The Path of the Servant

Estimated reading time: 30 minutes

“One does not, of course, ignore the great voices of the past. One does not awaken each morning with the compulsion to reinvent the wheel. But if one is a servant, either leader or follower, one is always searching, listening, expecting that a better wheel for these times is in the making. It may emerge any day. Anyone of us may find it out from personal experience. I am hopeful.”

Robert Greenleaf, “The Servant as Leader”

In his seminal essay, Greenleaf introduced a fundamental concept: great leaders stem from great servants. Those leaders who place the needs of others ahead of their own needs are those who ensure success for their followers, and for their organization as a whole. In correlation, those followers who recognize and embrace their roles as servants, no matter how small their role, ensure the success of those around them, along with the organization they serve. 

Since the introduction of this concept, organizational leaders and thinkers have developed an expansive literature and practice to assist leaders in acquiring this critical perspective as a path to greatness. This revolution in leadership is an overdue acknowledgment that some traits are only sufficiently acquired by eschewing traditional notions of leadership, while engaging in the humbling of one’s self as a servant. Although the concept has demonstrated validity, in my observation, much of the research, evidence, and practice is missing a key perspective.

Greenleaf hints towards this missing perspective at the beginning of his essay. People are naturally drawn towards leading or following regardless of specific talents, and the development of the leader naturally differs from the development of the servant in accordance with specific needs associated with each role. Greenleaf briefly illustrates these two polarities, while highlighting the rarity of either extreme, before moving on to discuss the traits of a servant-leader. 

It is important to note that Greenleaf developed this idea from the perspective of a leader first, and not as a servant first. Of course, this is not to say that Greenleaf did not serve other leaders at various points in his career; even a CEO is accountable to the board they serve. What it does mean is that, for all of his insights and brilliance in developing this concept, Greenleaf did this from the perspective of top-down, rather than bottom-up. 

Greenleaf was hired by AT&T after graduating from college and thrust into various leadership roles from the beginning of his career. His idea of the leader as servant was famously born, not from personal experience, but after reading Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East. The plot focuses on a servant who offers his services as a lowly cook, all on behalf of an entourage of spiritual wise men engaging in a pilgrimage. When the servant mysteriously disappears one day, the group implodes, consumed with various quarrels until the group drifts apart. This dissolution prompts one member to search for the servant, ready to lay the blame at that servant’s feet. The climax of the story is his discovery that the servant was the wisest among them, even though he was not appreciated as such. 

Greenleaf developed this concept of the servant as leader in conjunction with other leaders, identifying and analyzing various deficiencies in traditional approaches to leadership through comparison. If there is anything lacking in Greenleaf’s work, it is the perspective of someone who was a servant before becoming a leader. 

The foundation for every successful organization

The theme of the servant rising to a position of wise and beneficial leadership is nothing new. History is replete with examples, dating all the way back to the Old Testament (the Book of Esther, as an example). Although not common, powerful rulers and leaders have risen from lowly and unknown positions to exert outsized influence in dramatic ways, all to the benefit of those who followed them. What did these servants have that others lacked? 

The temptation is to believe that the servant was insufficiently recognized in the first place. The benefits of the leadership path (including the development of coveted skills, the quality of relationships, and the associated material wealth) indicates that no one would knowingly reject the path of leadership in favor of the path of a servant. Why accept a position of lower stature if there is an alternative available? Indeed, there are more who seek leadership positions than there are positions to fill, many of whom seek these positions for the benefits listed above. 

This perspective fails to recognize the inherent value in becoming a servant first, a value often found through the personal experience Greenleaf hints at in the above quote. While great leaders will often acknowledge the influence of good mentorship throughout their journey, others seek these mentors first, trading the opportunity to lead for the value of learning underneath a master of their craft. Still others derive immense satisfaction from applying their talents to a worthy cause, a noble dream, or an inspiring vision in a servant’s role. 

The motives are varied (discussed further below), but for now, it is important to recognize that what motivates the leader is not necessarily the same as what motivates the servant. Instead of seeking to leave a legacy of greatness through the mobilizing and directing of others towards a common vision, the servant seeks to leave an alternative legacy through the guidance and direction they provide for others underneath good leadership. 

