The name servant-leader brings images of Mother Theresa feeding the hungry, Ghandi holding a sit-in against violence, or Dr. Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech. These may be lofty goals for some servant-leaders, but they may appear simply unattainable to others. Fortunately, servant-leadership is not a theory just for the morally impenetrable, but servant-Leadership is an attainable goal for everyone. This is not a role just for the Pope or Dalai Lama. It is not reserved for volunteers.
Servant-Leaders are not destined to be poor, nor do they have to give up their own fortunes for those of their companies. Servant-leaders are more commonly seen than many realize and many have gone on to become hugely successful business leaders. Below, you can find two examples of servant-leaders who have landed on Fortune’s The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders in the last two years (2017, 2018), though there were dozens of examples to be found.
When looking into these leaders, pay special attention to the characteristics that make them servant-leaders. There are several parts the servant-leader theory, and I have chosen to separate them among the leaders below for clarity, though all sections discussed can pertain to each individual.
Listening, Empathy, Healing, Awareness, Persuasion, Conceptualization, Foresight, Stewardship, Commitment to the growth of people, Building community
Jack Ma – Executive Chairman, Alibaba Group
Jack Ma is one of the richest men in the world. He has amassed a fortune of nearly 30 billion dollars by leading his e-commerce platform, Alibaba, through the global stage. As of the 2014 Fortune article, the China-based company was listed as having higher revenues than Amazon and eBay combined. He uses his worldwide presence to lead a march for free digital trade for all as an assistance to small businesses reach as many customers as possible (Fortune, 2017). Ma is a champion of philanthropic efforts, urging the lowering of trade barriers (Fortune, 2017), and endowing causes in health care, education, and the environment (Cendrowski, 2015).
As discussed previously, it is not only philanthropic efforts that make a servant-leader, but a need and desire to serve others in their organization so that they can better themselves (Williams, 2018, L. 11, P. 4). Fortune’s 2014 edition of the 50 Greatest Leaders remarked that Ma is highly supportive of his employees, encouraging them to “think big” and “work for their dreams!” This is aligned with Williams (2018, L. 11, P. 2) definition of servant-leaders, who he says help develop leaders in their own rights.
Ma meets many of the characteristics of a servant-leader (Northouse, 2016, P. 227). He works on principles of IQ, EQ, and LQ. IQ is purely intellectual, EQ is emotional intelligence, and Ma’s own creation, LQ, is the quotient of love (MacLellan, 2017).
- Listening – good communication with followers, marked by listening over speaking
Ma uses his LQ principles to communicate with his employees. He speaks fondly of them throughout his interview circuit, often commenting on their intelligence. “You don’t need to know a lot of things,” he is quoted as saying, “but you need to find people who are smarter than you. My job is to make sure smart people are working together” (Flashman, 2018). This respect for his employees is followed by direct listening to their ideas.
- Empathy – standing in the shoes of the follower
As a former teacher, Ma has shown through this 20 years as a leader that he values both education and his employees. He is willing to lend a hand on the most basic of levels. He will always drop what he is doing to assist his employees, whether it be “6 a.m. on a Wednesday, a Sunday, or during my best friend’s birthday party” (Tobel, 2018).
- Healing – care for the personal well-being of followers
Operating under his principle of LQ, Ma leads a company full of love, who support each other and get along, under Ma’s watchful eye. He speaks of his employee’s lives as being in his hands, and he takes this responsibility very seriously. “If you want your life to be simple, you shouldn’t be a leader,” he says, while mentioning that he emplores himself to assist all employee’s needs (Tobel, 2018).
- Awareness – being attuned to their physical, social, and political surroundings
Ma is keenly aware of the current state of other internet businesses, as discussed further in the “commitment to growth” header. He has become world renowned for his thoughts of AI and the current state of computer-lead work. He also has an acute political eye, sitting down with President Trump in January of 2017, promising future American jobs and selling “made in America products,” two of Trump’s major platforms (Balakrishnan, 2017).
- Persuasion – creates change through gentle and nonjudgmental arguments
One of Jack Ma’s most enduring quotes is, “Today is hard. Tomorrow will be worse. But the day after that will be beautiful. Most of your talent won’t make it past tomorrow.” While this may seem like a hard criticism, the beautiful “day after that” is supposed to be the key take away. Ma is willing to take his followers on an adventure, to push them through the hard times, so that they may reach that promised “day after that” (Tobel, 2018).
