During the past 47 years folks have been asking me, ‘What are the essentials of Servant-Leadership?’ I have held this question, I have attempted to respond to it and delineate them, and I have edited my list of ‘essentials.’ Recently I was, again, asked for my list of ‘essentials’ and so Gentle Reader I have decided to share a few of these with you today.
1. Robert K. Greenleaf: He did not begin with a theory or a concept; he began with ‘practice’ [many years of practice beginning during his teen years]. He called himself a ‘gradualist’ and a ‘student of how things get done’ and yet his writing is more philosophical and conceptual. Greenleaf moved from ‘practice’ to ‘concept.’
2. Servant-Leadership is a concept, a philosophy, an attitude, a way of being & doing, a guiding principle. It is counter-cultural [e.g. it is basically an organic, developmental metaphor]; it is motivated by love and friendship (‘In the end,’ Greenleaf wrote, ‘all that matters is love and friendship’]. It is rooted in the belief that at our healthiest we are, as Greenleaf noted, living paradoxes.
3. Servant-Leader is a purposeful paradox to be embraced; it is not a problem to be solved. Greenleaf was clear that as challenging as these two words are (individually and when combined) they are the best words to describe what he intended.
4. Servant, first: Greenleaf was clear that he was writing on the ‘servant theme’ and this directly challenges those who attempt to put his emphasis on ‘leader first.’ The ‘servant-as-leader’ is quite different conceptually and practically from the ‘leader as servant.’
5. The Servant seeks to serve others’ highest priority needs. ‘Seeks to serve’ does not equate with ‘meeting the needs.’ The servant is not called to meet another’s needs but to serve them; what does this mean? Greenleaf helps us with his ‘Best Test:’ What needs are being served? The ‘highest priority needs’ are being served; these are not ‘wants’ (there is an important difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ and too often we forget the difference — or we just neglect the difference). Of course, the servant needs help in naming and understanding the ‘highest priority needs’ of the other; therefore, a ‘searching conversation’ is often required.
6. ‘Begins in here’: The servant begins his/her searching and seeking by looking inward first.
7. ‘Listen, first’: One way to ‘begin in here’ is to listen and to listen, first. The servant listens intently and with undefended receptivity. The servant listens with a goal of ‘seeking to understand.’
I like the number ‘7’ – it has a mystical quality about it — so I think I will stop here today. As a reminder, here is Greenleaf’s ‘Best Test’ (the 1980 version, which I believe was his ‘final version’ of this test). Greenleaf writes: The Best Test: Do those served grow as persons; do they while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will she or he benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?