The resulting transformation is similar in scope to that which a leader experiences, a value far exceeding any university degree or training program, as character development is paced with acquisition of skills and talents. A servant with the will to serve excellently, appreciated for their service and directed towards specific goals by a wise and beneficial leader, is a powerful force in any organization. When collated into groups, these servants have the power to change the world. 

This discussion brings us to a truth worth emphasizing. The success of any organization is dependent on the success of transforming followers into servants, and cultivating servants into servant-leaders. I distinguish between followers and servants thusly: all servants are followers, but not all followers are servants. Servants, in contrast to followers, seek to serve while also actively looking for better ways to serve. Followers who embrace the noble path of becoming a servant on behalf of others are the fertile fields from which servant-leaders are produced. Servant-leaders, drawn from the ranks of servants, are inherently more respected by those servants due to their past performance as servants. Managers who can translate vision and goals into actionable tasks comprehensible to servants are an abundant blessing to any leader. 

I write this from the perspective of a servant, a role I have practiced over the course of twenty years while seeking artistic mastery. Although I demonstrated leadership skills at an early age, I was rerouted to the path of the servant-only through the spiritual discipline I write about elsewhere. Although I did not recognize the true value of this path at the beginning, my inner peace is mostly derived from it, and I would not trade the experience for anything, including all the benefits of traditional leadership, described above. 

It is not my intention to revise any part of the existing body of literature on servant-leadership. Rather, my goal is to complement that existing literature with the alternative perspective of someone who became a servant first, staying there for a lengthy period of time before stepping into various leadership roles. What I share here has been tested in the fiery crucible of organizational cultures, and I can attest to its validity.

Elevating the nobility of the servant

Before we discuss the building of servants, it is necessary to examine the word servant.

The word servant is often given a negative connotation in our society, similar to the connotations one would attribute to an indentured servant or slave. The image is likely someone working in a menial position for low pay, such as a housekeeper, a waiter/waitress, or some other hired-hand, performing tasks few are willing to do. 

Although we often speak as if we value such people, our behavior often tells a different story. Servants are often compensated poorly, reduced to meager standards of living while their leaders enjoy the luxuries provided through their roles. Some servants are psychologically and emotionally whipped by their leaders, a substitute for the physical abuse applied in bygone eras. Many leaders fail to recognize good servants when they are found and, when recognition does come, it often comes in the form of trinkets and trite rewards, none of which speak to the squalid conditions many servants live in. 

The contrast is even more striking when we compare the way we treat our servants with our behavior towards those who provide something exalted in our society. The inventor, the engineer, the doctor, and the corporate executive receive lavish rewards for their contributions, even though such accomplishments would not be possible without a small army of servants supporting the accomplishment. This is not to disparage the rewards we lavish on such people, but to set a stark contrast between our adulation for those who dazzle and amaze us, and our appreciation for the servants who make it possible. 

This treatment of those who serve is what contributes to the image we hold of servants, but this image is not a part of what is meant by the word servant. A servant is nothing more or less than someone who serves others. When we strip the images and connotations associated with the word, we realize that each of us is a servant in some capacity throughout our lives. We serve our elders as children, just as we serve our children as adults, before returning to serve our parents once again in their waning years. Those who serve well are in turn served when they need it most.

We often expand this circle of influence to include extended family, close friends, and even whole communities. Serving others outside of familial relationships is esteemed and encouraged in our society, and we perform countless small acts of service for countless people throughout our lives. Holding a door for someone, encouraging someone with a kind word, giving money to someone in need (individually or towards a charity), taking an extra moment to ensure comprehension of what someone is saying, and being present with someone in their struggles, are all examples in a truly endless stream.

So, if each of us serves one another in countless ways, are we not all servants? The answer is “no.” There is a critical difference between the servant and the one who serves. Whereas the one who serves may do so out of a sense of duty, obligation, or the pressures of social norms, the servant engages in deliberate, purposeful, and mindful acts of service which go far beyond the mere act of serving. While the former may be coerced through cultural expectations, the latter exercises an act of free will, a gift given under no compulsion. The one who serves does only what is necessary and expected of them, while the servant adds to their service anything and everything necessary for improving the act of serving. 