- Conceptualization – being a visionary for the organization
Jack Ma has been working with his platform, Alibaba, since its founding in 1999. Over the past two decades, his focus as been on people over machines. While many e-commerce conglomerates operate primarily with machines, Ma insists that machines lack the LQ factor. AI and machines should support people, as they do at Alibaba, rather than the reverse. His visions for the future of both his company and the state of the world are well documented (Flashman, 2018).
- Foresight – analyzing the future based on current and past happenings
While many baby-boomers resent the freewheeling tendencies of millennials, Ma famously appreciates the next generation. He urges world governments to “pay attention to young people” and education. Young people do not worry as much about the future, he posits, making them the ideal candidates for the growth of his, and other, businesses (MacLellan, 2017).
- Stewardship – taking responsibility for the leadership role
Confident in his approach to his company, Ma insists that he learns from his own mistakes and the mistakes of others. “The book I want to write is called “Alibaba: 1,001 mistakes.” It is this humility that shows Ma’s distinct stewardship role, taking responsibility not only for company successes, but failures (Flashman, 2018)
- Commitment to the growth of people – helping followers grow personally and professionally
Ma believes that this followers, especially young people, are vitally more important than the machines that they operate. He insists that the current educational goals, teaching about machines and how to be like them, is incorrect. He believes that these teachings will cost people jobs in a future dominated by computers and artificial intelligence.
A machine does not have a heart, [a] machine does not have soul, and [a] machine does not have a belief. Human being have the souls, have the belief, have the value; we are creative, we are showing that we can control the machines.”
It is this belief in the power of people, of humans, that allows Ma to remain committed to the personal and professional growth of his employees (MacLellan, 2017).
- Building community – fostering the development of a community
Though Ma himself is at the head of a conglomerate e-commerce site, he discusses these “shrinking giants” like Amazon and Apple. His website is different, assisting small and medium-sized businesses sell their “made in America” products to middle class Chinese families. He supports small businesses, saying that they are the way of the future, and allowing them to trade via Alibaba will create 1 million American jobs in the next five years (Balakrishnan, 2017).
Conceptualizing, Emotional Healing, Putting Followers First, Helping Followers Grow and Succeed, Behaving Ethically, Empowering, Creating Value for the Community
Ryan Coogler – Film Director & T’Challa – Black Panther Character
A newcomer to the Fortune list and to the directing world, Ryan Coogler has seen unprecedented success for his third major film release (previous directing credits include short films and the major motion pictures Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015) (IMBD, 2018). Notably, all of Coogler’s films have primarily black casts, which is uncommon in Hollywood. His latest venture, Black Panther, smashed box office records. The movie that tells the story of T’Challa, an African King in the faux-African nation of Wakanda being tested by an evil outside force who fights to take his rightful place on the throne (IMDB, 2018). The stand-alone (non-sequel film) made $202 million on opening weekend and holds the following records: 5th biggest opening weekend of all time, biggest non-sequel opening ever, biggest solo super-hero movie ever (worldwide), biggest Friday-Sunday opening weekend for a holiday debut, biggest long holiday weekend opening, biggest opening over not directed by a white male (Mendelson, 2018), and the highest-grossing film ever directed by an African-American (Zarya, 2018), among others.
While the film was released at an opportune time in American history to be not only accepted, but an appreciated and needed look into black and African culture, it is the servant-leadership style of Coogler that made the film a success and the servant-leadership style of T’Challa that saved Wakanda.
Here we will take a look specifically at the servant-leader behaviors, as outlined in Northouse (2016) that these men presented (P. 232-235).
- Conceptualizing – the understanding of the organization
Though he is a new filmmaker, Coogler has shown that he not only understands his role in the movie directing business, but of the organization of his cast and crew. He admits to self-doubt and sometimes feeling like an imposter in Hollywood (Zarya, 2018). But he offers advice to anyone in a similar situation – “nine times out of ten, you’re not the first person to be in situation that you’re in.” He rallies behind asking for advice and building a personal understanding of the situation (Zarya, 2018).
- Emotional Healing – sensitivity to personal concerns and well-being
Black Panther open as T’Challa is coming-of-age and taking over the Wakandan throne. The Wakandan government itself is sensitive to the needs of its followers, housing a council of Elders from different backgrounds, who operate in a democratic style. This fictional country is a monarchy, but one that places the personal concerns of its people at the forefront (Zarya, 2018).
