Are you a Servant, a Leader, or Both?

Are you a Servant, a Leader, or Both?

There are three possible answers to this short question in the context of leading with imagination.

Answer one: you are a servant. This answer is often misunderstood in today’s leadership climate. It connotes a certain weakness, or, more crassly, a vision of a doormat or perhaps a passive leader. In the noblest light, a servant more accurately reflects a great strength, a clear purpose, a quiet confidence, and a desire and willingness to put other’s needs ahead of your own.

I don’t know about you, but this sounds like the kind of leader I would consider following. And, frankly, the best definition of a leader is someone with followers. These descriptions are entirely consistent with the notions of authenticity, humility, and love. So thoughtfully considering this answer is worth your effort and energy. 

The second possible answer is that you are a leader. While on the surface this might feel like the natural answer, I would suggest it is incomplete and comes with some heavy liabilities. But what it does have going for it is a common understanding, and even admiration. Our society has a case of the hero leader. We admire a strong leader. Even if we fear them, we believe they will get things done. He or she will have a direction and we won’t flounder. The responsibility for success rests with them, not us, so we don’t have to be accountable. This is seductive but does not hold up under scrutiny. There is a long list of organizational and personal failure under this brand of leader.

The Army model offers a poignant picture of servant leadership that starts with a one-on-one, or dyadic model and develops from there. Because healthy feet are vital to a soldier’s function and performance, a lieutenant will check each of his soldier’s feet and socks while at the same time learning their family, background, motivations, and more. The young leader is responsible for knowing everything about his squad. They learn about the squad by the serving the squad. This story brings to mind another picture from the Scriptures, that of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet-the master serving the followers.

This leads me to the third choice: being both a servant and a leader-a servant leader. Early in my leadership journey and my study of imagination, I came across the writings of Robert K. Greenleaf. He was an early organizational development professional at AT&T. His first published piece was entitled “The Servant as Leader,” written in 1970. He was the first to popularize these two words together.

In his thoughtful pamphlet, he laid out a few compelling ideas. He suggests that there is an order to becoming a servant leader. You must first be a servant, willing to put other’s needs ahead of your own. This is not unlike the young lieutenant. Then comes the conscious choice to be a leader, often for a purpose or belief. It is when you are pursuing a calling over a career that you have the full capacity to embrace this concept of the servant leader.

Once we understand and commit to leading with love in all interactions, we must dig a deep well of insight, wisdom, and character if we wish to serve and then lead with imagination. The final test, according to Greenleaf, becomes a simple one (which is in harmony with my experience). Are the people, organization, department, or work unit you lead “better off, healthier, freer, more autonomous, and more likely to become servants themselves”? 

This is a high bar, and one worth pursuing. Such leaders change the world, and the organizations they lead perform over the long term. Servant leaders power the organizations that power the world.



Lead With Imagination, Brian Paradis with Curtis Wallace

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