James C. Hunter (2004) called servant leadership, “The world’s most powerful leadership principal” (p. 1). Who would have thought this approach to leadership would progress this far past the prevailing mindset of mid-century America? The concept would be difficult to grasp for many if not for two of the most well-known servant leaders of the 20th century – Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Both men transformed the minds and hearts of millions because they led by their ideals – always putting the needs and desires of other people before themselves (Northouse, 2016).
It is for almost no other leadership theory when epitomized fully by the leader that the leader is remembered and honored well after their deaths. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for all of his contributions for forwarding the civil rights movement is honored with multiple public schools, streets and a federal building in his honor, as well as having a national holiday named for him. Dr. King through his social activism offered his followers an inclusive vision, listened carefully to the needs of the African American community, as well as the economically disadvantaged and all victims of injustice (Frady, 2002). He persuaded through reason and healed divisions while building community – all characteristics of a servant leader (Northouse, 2016).
Dr. King’s antecedent that had an impact to him becoming a civil rights icon was inherent in his desire to lead, first as a pastor of his congregation. He was quoted as saying that he chose to enter the ministry because it was to him the best way to answer, “the inner urge to serve humanity” (Frady, 2002, p. 18). These leader attributes existing of a deep desire to lead and being driven to a higher calling demonstrate how Dr. King exhibited servant leadership (Northouse, 2016).
The country of India has been forever shaped and impacted by the servant leadership behaviors of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was a great role model of truth and of non-violence in the form of peaceful civil disobedience demonstrating ethical behavior, an important servant leader behavior (Barnabas & Clifford, 2012; Northouse, 2016). Gandhi was executed when exhibiting facets of emotional healing – being sensitive to the well-being of others, when he bravely stood to support peace with Muslims when he himself was Hindu (Barnabas & Clifford, 2012; Northouse, 2016). Further, he empowered peasants of the Himalayas to take back their farmland from the British, while still motivating all to follow a path of non-violence to achieve this freedom (Barnabas & Clifford, 2012). Like King, Gandhi put the needs of the people first, at a great personal cost to himself.
Through the actions of these great men, the societal impact for the communities and the countries they lived within are vast and enduring. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped America realize its capabilities toward being a nation that embraced equality, and inspired millions to “stand at times of trial and adversity” (The King Center, n.d.). Mahatma Gandhi helped inspire an oppressed India to gain independence through non-violence against the British. Emeritus Professor Gilbert Murray (1939) of Oxford once wrote of Gandhi, “He is a ruler obeyed by millions, not because they fear him but because they love him (p. 197). These outcomes of servant leadership led to follower growth (people of nations) and a positive societal impact – a desirable and hard-won conclusion to these men’s life’s work. (Northouse, 2016).
Barnabas, A. & Clifford, P. S. (2012). Mahatma Gandhi – An Indian model of servant leadership. International Journal of Leadership Studies 7(2). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Annette_Barnabas/publication/234090908_MAHATMA_GANDHI_-_AN_INDIAN_MODEL_OF_SERVANT_LEADERSHIP/links/02e7e51ca648ed42dd000000/MAHATMA-GANDHI-AN-INDIAN-MODEL-OF-SERVANT-LEADERSHIP.pdf
Frady, M. (2002). Martin Luther King, Jr.: A life. New York, NY: Penguin Books
Hunter, J. C. (2004). The world’s most powerful leadership principle. New York, NY: Random House Publishing
King, M. L. (n.d). The King Center. Retrieved from http://www.thekingcenter.org/blog/mlk-quote-week-times-challenge-and-controversy
Murray, G. (1939). Gandhi’s spiritual authority. In S. Radhakrishnan, (Ed.), Mahatma Gandhi – Essays and reflections on his life and work (pp. 197,198). Woking, Great Britain: Unwin Brothers Limited.
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice. (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, Inc