I ran across an old quote from Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines the other day which said, “To be an excellent leader, you have to be a superb follower.” It reminded me of a program that I participated in years ago called Leadership Broward. The program was designed to encourage business leaders to become active community stewards. One of the concepts shared during the program was servant leadership. I found it fascinating and Kelleher’s quote is really the essence of servant leadership.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of servant leadership, here’s a little history. Servant leadership was started in the 1970’s by Robert Greenleaf, director of management research at AT&T. Greenleaf’s job was to study how the best leaders emerged in organizations. During the same time, Greenleaf was personally troubled by the student unrest on college and university campuses.
So, Greenleaf decided the best way to understand the youth movement was to read a novel that was very popular with youth at the time. The novel was “Journey to the East” by Hermann Hesse. SPOILER ALERT: “Journey to the East” is about a group of people traveling to a new land. Accompanying the group is their servant, Leo, who sings songs of encouragement and takes care of their stuff. During the trip, Leo disappears. The group struggles to stay together and eventually disbands. Several years later, it’s discovered that Leo – the group’s servant – was really their leader.
Inspired by Leo’s character, Greenleaf realizes the key to leadership lies in “serving” (aka focusing on the people you manage) and writes what’s considered to be his most famous essay, “The Servant as Leader”, which outlines ten basic competencies associated with servant leadership. I’ve highlighted a few of them below.
- Commitment to developing people. Excellent leaders help others become good leaders. You’ve heard me say before that a manager’s job is to hire and train their replacement. This directly ties to that. Good leaders aren’t threatened by others and make time to help the people in their team grow.
- Empathy. Empathy is easy to say but in practice, is really hard. Leaders not only identify with others but accept them for who they are. Great leaders seek to understand differences.
- Listening. Other leadership experts have written about the importance of listening. A leader responds to a problem by listening first. We have to move past the stereotype that leaders have all the answers. The reality is that leaders need to be open to admitting that they don’t.
- Conceptualization. Leaders articulate a clear vision with passion, which engages and energizes the rest of the team. While I’m not sure that we always have a clear vision of the future, I do believe we can do a good job of communicating our passion and intent.
- Foresight. This ties into #4. Greenleaf says that leaders can sense the future. It’s what gives leaders their “lead.” I like to think of this as leaders must use good decision-making skills. And we should remember that a lack of decision making can be perceived as an ethical failure.
- Awareness. Self-awareness of our strengths and weaknesses is necessary. Leaders must open the doors of perception and see what’s inside. This can be scary, but it’s necessary to provide reality and see things in proper perspective.
I’ll admit that Greenleaf’s writings have taken some hits over time. But in reading his words on servant leadership, I find it amazing that over thirty years later, many (if not all) of the characteristics are still associated with leadership. These competencies may not be called by the same name, but the traits are similar. It’s a reminder that’s there is no silver bullet to being a good leader. But if there was, maybe first serving the people around you is it.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby while exploring the streets of Las Vegas, NV16