Unless you have been living on a remote island unconnected from civilization for the past few decades, you have no doubt heard the term “servant leadership.” It certainly gets thrown about generously in business conversations these days, particularly in reference to both scrum master and agile coach roles. It is in stark contrast to leadership styles derived from Kantian theory whereby the leader has ultimate authority and power over their subordinates.
But have you ever wondered what this seemingly paradoxical term means? Where did it originate and is it real? And most importantly to me, how does it apply to the role of agilists? We will explore the origins in this blog and the applicability of the principle in a sequel.
The concept of Servant Leadership was described by a Chinese philosopher named Laozi in the 5th century, B.C. He posited that the ultimate ruler is someone who deflects attention: "The sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, 'We ourselves have achieved it.'" As a catalyst leading agile teams, this resonates with me.
There are further examples of servant leadership in ancient scriptures. Buddhism is founded upon values of virtue which align tightly with those of servant leadership. For example, rather than promote how we should act, it emphasizes what sort of person we should be. Therefore, “being” precedes “doing.” Likewise, there is compatibility between the values of servant leadership and a biblical worldview which affirms that by being kind to others, we become compassionate toward others. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that servant leadership was associated with leadership roles in business.
Back in 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf, a management expert, described how he conceptualized the idea upon reading Journey to the East by the German writer Hermann Hesse. The novel portrays the account of a group of knowledge seekers in pursuit of the ultimate truth. Among them was Leo, a humble servant who performed menial chores and kept their spirits high with his positive attitude and song. One day, when Leo disappeared, the group fell into chaos. Their journey was over. When one individual of the group encountered Leo a few years later, he learned that Leo was actually the titular head of the Order that sponsored their quest, yet he had also been their servant and a noble leader.
Since leadership was bestowed upon Leo by others, it could have been taken away just as easily. However, since he was a servant at heart and by nature, that was something that could not have been taken away. In his publication, The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf said: “...this story clearly says—the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness.”
As defined by Greenleaf, servant leaders are not motivated by the traditional manifestations of power:
“The servant leader is servant first ... It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. ... Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…
...The difference 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: Do those served grow as persons? ... [and become] more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
So Greenleaf asserts that servant leaders are not motivated by power nor the urge to succeed for themselves. In practice I have found this to be largely true. However, his consequentialist reasoning behind traditionalist leaders aspiring to grow as servant leaders is not evident in abundance in the field.By now you may be wondering, how does this background on servant leadership affect me? Hopefully, understanding the origin has helped whet your curiosity about this leadership style.
There are specific characteristics and traits portrayed by servant leaders. After understanding the historical basis of the concept, you might be asking if one can become a servant leader and how it relates to your occupation. More to come!
Hesse, Hermann. The Journey to the East. Martino, 2011.
2011 Reprint of 1957 English Translation
Frick, Don M. “Robert K. Greenleaf: A Short Biography”, The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, www.greenleaf.org/about-us/robert-k-greenleaf-biography/