The servant is doing more than providing an act of kindness and compassion. The servant is also taking into account a variety of variables and situations, including the needs of the one served, the environment in which they exist, the talents and abilities (s)he possesses, the capacities of the person receiving the act of service, and all resources available for serving. The servant is acting with knowledge and experience drawn from practicing the art of serving, all motivated by an overarching purpose. 

What is your motive?

The entry point for the follower to become a servant is a question of motive, synonymous with Greenleaf’s description of initiative

Any discussion of motive is nothing more than preaching to the choir when it comes to leaders. A leader’s motive is found within their vision or dream, a necessary component illustrated by Greenleaf and others when speaking of leadership. Leadership is defined by motive, whether for good or ill. 

In contrast, the motives of the servant are often more subtle, not always correlated with those inclined to lead. Some of the motives causing someone to accept a lower position in the organizational hierarchy are nothing more than the pressure of circumstances, such as a young person lacking job skills, or a single parent committed to raising young children as a greater priority. Outside of circumstances, some enter the path of the servant out of dedication to something noble, such as a health professional dedicated to their craft after a personal experience with illness (the same can be said for almost any profession). Others may enter this path through discovery of some unique talent, one that does not require a leadership position to fulfill. Still others follow a spiritual discipline of some kind, a calling to become something more than what is expected of them (previously hinted at through Hesse’s story).

These motives must be explored before the follower can start the path to becoming a servant. Whatever the personal motivation, the role of the leader is not only to discover these motivations within their followers, but to match these motivations with the broader path of becoming a servant within their assigned roles. No matter the occupation or profession, and no matter the degree of skill in performance, someone who learns to serve others in excellence within a given role will always be valued over someone simply going through the motions. Teaching, modeling, and illustrating the difference, in a multitude of specific contexts and examples within that role, is the ongoing challenge of every leader. 

The tender shoots

When the motive of the follower is welded to this broader perspective, the servant is born. This birth is more like a coming dawn, as the servant perceives a path not often perceived by those in power. This budding transformation is not immediately recognized by others, and many managers are notoriously poor in recognizing when the proverbial lightbulb comes on, a lack almost always attributable to lack of engagement. 

Although not visible to others, the results soon reveal this inner transformation. The individual’s performance in their assigned role begins to improve. Dedication to their tasks increases as their efforts begin to align with organizational objectives and goals. They start asking questions towards improving their performance, following up on the guidance provided to them through feedback. They start listening to what others are saying and begin to exhibit understanding of what is heard. These tender efforts are the sprouting seeds which, if cultivated, results in the transformation of another follower into a servant. 

These beginnings are combined with an unpopular concept in our society, the mortar of every servant’s foundation: humility. Humility, as defined by John Dickson in his book Humilitas, “is the noble choice to forgo your status and deploy your resources, or use your influence, for the good of others before yourself.” Humility will become the defining characteristic throughout the servant’s career, in opposition to the zeitgeist of this modern age. This characteristic is what we admire and value the most in those who serve us.

It is important to stop here and address the formation of humility in both the leader and the servant. There are some in leadership who recognize, affirm, and practice humility in all that they do. However, it should be noted that the practice and acquisition of humility by a leader is counterintuitive to positions of traditional power and authority. By virtue of his or her position, the leader will need to constantly fight and strive for humility throughout their career; the greater the success, the greater the fight. 

I am speaking of pride here, not the kind of “deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements” but “the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s importance” (both according to Oxford). Conviction through demonstrated expertise, as noted by Dickson, is not arrogance, and the two should not be confused. Nevertheless, conviction producing tangible results is always in danger of slipping into arrogance, becoming pride if left unchecked. A person may take satisfaction in the accomplishment of work well done, but a prideful servant is a contradiction and falsehood. Almost imperceptibly, the leader subtly shifts, from a focus on others, to a focus on themselves and their status, seeking to protect their gains while becoming more smug regarding their decisions. The downfall of many leaders can be directly attributed to this subtle undercurrent. 

