Servant-Leadership could become a gimmick. –Robert K. Greenleaf

Greenleaf writes: When I wrote the first essay on ‘Servant as Leader,’ I discovered that I had given that piece a catchy title.  I am grateful that the title gave the piece some circulation, but I am also aware of the danger: servant-leadership could become a gimmick.  The top person of some ailing institution might try to insert servant-leadership as a procedure, as a general management idea, as a means whereby the institution might do better.  Such a move might have a short-lived aspirin effect, but when that effect wears off, it might leave the institution more ailing than it was before, and another gimmick would need to be sought.  The surer way for the idea to have a long-term good effect is for the top person to become a servant-leader.  What that person is and does then speaks louder than what is said.  It might be better if nothing is said, just be it.  This, in time, might transform the institution. 

The ‘wave’ that caught Greenleaf’s concept powerfully emerged during the early 1990s.  More and more folks began to ride this wave (and as we know, ALL WAVES CRASH).  I became aware of a number of organizations that brought a version of servant-leadership inside as a result (often noted by cynical employees as the ‘flavor of the month’).  For twenty-six years (1993-2019) I have experienced firsthand, or I read about, organizations in a number of countries that were living out Greenleaf’s ‘danger’ – Servant-Leadership had, indeed, become a gimmick.

As far as I can discern today, many of these organizations have moved on to the next gimmick.  I am thinking of an educational institution where the top designated leaders had become enamored with the concept of ‘servant-leadership.’  I had a number of conversations with them.  The Head of the school remarked one day to me that: ‘I am not a servant; I am a leader.’  The school made several attempts to embrace Greenleaf’s concept and they finally settled on ‘The Leader as One Who Also Serves.’  Their focus became ‘Leader-First,’ not ‘Servant-First.’

In 1991 a mentor of mine, Mike Vance, introduced me to the General Manager of a very successful hotel in Las Vegas.  When the GM had taken over the hotel it was noted for its lack of customer service; it was also noted for its being unkempt (an understatement).  This GM had read Greenleaf’s essay, ‘The Servant as Leader.’  He told me that because of this essay he decided to ‘model’ being a ‘servant’ to the staff.  He spent months modeling being a servant.  He dusted.  He greeted customers.  He changed sheets in rooms.  He was not sure whether folks would respond positively but he did believe that the old way of judging and shaming and disciplining and firing folks would not work (it never had).

He was faithful to his belief that modeling behavior would be more helpful than directing and telling.  After 9 months he noticed that others were ‘serving’ as he was.  After 12 months he began to have conversations with folks and together they emerged an image of the service they wanted to provide.  Now they were ready to embrace and live into and out the servant-image.  I had the privilege of staying at this hotel during one of my visits with my mentor.  I was deeply impressed and became more impressed after I heard the story and after I spoke with the GM and some of the staff.  Simply put: They lived into Greenleaf’s concept.

As a number of other organizations know so well, servant-leadership does not have to become a gimmick, a wave to ride – as a ‘deep-current’ it has ‘staying power’.  And yet the danger of it becoming a gimmick always remains.  As Greenleaf noted, it is more likely not to become a gimmick if what each ‘person is and does’ speaks louder than what the person says.  As one CEO told me: We continue to embrace Greenleaf’s concept because it is right for us to do so – not because we will be more successful.  They continue to experience success as a by-product of who they are – they are servants, first.  And, this is no gimmick.

Responsible people build; they are moved by the heart. –Robert K. Greenleaf



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