The Paradox of Servant Leadership

The idea of Servant Leadership is as old as the notion of leadership itself. It goes back at least to the sixth century BCE, when Lao Tzu wrote,

The sage stays behind, thus he is ahead.

He is detached, thus at one with all.

Though selfless action, he attains fulfillment.

In recent decades the concept of Servant Leadership has flourished, even becoming a modest movement. It has evolved from a set of ideas promulgated primarily by a single man, Robert Greenleaf, first, to an organized body of thought; second, to an approach to practice; and third, to an ideology in which the purpose of leadership is to serve the needs and wants of the followers, not of the leader.

In 1970 Greenleaf – who was for many years an executive and management expert at AT@T – published a pamphlet titled, “The Servant as Leader.” The pamphlet is learned and literary, even slightly mystical. Greenleaf references figures ranging from Herman Hesse to Jesus to William Blake, but does not exclude from his discussion a pragmatist like Machiavelli.

“Who is the Servant-Leader? Greenleaf asks. He answers his own question:

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. He is sharply different from the person who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve – after leadership is established. 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.*   

The reason Greenleaf has become newly relevant is because the apology culture to which I first drew attention a decade ago has evolved even further. It has evolved into a humble culture in which it no longer suffices for leaders to say, “I’m sorry.” Instead they are expected to take total responsibility for anything that smacks of failure or in any way falls short. When Procter & Gamble’s CEO A.G. Lafley appeared earlier this month at the annual shareholders meeting, he told investors that “the buck stops with me,” and that he was sure that his successor would improve the company’s recently weak performance. Humility is “the flavor du jour,” says Fred Hassan, a former CEO of Schering-Plough, precisely because it is assumed that humble leaders are servant leaders. Their egos are in check. They listen to those around them – their followers. And their desire is first to serve and then to lead.

Given the growing popularity of servant leadership in some circles, it’s curious that in other circles the servant leader has been largely absent.  Whatever you might think of Donald Trump – who is topping the polls for Republican nominee for president in 49 states –the servant leader is not an image that comes immediately to mind. Nor for that matter has Hillary Clinton been sighted eating even a single slice of humble pie.

I’m supposing it’s our doing. I’m supposing it’s because we the American people have given not a scintilla of evidence that in the nation’s highest office, humility is a quality that we especially seek.


*Robert Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf Center, 1970, p. 7.


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