Seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? Servants are subservient and leaders are out in front of the pack. And yet, it speaks to those of us who have quietly (or maybe not so quietly) served in ways that allow others to flourish in their own personal and career niches.
Servant leadership is grounded in our service to others, but not in subservience. Information professionals can excel as servant leaders, and increasingly, our roles to help people, to facilitate communication, to advise and to broker agreements, to analyze and bring light to problems are becoming central to all sectors in the modern world. Servant leaders work toward the greater good of their communities and their professions. Our goals are to foster growth in others, that they may fly even higher, even farther.
Servant leadership is a new term for me, and it resonates with who and what I am about. It’s also a case of what’s old is new again, as it came to the organizational literature in 1970 in an essay written by Robert K. Greenleaf, in which he argues that leadership is first about service, about attending to other’s priorities, fostering others’ independence, intellectual growth, confidence, health, and skills. The concept of servant leadership is likely as old as the hills.
We all know these leaders. Without them, we would not be able to achieve our goals to the extent we have, as they nurture, encourage, instruct and support our efforts. What is it about these people that is so valuable?
Qualities of Servant Leaders
First, they listen. They really listen. They listen to understand. It is the foundation of communication. It’s a prerequisite before solutions to problems can be generated and pursued. And their listening is empathetic. Servant leaders need to understand others and how they feel. How often has an empathetic listener, just by listening, made you feel more relaxed and more confident in going forward? So there is a healing component to the listening and interacting.
Servant leaders know that a healthy person and a healthy organization are better positioned to learn, grow, change and adapt, so they become actively engaged in boosting self confidence, promoting effective management practices and seeking better ways to communicate and interact. They are our stewards of good practice and positive support.
Servant leaders are aware of the environments in which they and others live and work. They have listened and observed, and have perspective about the realities in which people and organizations find themselves. They recognize limitations and obstacles, and know that any progress must begin at the beginning, where the person or group finds themselves at any moment. And they recognize the variable competencies people and organizations own and can draw on to step, or leap, forward.
A way of working, a way of life
To movers and shakers, all of these may seem like characteristics mired in inaction. And yet this reflective, thoughtful, absorptive way of working in the world builds a deep, deep foundation which the stresses of life have trouble dislodging, and which foster a deep conceptualization of problems, situations, motivations, fostering an ability to foresee potential outcomes of action and change. Servant leaders have the ability to not only see the forest, the big picture, but also understand how the trees, the detail, contribute to and shape that forest. It is as if the leaders’ internal systems, informed by a lifetime of observation, with an internal catalog of the successes and failures, the beneficial factors and the obstacles, the personality types and personal interactions, are constantly engaging processes to monitor the environment, compare what’s occurring to past events, check what has and hasn’t worked in order to understand the present and assess the future for any potential action.
As servant leaders are dedicated to others’ growth, empowering people, and building communities, they seek to persuade those they interact with to take action which builds, moves forward, and respects the whole – the whole person, the whole organization – while celebrating the diversity within and among us all.
I’ve spent my lifetime in the helping professions – teacher, mother, librarian, administrator – professions that are often underrecognized, and underappreciated. My focus has (almost) always been on serving the other’s needs, be it education, guidance, hand-holding, or crafting a product. I understand better now why I have often been called a leader.
Note: Much of this is based on a combination of personal experience and the following literature:
Greenleaf, R.K. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York: Paulist Press.
Waite, J (2011). Research Administrators as Servant Leaders. Journal of Research Administration. 42(2): 64-77.
For a different perspective on this topic, based on an interpretation that a leader can lead better if s/he adopts a servant leader behavioral model, rather than their leadership being an outgrowth of who they are, read this interesting piece:
Eicher-Catt, D. (2005). The Myth of Servant Leadership: A Feminist Perspective. Women and Language. 28(1):17-25