When reports of CEO largesse — to themselves — and executive hauteur became front-page news at the beginning of the economic downturn, public disillusionment with business leaders skyrocketed. The public image of many business leaders was tarnished: they were selfish, looking out only for themselves, and unconcerned with the welfare of their employees. Even if the corporate executive was scrupulously honest, the top-down style of leadership prevalent in many companies today left much to be desired, in the view of many in the workforce.
To many, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, proud of his command-and-control, fear-based leadership, personified the American businessman. But there is another form of business leadership that we should consider, especially in light of our recent economic turmoil. This style of leadership is non-hierarchical, humble, and more akin, as Max De Pree put it in his wonderful little book Leadership Jazz, to conducting an orchestra. Saying “thank you” is the first and last rule in such a leadership form. It emphasizes collaboration, trust, and the ethical use of power. There must be a conscious decision to lead not merely to gain personal power and authority, but to serve the institution and the people within it.
This is “servant leadership,” a philosophy and a set of practices coined by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970s. Servant leaders strive to give priority to the needs of colleagues and to those they serve. As humble stewards of organizational resources, servant leaders have these formative qualities: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, foresight, stewardship, growth, and the building of community. The objective is to add to the common good by helping the organization and people associated with it to grow and flourish.
Greenleaf based his understanding of such humble doers on none other than Jesus, who urged his own followers to be servants first. In his now classic essay, “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf described the essence of servant leadership: “[It] manifests itself in the care taken by the servant — first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
Today many leaders (corporate, not for profit, religious, labor, educational, and surely political) are too often on a monomaniacal trajectory, and at some point they inevitably face what could be called a “crucible of power.” And the crucial question becomes: Do they make a redemptive turn and empty themselves by grace? Or do they fail to adapt and become yet more dictatorial, greedy, and authoritarian, often manufacturing a “cult of personality” (like Stalin or Mao), surrounding themselves with hacks, goons, sycophants, and yes-men?
All leaders must decide what kind of leader they want to be. Will they ascend on the arc of wise leadership — giving themselves in service — or storm proudly down the well-trodden path of all-powerful Caesarism, taking no prisoners in their lust for self-aggrandizement? Will they opt to become like Jack Welch, or like former Johnson & Johnson CEO Ralph Larsen? When asked what he looked for in a new hire, Larsen replied, “Are they going to be respectful of people in lower positions?” Then there is William Pollard, who, always mindful of the well-being of his employees, built ServiceMaster Company into a $3 billion corporation.
Greenleaf’s credo works for institutions and society as well as individual business leaders. Greenleaf saw humility as a key virtue that engenders caring for others. He called humility “the rock upon which any good society is built.” Although Greenleaf worried that institutions were becoming increasingly large, complex, powerful, and impersonal, he nonetheless realized that institutions are mediating forces necessary to increase the capacity to serve. Good institutions are built using spiritual and social capital that societies develop over time. Such institutions in turn help to create and sustain entire civilizations. Greenleaf argued that servant leaders inside institutions and across cultures can provide a kind of moral authority. Legitimate power and greatness will come about as servant leaders practice difficult virtues, including humility, to lead their institutions.
Every virtue that is not accompanied by humility will likely be destroyed by conceit and narcissism. So you might ask yourself and all the leaders you know: have you had your test of humility? There are important questions that must be asked about leaders. The first of these is “Who do we intend to be?” This is more important than “What are we going to do?” Servant leadership is built on character rather than goals. Its greatest sources of support are trust and an abiding faith.