a person that workers can relate to – the priority is to serve rather than to command, with a view to ensuring success and power to the employee – to appreciate that a servant can become a leader only if the leader is first a servant to his subordinate who in turn would be a servant to his own subordinate, and so on – this behaviour of a leader must result in workers becoming healthier and wiser with self-improvement and eventually possessing the traits of Servant Leaders themselves.Several other authors have expanded on the theory and said the 10 characteristics of SL are – listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualisation, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building a community – Servant Leaders are individuals of character who put people first and are skilled communicators, compassionate collaborators, use foresight – be system thinkers and exercise moral authority.

Teachings on the concept of kindness and love towards one’s subordinates were prevalent in ancient society too, though sometimes accompanied in practice by evident severe cruelty to servants and slaves. We read for example in ancient texts, passages akin to SL by philosophers like Lao Tzu and Confucius of early China: Buddhism too may have some of its tenets based on the subject of SL.

In the Old Testament Bible, as old as the hills or perhaps even older, we read passages about the intrinsic love within human beings. It also foretells the coming of a Messiah to save mankind who though created in love had turned cruel over the years due to variously disputed reasons. 

With the theory of SL, this ancient concept is now given a closer commercial look with deeper study and research on the relationship between employer and employee.

Does it not reveal how long this very natural norm of love and affection had been lost sight of with the post industrial revolution struggle for higher profit in business; thoughts that have been lying buried under the rubble of the avalanche of Free Thinking from the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation in European history?

Can we not say that all these teachings are derivatives of the fundamental aspects of love and affection that are etched in the hearts of humans and perhaps long lost sight of as a result of modernist thinking and even overlooked commercially-due to the busy-ness in a world of profit and production!?

One such teaching that comes down the ages from the Old Testament in the Bible is the command to: Love God; Love your neighbour; Love yourself.

The Messiah, foretold in the Old Testament, also preached the same love specifically by word of mouth and lived it practically in his life and death, leaving nothing written as was done by philosophers that preceded Him – perhaps the only one who left his thoughts to be written down by his disciples who were thereafter inspired by him after he exited from this world to another!

Here is a passages bearing on Servant Leadership in the New Testament as preached by the Messiah, centuries before 1970:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them – not so with you – instead whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”

Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many-showing this servility by washing the feet of his disciples!  This voice of nearly 2,000 years ago still vibrates from the present Leader of this group Pope Francis, who says: “Lead from the heart and then from the head. Lead to serve. Leaders’ power does not reside in being right but in being real. Bring hope, equality and opportunity to those who have little.”

People long for leaders who put the interests of others ahead of their own, who are willing to do what is right above what is easy or politically expedient, and who are not afraid to lay their reputation on the line for a cause and a vision that is vastly bigger than themselves.

Does it not reveal how long this very natural and intrinsic norm of love and affection had been lost sight of-that a theory has to be propounded and further research has to be done to revive it?

This commandment of love is what rings throughout in the New Testament Bible. Curiously; this is also what is highlighted by modern writers and singers such as Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Eckert Tolle, Greenleaf, Jim Reeves, the singer and many others who by eloquent and modern emphasis on love have written and sung for the immense benefit of our present day society!

Do we not see that the theory of Servant Leadership conforms to the earlier and the later independent teachings of religious leaders and the Ancient Church, and that it is new wine in an old wine skin – now commercially packaged, appealingly for the benefit of society!?


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