Humility is not something to be gained as some culmination of effort, but an attitude needing constant nurturing. For the servant not in a leadership position, the acquisition of humility is easier than it is for the leader, because the servant is not tempted by the subtle undercurrents of pride which come from positions of power, wealth, and prestige. Theirs is a position of enacting directives given by leaders, often with little fanfare or recognition. The servant has no status to forgo because they possessed little in terms of status to begin with. Their positions of obscurity protect them from many of the damaging factors hampering the development of humility, which helps to ensure that humility takes deeper root before an eventual promotion to a leadership role.  This is one of the many reasons why learning to be a servant first is better than learning to be a leader first. A servant-leader, drawn from the ranks of other servants, is often a counterbalance to a leader facing the temptations of pride stemming from power. 

The blossoming of the servant

“Nothing is meaningful until it is related to the hearer’s own experience. One may hear the words, one may even remember them and repeat them, as a computer does in the retrieval process. But meaning, a growth in experience as a result of receiving the communication, requires that the hearer supply the imaginative link from the hearer’s fund of experience to the abstract language symbols the speaker has used” (Greenleaf).

These tender shoots of the servant-seed begin to blossom into critical character attributes. One of the first attributes is awareness. Greenleaf describes awareness as “opening wide the doors of perception so as to enable one to get more of what is available of sensory experience and other signals from the environment than people usually take in.” He goes on to caution his readers that awareness is not a bringer of peace, but a disturber of that peace; hence, open these doors slowly and with caution.

The servant becomes aware that there is much more to any given situation than meets the eye. This awareness includes a growing awareness of themselves, their role, and those they serve. As awareness grows, the servant begins to understand the importance of not only their role in the organization, but also the importance of other roles in correlation with their own. This leads to a greater awareness of the experiences of others, lending to better solutions for assisting others.

 This awareness also extends to the leadership they serve, a recognition of the expansive list of challenges their leaders experience, along with greater assistance for said leaders. The servant begins to see a wider array of variables inherent within any given task or role, and that these variables must be uncovered before providing a valuable service.

The astute leader will see the growth of this greater awareness through the quality of service provided by the servant. It is the leader’s responsibility to nurture this growing awareness of both heart and mind, assisting the servant in uncovering, understanding, and assimilating the internal and external variables found in any given role, all while cultivating a servant’s approach towards handling these variables within the chosen environment. 

If the leader does not recognize this growing awareness within the servant, these same characteristics will become corrosive. It is a simple matter of too much of a good thing. Traits of dedication, listening and understanding, humility and awareness, if ignored, start to breed apathy and cynicism as the servant slips into a learned helplessness and hopelessness regarding their condition. The images of the indentured servant or slave, although not part of the definition of servanthood, become accurate self-perceptions of the servant’s condition. The fire within the servant’s heart grows cold when not placed in a nurturing culture. 

For those struggling to understand why this is so, consider the following questions. How long would you be dedicated to the dictates of a leader if your efforts went unrecognized and were not cultivated? Is the understanding and awareness gained from listening truly beneficial if there is nothing you can do with that knowledge? Would it not be better if you didn’t know at all? If your humility and newly-formed reorientation towards others was met with indifference, how long would your motivation to serve others last? 

How long would you stay in an organization failing to understand these human needs? Many organizations lose talented and brilliant servants at this stage, just as their operations experience vicious and continual turnover. Visit any number of businesses and organizations in your neighborhood and, chances are, you will see this condition playing out on the faces of the servants working there. The servant loses heart, returning to the perspective of a mere follower, oftentimes with the “encouragement” of a cynical coworker who experienced a similar discouragement (“I told you so”). Excellence of practice is traded in for the minimal effort necessary for earning a daily wage. Do your job, collect your paycheck, and go home. 

The ranks of dead servants is a pandemic with no foreseeable end. 

Harvesting the fruit of the servant

For those who find a nurturing environment, initial growth leads to acquisition of additional character traits and talents paying lasting dividends for the organization. Continuing with the analogy of an organization’s culture as a garden, this is where offshoots from the original sapling begin to form and take shape.

