How can a leader be a servant? Looks like a seemingly confusing connection. In a world where leadership is much in focus, it is worthwhile to discover this rare breed. Do we need them in Sri Lanka? Do we have them here, in the first place? Let’s move forward in search of servant leadership.
Leadership in focus
Leadership is a much discussed topic in both private as well as public circles. According to R.M. Stogdill, a behavioural researcher, leadership is the most vastly researched and the least understood phenomena on earth.
You may find the number of books on leadership in a management bookshelf easily outnumbering the rest. The point here is the vitality of leadership for organisational success. Also, there is an increasing demand for it.
Owing to the vastness of the whole subject area, let me define my scope. I would look into leaders in general on a global scale and business leaders in specific in the local scene.
Leaders may be evident at any level of an organisation. However, at a strategic level a leader can be defined as a person who looks beyond the business and provides leadership of the organisation. His/her task is to deal with government and external stakeholders to influence, set and communicate the policy under which the organisation operates and is accountable for its performance.
In essence, leadership is the ability to influence people toward the attainment of organisational goals. Leadership is reciprocal, occurring among people. It is a “people” activity, distinct from administrative paper shuffling or problem-solving activities. Leadership is dynamic and involves the use of power.
Leaders are at all levels. Typically, leadership is associated with the top brass of an organisation. Here we refer to the strategic leadership, whereas at different levels, we get plenty of operational leadership. In both these cases, the ability to influence occupies a prominent place.
Servant leadership is one way of looking at the dynamics of leadership; perhaps one of the most ancient forms of leadership, aptly found in all great religious founders. When you consider the 550 Jathaka stories, more than 50 per cent of the time, the Bodhisattva is portrayed as a leader. In some cases, as a 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,’ wrote, in the 4th century B.C as follows:
“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.
From East to West
As in the case of most management concepts, what was practiced for a long time got branded as “servant leadership” in the West. Robert Greenleaf, a scholar from USA, 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 attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve. Servant-leaders are often seen as humble stewards of their organisation’s physical, financial and most importantly, human resources.
Servant leader characteristics
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 Centre for Servant Leadership since 1990, has extracted a set of 10 characteristics that are central to the development of a servant leader. Let’s look at them in identifying the relevance to Sri Lankan business leaders.
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 pay attention to 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 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 as employees, but also as 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 counselling activities. Every manager can be a healer in such a manner that he/she strengthens inter-personal relationships.
A servant leader needs to gain awareness with regards to being and doing. Self-awareness comes first. Unless you are fully aware of what is going on, within and outside, you may take an inappropriate decision. Perhaps, you might ignore certain aspects of a problem. That’s why awareness is such a versatile tool.
All great religious leaders demonstrate self-awareness. Living in the present is what psychologists advocate. A leader might not be a role model unless he/she is aware of one’s own way of conducting oneself.
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.
This is where the mind power of the servant leader is in focus. The ability to think through concepts and frameworks becomes very handy for the servant leader. He/she needs to think beyond day-to-day realities. From the business point of view, this means he/she has the ability to see beyond the limits of the operating business in focusing on long term goals.
The usual story of vision and mission become handy here. Clear thinking should lead to clever action. Sri Lankan managers can improve a lot with this respect. Doing is fine, yet thinking and doing is even better.
They say failures are fertilisers for success. You need foresight to capture the rich lesions. Foresight is the ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation. It enables the servant leader to learn about the past and to achieve a better understanding about the current reality. It also enables to identify consequences about the future.
Nelson Mandela had this foresight. Sri Lankan managers should involve themselves with a better foresight for their future.
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 the man is to serve the 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.
9. Commitment to the growth of people
A servant leader has to be a people developer. He/she is convinced that people have an intrinsic value beyond their contributions as employees. Therefore, he/she should nurture the personal, professional and spiritual growth of employees. Spending money for the personal and professional development of the people as well as having a personal interest in the ideas from everyone and involving workers in decision making , can be cited as best practices with this respect.
As Ken Blanchard, the popular leadership author, says, that there is a difference between interest and commitment. When you are interested, you do when you feel like doing. Whereas if it a commitment, you devote yourself to the task, despite have internal and external.
10. Building community
We are not on a solo journey. A servant leader identifies means to build a strong community within his/her organisation and wants to develop a true community among businesses and institutions. It’s a case of moving beyond the silo-mentality.
Community can be the extended version of a team. Consider a social movement such as Sarvodaya, and you can see the importance clearly. The servant leader acts like a catalyst in the community building endeavour. It ensures team working in place, and more importantly, employees develop bondage towards each other. IT firms or advertising firms where a small bunch of people do extensive work, the possibility of emerging a servant leader is high.
We came a long way in discovering servant leadership, with emphasis on Sri Lankan context. Among many other forms of leadership, the concept of servant leadership stands tall owing to its universality of practice.
Mother Lanka is eagerly waiting to see many more servant leaders. There has to be training and other aspects to strengthen their capabilities, particularly the mindset. The golden maxim echoes in my mind. Those who serve deserve leadership.
(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a learner, teacher, trainer, researcher, writer and a thinker in the areas of human resource management and organisational behaviour. He can be reached on email@example.com.)