Like most leadership approaches and philosophies, servant leadership is not a recent creation. However, the increasing interest around servant leadership has produced a broader range of descriptors and practices with more and more leaders describing themselves with this label. Perhaps more than any other leadership approach, servant leadership is defined more by a core belief than a specific set of outward expressions. Leaders who lack that core belief are not servant leaders but rather using some servant leadership practices among the many in their toolkit. The result may be an improvement in their leadership but may also create frustration among their team because their deeds fall short of the promises and expectations associated with a servant leader.
Robert Greenleaf, a former executive at AT&T, is often credited with re-introducing or popularizing servant leadership in leadership management literature. His essays and book in the 1970’s created quite a bit of dialogue among academicians and practitioners. In one of his essays on the servant leader he lays out an important foundation that can be easily missed if the focus is more on servant leadership practices rather than the overarching philosophy. Greenleaf drew the distinction between a leader whose participation begins with a strong desire to serve others and then makes a conscious choice to lead as opposed to one who is drawn to lead and then later makes a choice to serve. He emphasized the servant leader’s focus is to the meet the highest priority needs of others.
The deep desire to serve comes from a leader’s love for those he leads. And as we see from the most famous examples of servant leadership that love must be unconditional. Greenleaf uses a Robert Frost poem, “The Death of a Hired Man,” to illustrate this principle. In the poem, a farmer and his wife are discussing the definition of family. The farmer’s definition is the more often quoted one, “Home is the place where, when you go, they have to take you in.” But it is the wife who has the better definition, “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” The knowledge that we will be accepted and embraced just because we are family creates one of the strongest connections we can know in this life.
Greenleaf writes, “love begins with one absolute condition – unlimited liability. As soon as one’s love for another is qualified to any degree, love is diminished by that much.” The leader’s steadfastness to serve others cannot be dependent on their ability to produce the desired result. Servant leaders understand the imperfections of the ones they serve and of themselves.
Greenleaf makes an important distinction between always accepting the person and refusing to accept performance and effort that are not the person’s best. The principle is frequently seen between high level coaches and their players. We sometimes watch uncomfortably as a coach screams at his young player for making a mistake and wonder why the player takes such a verbal beating rather than just quit. Only later we hear the player thanking the coach and talking about how much this coach loves his players.
It reminds us that servant leadership is not synonymous with soft leadership. The deep desire to see each person reach their full potential requires the leader to carry that burden and to be fully present in every encounter. It is the enduring quality of unconditional love that makes the bond between the servant leader and those he leads so powerful.