SERVANT-LED ORGANIZATIONS, PART I. . .

Leadership is a serious meddling in other people’s lives. –Max de Pree

In 1990 Peter Senge published his seminal work: ‘The Fifth Discipline.’  He introduced us to the concept of the learning organization.  In 1993 Peter wrote this: ‘Learning Organizations are built by communities of Servant-Leaders.’  He followed this with ‘Servant-Leaders are the ones walking ahead, regardless of their management position or hierarchical authority… Servant-Leadership is inevitably collective.’

Traditionally, in our Culture, our conventional notions of the ‘leader’ are embedded in a myth – the myth of the leader as hero.  We forget, or deny, that leadership is a by-product of the relationship between the leader and the led.  Greenleaf’s concept is inherently relational and communal (two reasons his concept resonated with Peter Senge – he told me this when I met him in 1994); it is also inherently ethical.

Within an organization, the hero-leader has never existed.  It has always been – and it will always continue to be – the ‘led’ who determine whether the leader is a hero or not (there have been, of course, individuals who acted as heroes and this is important to remember; these heroes emerge ‘situationally’).

Today, more than ever before in history, our rate of learning must be equal to the rate of change.  This means that no one person can learn at a fast enough rate in order to keep up.  This means that learning must be communal learning – Senge’s ‘Learning Organization’ is one way to enhance communal learning.

Cooperation and Collaboration must replace Competition.  The Community must take precedence over the Individual. The Team must replace the Person.  These endeavors are no easy charge for our Culture – a Culture that is rooted in the primacy of the person – a Culture that is rooted in the Individual more than the Community.

One of the reasons that Senge embraced Greenleaf’s concept is that he was able to discern that the servant-as-leader concept combines idealism & pragmatism.  As an ideal, Greenleaf’s concept appeals to one’s values, beliefs, guiding-life principles, dignity, self-worth and social nature (we humans are social beings).  Greenleaf’s concept is also practical, and, I will add, demanding.  High achievement and working with distinction are goals to be embraced and lived.  At the same time, the highest priority needs of those in the Organization are consciously addressed (we ‘address’ needs, we cannot ‘meet’ them).  All are served so that they, while being served, grow as persons.  Because the servant-leader is relational and because leadership is a by-product of the relationship between the leader and the led, the health of the community is crucial (the metaphor: organization is community becomes a core-value).  ‘Health’ involves the Physical, Intellectual, Emotional, Spiritual and Social (think: Relational) health of the person and the community.

The emergence and embracing of ‘communal leadership’ does not mean that there are no designated leader-roles.  CEOs and Executives and Managers will continue to exist.  Their existence is necessary and their existence also poses a core challenge for servant-led learning organizations.  This is a challenge that must be embraced – it is not a problem to be solved.  There are guidelines that can help AND there are no specific blueprints to follow (this is one reason it is a challenge – ‘guidelines without specific blueprints’).  This challenge results in dis-ease running amok within organizations.

Dis-ease always infects us when we are confronted by transformational change. –Richard W. Smith

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