The leader’s role at this stage is not to grow these traits within the servant, anymore than a farmer makes their crop grow. Strictly speaking, leaders do not directly affect growth within their servants, as no one person directly changes another. Rather, leaders create and nurture an environment in which change and growth has the greatest possibility of success. Analogously, the leader waters, irrigates, builds protective fences, and even splints broken limbs should they occur. The reward is the fruit produced from a growing servant. 

Most importantly, the leader exhibits and models the traits discussed in this essay on a daily basis, on behalf of each servant the leader oversees. This occurs whether we are talking about individual challenges, interpersonal conflicts, or group dynamics. It is a focus on the underlying dynamics found in any given challenge, rather than the challenge itself. 

Some of these additional characteristics are as follows. Like Greenleaf, they are in no particular order, and are further manifestations of the traits already discussed. Each of these are interconnected, a cyclical feedback loop where the growth of one lends to the growth of others. Although many of these traits are discussed by Greenleaf and others in the expansive literature previously mentioned, I seek to offer additional thoughts and commentary from my perspective as someone who was servant-first before stepping into leadership.  

Consistency

A simple quality not commonly found, consistency is nothing more than dedication practiced daily, regardless of individual or environmental conditions. 

Each of us faces a multitude of challenges threatening our ability to remain consistent. The servant recognizes that remaining consistent will require addressing these challenges, both within their lives and within their environment, either personal or professional. The tragedy is how often leaders leave their followers and servants to figure out these challenges on their own, not just in their personal lives, but within various operations as well. 

This is not to say that leaders should be a solver of personal problems for their servants. Instead, leaders need to build meaningful relationships with their servants, creating a degree of trust which allows servants to feel comfortable bringing a personal problem to their leader for their advice and input. 

In many situations the leader may not be able to give good advice for the challenge presented. Instead, the role of the leader is to develop an expanding list of resources for reference, should the need arise. Human resources and EAP programs are often the repository for such resources, but leaders cannot duck their responsibility by solely referring to these resources. Oftentimes, the solution to a problem is as elegant as referring the servant to another individual who may have experienced a similar challenge in their life (with their permission, of course). 

Openness

The path towards consistency also results in a greater openness towards others. When a servant begins to reorient from their own self to others, the servant becomes open to the input and guidance of others. (S)he begins to perceive that valuable feedback and input can come from almost anywhere. This is not a passive act: rather, the servant carefully weighs each source of information, sifting based on their combined knowledge and experience, discarding previous knowledge in favor of better explanations and models.

Good leaders intuitively understand and practice this quality of openness. “Intuition is a feel for patterns, the ability to generalize based on what has happened previously. Wise leaders know when to bet on these intuitive leads, but they always know that they are betting on percentages. Their hunches are not seen as eternal truths (Greenleaf; emphasis mine). The leader often has better sources of data and information and, even if they do not, they are actively seeking it, or have a plan for obtaining it. 

These sources are openly shared with servants when applicable, not only modeling openness, but assisting those who lack the same level of education, experience, and/or talents of the leader. The intuitive knowledge built through this experience is extremely valuable in any organization. Intuitive knowledge, tested in real life situations, goes beyond mere understanding because experience is welded to it. 

The leader and/or servant accumulating enough of this knowledge begins to acquire a new trait: wisdom. Most organizations have at least a few of these wise servants; no matter the problem, they often have a proven solution, born from many years of experience in handling uncommon challenges. The leader’s role is not only to supply whatever data, information, and knowledge they possess, but to encourage servants to remain open towards challenging existing solutions, thereby avoiding the hermetic sealing often found through previous solutions.

Industriousness

An outgrowth from dedication and other traits listed here, industriousness is more than working hard. As the cliché goes, work smarter; not harder. The perception gained through exercising these traits leads to the identification of various root causes of problems, with the servant gaining increasing creativity in finding and applying solutions. 

