Is the United States in 2013 Really Ready for Servant Leadership?

As evidenced by the title of this post, I am more often than not a bit cynical when it comes to expecting my fellow man to care about and serve one another. It’s actually a Biblical viewpoint, an evidence of the fallen nature of man: None is righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:23, ESV). Of course, for Christians, there is grace, there is transformation, and there is the perfect model to follow. But is servant leadership an idea that translates well into today’s society as a whole?
There is plenty of evidence that our culture is in a moral decline. Turning on the news evidences growing crime, violence, and injustice. There is a definite movement toward eliminating traditional Christian values. Similarly, the church is also seeing declining membership, with 51.2 percent of Americans evidencing no church affiliation (Shook, 2012).

I am making a connection between Christian belief and Servant Leadership, although that connection is not an essential component to the origins of the movement. Yet Robert Greenleaf’s writings and theories were strongly influenced by his Quaker upbringing (Northouse, 2013). Servant leadership, according to Greenleaf (1977, pp. 23-24.) is a moral principle that says that “the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.” This idea is contrary to the prevailing competitive, hierarchical business models that are still predominant today.

There is equivocation even in texts about the theory itself. Some indicate that Servant Leadership “isn’t for everyone” (Heskett, 2013) and others grant that “some subordinates do not want to work with servant leaders” (Northouse, 2013, p. 226). Stories of servant leadership employed in the workplace include responses by followers of uncertainty or even suspicion (Baron, 2010). So I return to the question: Is there a place for servant leadership in business today?

My heart-felt conviction is “Yes, there is!” The very fact that there are situations such as we saw with Enron and Arthur Andersen reveals a great need for servant leaders. With modern trends away from traditional Christian values and declining interest in church, Christians need to demonstrate that what we believe is real, relevant, and applicable!
We do live in a fallen world. Because of that, and perhaps now more than ever, that fallen world needs the hope that we have in Christ. Paul says it brilliantly:

For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:5-6 (NIV)

References:

Baron, T. (2010, September 27). Servant Leadership Institute [Blog]. Retrieved from http://www.servantleadershipinstitute.com/servant-leadership/the-importance-of-trust/

Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York: Paulist Press.

Heskett, J. (2013, May 1). Why isn’t servant leadership more prevalent? Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2013/05/01/why-isnt-servant-leadership-more-prevalent/.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership : theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Shook, J. (2012, May 24). Church-goers now a minority in America. The Blog – Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-shook-phd/churchgoers-now-a-minorit_b_1537108.html.

5 Comments

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  1. j.co says:

    You are right! Our culture needs servant leadership now more than ever.

    Though our culture is saturated with self-centered, success orientated leadership there are still modern companies that live by and exhibit the servant leadership principle. Take for example the company Chick Fil A. Mark Miller, who is the Executive Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness at the company Chick Fil A is big on building a servant leader model in the company. Miller, who just released a new book titled “The Heart of Leadership: Becoming A Leader People Want to Follow” teaches others how a servant approach to leadership makes you someone people want to follow. In fact, in the book the first trait that is discussed of a leader that others want to follow is the trait of “others first.” The idea around “others first” is that every leader should strive to continually add value to each person that they interact with. Miller stresses character in his style of leadership and says that good leadership is “90% character, and only 10% skills” (Tenney 2013)

    Another company that follows a great model of servant leadership is Southwest Airlines. If you were to view the company’s pyramid instead of seeing leadership and shareholders at the top you would see employees. President Emertius Colleen Barrett says this of their pyramid: “We do build our pyramid a bit different… at the top of our pyramid in terms of priority is our employees, and delivering to them proactive customer service.” Serving employees first is a top priority of Southwest Airlines. (Rykrsmith 2010)

    Servant Leadership is more effective than the golden parachute leadership style. The Bible teaches us to be more concerned about the needs of others than our own selfish desires. Philippians 2:3-4 says “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. (NKJV) Servant leadership is a gift to us that shapes us and grows us to deeper levels of leadership and it keeps us humble as God moves us forward.