- Putting Followers First – places the needs of the followers or organization over personal gain
- In a 2018 interview with Fortune (Zarya), Coogler described his leadership style as “someone who rolls my sleeves up as much as I can. I try to be first in, last out, whenever that’s possible.” He spoke at length about his respect for his football coaches who would run drills with them, rather than stand around and blow a whistle. He notes that he attempts to put the needs of his followers (film crew and actors) first, allowing them breaks whenever needed.
- “The one day that you find yourself stray from what you’re asking other people to be accountable to, you can no longer ask them to do that – because now you’re being a hypocrite.”
Placing the needs of followers above his own is also a common theme for T’Challa – as Coogler describes him as someone who values the opinions of those around him (Zarya, 2018).
- Helping Followers Grow and Succeed – assisting followers in reaching their personal goals
Coogler further spoke about responsibility in the Zarya (2018) interview. He mentions that when things go wrong, he is the first to take responsibility. When things go right, he diverts to the responsibility to all involved. “The worst thing you can do,” he says, “is take credit for stuff that somebody else did.” Though this is also an ethical behavior, it also shows that he wants to make sure his followers are successful and ensure that they get proper credit.
- Behaving Ethically – doing the right thing in the right way
“Being open and honest with folks” is the key to getting others to rally behind your vision, according to Coogler (Zarya, 2018). Saying that while some directors may initially hide their ideals to get people on board with the project, Coogler admits that he often will have sit-downs with actors (i.e. Sylvester Stallone in Creed) and explain that his vision may be different of that than the studio. Using “what they’re trying to do” in conjunction with what he is trying to do is a tough negation for Coogler at times, but he is committed to ethically approaching this difference of opinion in all of his films (Zarya, 2018).
- Empowering – allowing followers to be independent
T’Challa, the protagonist in Black Panther, has similar servant-leader behaviors to his director. Coogler describes his main character as a good leader – someone who empowers the people who work with him, collecting information from everyone (Zarya, 2018).
- Creating Value for the Community – giving back
Coogler sees himself as someone who came up from the bottom and is ensuring that other young filmmakers receive the same chances that he was given. Even before Black Panther’s astounding box office success, Coogler took a trip to the Ghetto Film School (GFS) in Los Angeles. There he chatted with 30 young filmmakers, before surprising them with not only tickets to the Black Panther Premiere, but a $50,000 grant to the program (“Director Ryan Coogler”).
There are servant-leaders all around us, doing both extraordinary things and daily tasks. Your manager may be one, you may be one yourself. Though not volunteers or freedom fighters, not religious leaders or impossibly moral figures. They are CEOs and filmmakers, professors and parents. A leader just needs to have certain attributes and practice certain behaviors to have the success of as a servant-leader also.
Balakrishnan, A. (2017). Jack Ma: World leaders must make ‘hard choices’ or the next 30 years will be painful. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2017/06/21/alibabas-jack-ma-says-people-will-work-four-hours-a-day-in-30-years.html
Cendrowski, S. (2015). http://fortune.com. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2015/04/22/alibabas-jack-ma-is-chinas-biggest-philanthropist/
Director Ryan Coogler Surprises Young Filmmakers with a Grant from Synchrony Bank – The Walt Disney Company. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.thewaltdisneycompany.com/director-ryan-coogler-surprises-young-filmmakers-grant-synchrony-bank/
Flashman, G. (2018). Jack Ma on the IQ of love – and other top quotes from his Davos interview. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/jack-ma-davos-top-quotes/
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Northouse, P. (2016). Leadership. Los Angeles, Calif. [u.a.]: SAGE.
Mendelson, S. (2018). ‘Black Panther’ Box Office: Records And Milestones From Its First Two Months. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2018/04/16/black-panther-box-office-all-the-milestones-it-set-in-its-first-two-months/#f9908df22849
Tobel, A. (2018). Alibaba CEO Jack Ma: If You Want Your Life to Be Simple, Don’t Be a Leader. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/alexa-von-tobel/alibaba-ceo-jack-ma-if-you-want-your-life-to-be-simple-dont-be-the-leader.html
Williams, 2018. Lesson Commentary. PSU. Retrieved from: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1887594/modules
Zarya, V. (2018). http://fortune.com. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2018/04/19/ryan-coogler-black-panther/