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A Blog by Art Dykstra


From My Pad to Yours is about leadership and other topics, and is written by Art Dykstra, the CEO of Trinity Services, Inc.

Servant Leadership

by Art Dykstra | Jul 26, 2017

In The Journey to the East, Herman Hesse writes about a band of men who set out on a mythical journey. Accompanying them is a servant, Leo, who performs their menial chores, but who also sustains and guides them with his spirit, wisdom and extraordinary presence. One day Leo disappears and leaves the group in disarray. They cannot go on without him and eventually disband.

Years later, the narrator, one of the original group, stumbles upon Leo and is taken to the Order which had sponsored their group years before. We discover that Leo, who had been servant to the party, is the spiritual head of the Order, a great and revered leader.

This paradox was the basis for Robert Greenleaf’s work in developing the concept and practice of servant leadership. The premise that a leader must first serve those whom he or she would lead, and would naturally want to serve, contrasts sharply with the notion of leadership as equivalent to authority or privilege, or as a reward for physical, intellectual or moral superiority.

Greenleaf writes in Servant Leadership:
"A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader. Those who choose to follow this principle will not casually accept the authority of existing institutions. Rather, they will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants."

With the advent of technology and an economy dominated by small businesses, employees are asked to know and do more than ever before. The same is true of business leaders. Push-button, top-down management is becoming a relic of the past. Managers are being asked to lead. But far too many managers are unwilling or unable to serve.

European business guru Jan Carlzon’s well-known homily on management is, “If you’re not serving the customer, you had better be serving someone who is.” Carlzon sums up the most important goal of a manager (or, indeed, anyone) in any organization in a few words. Whether you work in a government agency, a healthcare facility, a not-for-profit or for-profit human service agency, you have customers, people without whom your endeavor has no purpose. In any organization, the most critical transactions always occur between customers and the people who come in direct contact with them. This is why Carlzon says that our most essential function is to help the people who help the customers.

Therefore, as a manager whose job is to serve your subordinates, ask yourself some tough questions:

Do you persuade? Or do you coerce?
Do you encourage? Or do you order?
Do you offer help? Or do you expect to be helped?
Do you respond to the complaints of workers? Or do you complain about them?
Do you reward? Or do you take credit?

These questions strike at the paradox of what it means to be a servant leader. The traditional image of the leader is of taking charge, giving orders and wielding power. Leaders do and should have power. But, if the meaning of power is misguided by tradition, it may be used for the wrong reasons and the wrong outcomes. Servant leadership strives to put power into the hands of those being led–a revolutionary notion–but one that is necessary to improve the lives of the members of an organization, a business or a society.

Putting servant leadership into practice is a noble goal, one that takes effort and determination. It contradicts our organizational training and years of relationships with superiors in which it was clear who was supposed to serve whom. Making servant leadership work requires a concern for serving the organization’s employees and listening to their needs and problems, even though you’re the one with the office, the title and the secretary. It means being like Leo–not only a humble servant, but an inspiring motivator and leader, an indispensable team captain.

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