    References:
    Rykrsmith, Eva. (2010, September). What Is Servant Leadership? Thoughts from Southwest Airlines President, Colleen Barrett. Retrived from
    http://quickbase.intuit.com/blog/2010/09/20/what-is-servant-leadership-thoughts-from-southwest-airlines-president-colleen-barrett/#sthash.MWpAUFPQ.dpuf

    Tenney, Matt. (2013, October). The Heart of Leadership: Insights From Mark Miller of Chick-fil-A. Retrived from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matt-tenney/the-heart-of-leadership-i_b_4054554.html

  2. Chris says:

    Indeed America, and the entire world for that matter, is able and willing to embrace servant leaders. Experience shows me it is when people are in need; through moral decline, lack of a voice with upper level leaders, that we truly desire a leader who genuinely cares for us. Whether you incorporate Jesus Christ in it or not the desire for a leader who genuinely cares and inspires is what people desire (Hamel, 2007, pp. 87-89).

    I agree, we have a supreme example in Jesus Christ, as well as numerous followers, of how it is those in moral decline that hunger most for change that is supplied only with servant leadership (Mathew 15:23-29, 1:32). It is important, however, to make a distinction between serving in a role versus serving in a vocation. That is, a servant leader serves those who he or she is responsible for ABOVE themselves. While a servant in a role serves a smaller scale and does not serve others above themselves; rather their focus tends to be for their own gain.

    Perhaps it is the hierarchical structures which increase the need for servant leadership; through greed like Enron, bureaucracy similar to many Fortune companies or simply the disconnect created by executive leaders with misaligned focus on the bottom line (Hamel, 2007, p. 138).

    References:

    Hamel, G. (2007). The Future of Management. Boston, MA: The Harvard Business Review Press.

  3. bonneaux says:

    If talking about a servant leader in the way of Christianity, I believe we do “NEED” servant leaders, but I’m not sure the US is “READY” for servant leadership. I say this because I am in the military, and in working with such a wide variety of people with multiple worldviews from all over the world, you have to be careful about the way you carry yourself. Servant leadership is great as long as it is not in your face, I’m a Christian – leadership. I’m not saying to hide your beliefs, but we do have to stop short of preaching at the work place, because like it or not, not everyone agrees with us and our beliefs and we cannot offend coworkers by speaking of GOD at the workplace.

    If we are talking about Robert K. Greenleaf’s version of a servant leader in The Servant as Leader, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the 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 there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.” then I say the US is ready. Basically, this means that the leader serves the needs of his/her workers. This means more power is giving to the work force, and the leaders is more attuned to his followers needs.

  4. jannadiane says:

    If ever there was a time to need servant leadership in America, it is now. So often we hear of leaders promising one thing, but doing the opposite. While servant leadership may seem like a foreign concept to those who do not follow a Biblical Christian world view, it is a very successful way to lead. Jesus, is the true example of a servant. If more Christians that do have a leadership role in their companies, would follow this approach, how long would it be until it is more recognized through the eyes of the world. Jesus said “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.” Matthew 5:37 (New American Standard Bible). This can be true for any leader who follows any worldview. If you promise one thing, make good on that promise. This is a good example for us all.

  5. Mark Cromie says:

    Servant leadership is appealing to those with Christian values mostly as it is the way we are shown how to live our lives through the example that Christ set. We want to aim to live this way and show Christ’s love through our actions but ultimately the world, and us, and flawed and will in most cases revert back to our sinful nature. Even with best intentions leaders can switch from servant leadership style to being all about them, even in Christian circles. Too often good intentions get replaced by selfish ones which can lead us down some dangerous roads. Media today is waiting to pounce on any sign of weakness or trouble from leaders and all too content with covering the issues that are negative verses positive. At times it is difficult to turn on the news without becoming disheartened by what is being covered. With this being said, the hope that Christ brings us all should ignite a renewed vigor to stand up and out for the Christian faith and fuel the hope that Christ can bring to the world. The verse James 2:17 highlights this “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” (NASB) and how we need to walk the talk when it comes to our faith.

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