The best leaders are servants to their teams


You are there to give your people the tools to succeed, writes Kate Cooper

“The servant leader is servant first.” So wrote former AT&T executive Robert K Greenleaf in 1970. “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. This conscious desire brings on the aspiration to lead. That person is sharply different from the one who is leader first, perhaps because of his need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. The leader first and the servant first are two extreme types.

Between them are shades and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.” But of what is the leader a servant?

Although eluding a clear definition, most of our understanding of leadership is connected to ideas of hierarchy, power, orders, instructions and following. How does a leader lead and serve at the same time? And what might this mean for the practice of everyday leadership?

The answer lies in considering of whom the servant leader is a servant. The servant leader is not the servant of her followers. She is the servant of a higher ideal, the servant of the purpose of the organization, the good it intends to do and the stakeholder interests it respects and protects. The servant leader does not seek leadership positions for his own advancement or simple material gain – but to help and encourage others to share his ideals.
A servant leader seeks to create a culture of service, supporting and helping her followers understand their own higher purpose and use their full potential in contributing to the achievement of the organization’s higher purpose.

A servant leader may be charismatic and followers may be drawn to that charisma but the essence of servant leadership is not charisma, it is a recognition that, just as the leader is doing, people work for more than material reward.

People come to work to give meaning to their lives, to belong to a community, to enjoy the company of others, and to feel proud of the contribution they make.

A servant leader works towards creating a culture where such aspirations are normal and commonplace, where empowering others to succeed and where facilitating the growth and development of others are essential functions of the leader’s role. A servant leader also recognizes that there are many stakeholders in the work of an organization, and that service extends beyond the relationships with those he or she leads – and includes the firm’s customers, suppliers, investors, the environment and the wider community.

The servant leader recognizes the interconnectedness of these relationships and acknowledges that long-term relationships where all parties benefit are the only genuinely sustainable ones.

Servant leadership puts ethics and stewardship at its heart. Servant leaders hold the torch of the greater cause, but look to pass on the torch to their followers, to ensure that the cause continues.

This is an exclusive preview of Kate Cooper’s column in the Q1 2016 edition of Dialogue, out 1 December.

Cooper is head of research and policy at the Institute of Leadership & Management.