The term “servant leadership” seems kind of like an oxymoron at first glance. But when you really take time to consider the idea, it makes perfect sense. When you consider the idea of a servant, who either helps to personally cater to another individual or maintains some sort of grand estate, that servant keeps things running smoothly. Without the servant, the house would undoubtedly be out of order or the individual for whom the servant works would not be able to function nearly as efficiently. And this is largely where Greenleaf (1970, as cited by Northouse, 2016, p.225) came up with the idea of servant leadership. In the book The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse (1956), the servant led a group of travelers who fell into disarray and disbanded after he disappeared, because in essence, the servant was leading them from behind. And this is where Greenleaf got the idea for his leadership model (Northouse, 2016, p. 227).
Metaphorically, you could look at servant leadership as turning the organizational pyramid on its side. Rather than leading from the top, the servant leadership style dictates that leaders help their followers by guiding them and gently pushing them forward, or leading from the bottom up. This is because the basic premise of servant leadership is that the leader’s first aim is to serve and help followers to fulfill their roles in order for the followers to grow and progress (Northouse, 2016, p.226). They put others’ needs first and as a result, hopefully, help their followers meet organizational goals and as a by-product learn to do the same for others. As a result of this type of nurturing towards growth, the intended goal is that followers not only grow themselves, but help the organizations within which they exist to grow as well.
It has been determined that servant leaders possess certain characteristics which help them to be successful and these include listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of their followers, and a sense of building community (Spears, 2002, as cited by Northouse, 2016, p.227-229). This list makes it pretty clear that servant leaders’ main focus is helping their followers and the organizations in which they exist to overcome obstacles in order to perform well and develop themselves so that the organization can perform well and grow as well. As a result, there is also a positive impact on society as well from the organizations’ prosperity (Northouse, 2016, p.238). However, for servant leadership to be effective enough to result in these positive outcomes, they must exhibit behaviors that are appropriate to the organization’s culture and context, with followers who are receptive to this type of leadership, because not everyone views having a servant leader positively (Northouse, 2016, p.232-233).
There are several famous examples of servant leaders who have had large impacts on society and the organizations in which they functioned. One of the most famous and lasting models of this is Mahatma Gandhi. He led millions of Indians through servant leadership in a quest for Indian independence from British rule, often incorporating methods such as fasting because it is non-violent and as such didn’t harm either the oppressors or the oppressed people he was attempting to help (Biography.com Editors, n.d.). His primary motivation and purpose was to serve the people of his country, not gain fame, glory or riches. While his actions helped to transform a nation, Gandhi’s main purpose remained to serve his people with the goal of improving their living conditions and easing racial tensions. As a result of Gandhi’s leadership, his followers gained independence which lead them to become empowered. He valiantly lived by the ideal, “Be the change you want to see in the World,” (Gandhi, n.d.) and as such, led by example.
Another famous leader who exemplifies servant leadership is Cesar Chavez, whose mission was to empower farm workers and immigrants in order to protect them from injustices they endured by farmers. Through his founding of the United Farm Workers union he helped to improve the working conditions and pay for thousands (United Farm Workers, 2016). He was tireless in his efforts to change the way that migrant farm workers were treated, advocating non-violent methods such as fasting, to perpetrate change. He brought national attention to his cause so that his supporters could garner support in order to effectuate change for the good of many. Chavez felt that by bringing solidarity to his followers they could find a solution to the problems between farm workers and the growers they worked for (United Farm Workers, 2016). With deep empathy for those that he led, Chavez strove to raise awareness for his cause by building a sense of community among his followers and attempting to persuade both the government and agricultural producers to provide reasonable pay and safe working conditions for their workers. His true purpose was never to gain notoriety or wealth, but rather to empower his followers so that they may be treated fairly in order to be productive and successful and improve not only their working conditions but also their living conditions, which would in turn have an impact on the communities they lived in.
Harriet Tubman was a third person who exemplifies what it means to be a servant leader. After escaping from slavery herself she returned to the south over a dozen times in order to escort over 300 slaves to freedom (PBS, n.d.). Her name is synonymous with the Underground Railroad and she emerged as a leader by putting the lives of others before her own in order to free them from slavery. Rather than solely worrying about her own safety she repeatedly put herself in harms’ way for the betterment of others. Her own freedom motivated her to improve the plight of others and save them as well. Her leading other slaves to freedom earned her the nickname of Moses among her people and gave them courage to follow her to freedom as well. She even acted as a nurse and spy during the Civil War (PBS, n.d.) and following the end of the war she opened her home to the needy and financed her Home for Indigent and Aged Negroes by selling her biography and through public speaking engagements (History.com Staff, 2009). Tubman’s unselfish actions and efforts were all in service to improve the lives and conditions of as many African Americans as she possibly could.
While these are only three examples of servant leadership, there are certainly many more. However, these examples illustrate the leadership model well. In all of them there were antecedent conditions that set the backdrop for these individuals to become leaders. For each case there was a situation in which there was a drastic need for change which the leaders strove for through helping and empowering those who needed the help the most. These leaders also had attributes that helped them to be effective as leaders and their followers were receptive to the need for change (PSU WC, 2016, l.11 p.4). As leaders, all three exhibited behaviors that were for the benefit of their followers in order to help them better their positions in life by putting their followers first, helping them succeed, behaving ethically, and creating value for the communities of which they were a part (PSU WC, 2016, l.11 p.4). As a result, the outcome was beneficial in each circumstance as can be seen for each example. Each of these leaders had a great impact on both the followers and the societies in which they lived. These leaders dedicated their lives to help others be successful, which is the epitome of what servant leadership is about.
Biography.com Editors. (n.d.). Mahatma Gandhi biography. Biography.com. Retrieved from http://www.biography.com/people/mahatma-gandhi-9305898#related-video-gallery.
Greenleaf, R. K. (1970). The servant as leader. Westfield, IN: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
Hesse, H. (1956). The Journey to the East. London: P. Owen.
History.com Staff. (2009). Harriet Tubman. History.com. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/harriet-tubman.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
PBS. (n.d.). Africans in America: Harriet Tubman. PBS.org. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1535.html.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2016). Lesson 11: Servant Leadership. PSYCH485: Leadership in work settings. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/sp16/psych485/001/content/11_lesson/04_page.html.
Spears, L. C. (2002). Tracing the past, present, and future of servant leadership. In L. C. Spears & M. Lawrence (Eds.), Focus on leadership: Servant-leadership for the 21st century (pp.1-16). New York: Wiley.
United Farm Workers. (2016). The story of Cesar Chavez. UFW.org. Retrieved from http://www.ufw.org/_page.php?menu=research&inc=history/07.html.