A Fresh Look: The Benefits & Dangers of Servant Leadership

When starting Leading To Serve a decade ago I was inspired by Robert K. Greenleaf’s (1904-1990) idea of servant leadership. It’s a cause worth advancing.

In the late ’70’s I heard Greenleaf talk about the The Servant as Leader. He was troubled. He claimed that our institutions and leaders were not serving us well. He believed that for the good of society servant oriented people should become leaders, and that leaders everywhere should make servanthood a priority.

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Greenleaf knew that servant leadership would require radical change for followers as well as leaders and their institutions. This he anticipated would not necessarily be popular and warned of its dangers.

“As I ponder, the fusing of servant and leader,” he reflected, “it seems a dangerous creation: dangerous for the natural servant to become a leader, dangerous for the leaders to be servant first, and dangerous for a follower to insist on being led by a servant. There are safer and easier alternatives available to all three.”

He recognized that servants and leaders may be two quite different kinds of individuals.

Servants don’t seek attention, they look for ways to help others performing unnoticed and under appreciated tasks. They are reluctant to promote themselves or broadcast their ideas.

Leaders by contrast seem to have some innate disposition to get out front, to say follow me. They look for ways to change the world by casting vision, taking responsibility for action and implementing change. Good leaders are transformational, seeking the best for their followers and the common interest. At their worst they are autocrats and demagogues.

Nevertheless Greenleaf was convinced, as are those of us who have learned from him, that servant leadership, however unpopular, difficult, and dangerous it may be, is essential if individuals and institutions are to flourish.

What are the dangers? I’m not sure all Greenleaf had in mind but I suggest the following.

• One is underestimating the effort it takes for servants to become leaders and leaders to become servants. Greenleaf thought the later was more difficult. It is best he thought to seek leaders from those who have a proven record of serving well, people who might eschew leadership as usually practiced.

• Two is Servant leadership is difficult and dangerous because we may overlook some of the best potential leaders among us. Some of those may not be willing to lead unless and until our institutions change for the better.

• Three, servant leadership is dangerous since it requires much of followers. As followers we are required to notice, identify and engage with those we would have lead us. Without that cooperation it won’t work. Servants can lead only in a partnership with followers around a common mission.

• Four, in institutions the role of the servant leader is not to cast the vision but to serve as a catalyst to help followers find their common mission. Where followers would rather be told what to do and need to be shown the way forward a servant leader may face frustration and opposition.

Greenleaf warned that “the outlook for better leadership in our leadership-poor society is not

encouraging.” He urged us to look for leaders among natural servants, for instance among students and their teachers, and within our faith communities. And he appealed to institutional leaders, “who,” he predicted, “would find greater joy in their lives if they raised the servant aspect of their leadership and built more serving institutions.”

For Leadership in Turbulent Times, as in the title of the recent book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, now more than ever we need to find those who are leading to serve.