A leader’s role in the servant’s development of industriousness is found in providing consistent feedback, identifying and separating what is truly important from what is not. A commonly found example is when a servant consistently fails to perform a given task, with numerous failures revealing a pattern. The pattern can be anything from a specific day in which the failure often takes place, to specific conditions always found in connection with the failure, to specific relationships often associated with the failure. The leader helps the servant to identify these root causes and overcome them, often leading to improvement across many tasks and roles. 

This also requires patience and courage, on the part of both servant and leader alike. It takes great patience to “know thyself”, a process often lasting a lifetime. Leaders need to continually encourage their servants to not lose heart in this process, while fostering the courage to both trust in what has been gained and to apply it, without fear of failure or reprisal. 

Empathy and acceptance

Identified by Greenleaf as a key characteristic of servant-leaders, the follower as servant gains empathy and acceptance through interpersonal interactions as they practice the other traits listed here. Consistent application of other traits identified in this essay fosters a greater awareness of the struggles of others. Openness unshackles preconceived notions and judgments, allowing the servant to see various challenges more clearly. The very act of serving requires a willingness to listen to a person’s problem, instead of our own inner critic.

The servant growing in understanding and character becomes aware of three general principles, described in greater detail elsewhere on this blog, but summarized here: 

  • There is always one more thing about a person you do not know. A simple example is an angry customer who calls an organization and berates the poor individual unlucky enough to take the call. Although the customer’s complaint may be directly related to the organization, the customer may also be experiencing other stressors at that moment, of which the complaint is the proverbial final straw. The servant may never know what those stressors are, but mindfulness of this potential will lead the servant to respond with empathy and acceptance of the individual, even while being lambasted. The majority of complaints and vitriol, both from customers and other employees, is often solved through this simple approach.
  • Everyone is trying their best. This is hard for some to accept because we evaluate “best” based on criteria which may be unrealistic for that person at that time. This is not to say we don’t have standards; rather, it recognizes that the individual in question may need additional assistance (training, education, practice, coaching, etc.) before they can begin to realistically approach that standard. Empathy and acceptance of this possibility will often provide clarity on root causes and subsequent solutions.
  • What is hard for me is easy for you (and what is easy for me may be hard for you). We often evaluate others based on our own abilities and talents, not the person in question. As a result, we often forget that a person’s struggles with a particular task or concept is not reflective of the person overall. Acceptance of this fact leads the servant to approach problems from a solutions-focused approach, rather than a deficiency approach. 

Ongoing Humility

Already described above, humility comes to full fruition as a result of practicing and acquiring these traits. Criticism is easy; solutions and improvements, not so much. Previous failures reinforce that not everything is as simple as it seems. The servant begins to see that there are many different solutions to any given problem, and begins to recognize the worth of others in solving a problem. (S)he begins to recognize that every person possesses expertise in something, and that expertise is often not apparent without first giving that person a chance to express it. Some of the best ideas are gained through listening with an open mind, empathizing with what is said, and accepting the given perspective as valuable (even if not immediately applicable).

Concluding Thoughts

“Leaders do not elicit trust unless one has confidence in their values and competence (including judgment) and unless they have a sustaining spirit (ethos) that will support the tenacious pursuit of a goal. Not much happens without a dream. And for something great to happen, there must be a great dream. Behind every great achievement is a dreamer of great dreams. Much more than a dreamer is required to bring it to reality; but the dream must be there first” (Greenleaf).

Everything contained in this essay assumes the above quote from Greenleaf. Far too often, a lack of vision from leadership is the core reason why servants do not grow where they are placed. Vision is just as important to the development of servants as it is to leaders. The most important part of any vision is a sustaining etheos, one which understands that “we” includes not just stakeholders and clients, but also those who serve customers and clients in accordance with stakeholder goals.

For those with such an encompassing vision, there is an untapped reservoir of servants desperately looking to serve. The needs of the many are becoming acutely painful, a pain that rends hearts while also forming a passionate focus towards environments engaged in solutions. Cultural competency is the last frontier for competitive advantage, not just for profits, but for the needs of the people. It is my hope and dream that more leaders take this royal road of excellence when guiding their organizations towards greatness.

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