The underlying philosophy of servant leadership is important to grasp.
Though it may at first glance seem to be an issue of semantics, the distinction between a leader who serves and a servant who leads is a fundamental one. What separates servant-leadership from other discussions of leadership is that it takes the approach of leadership not being the end-all, but instead a vehicle for the service of others. As Robert Greenleaf pointed out, “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.”
In other words, for the servant-leader, leadership is a means to an end rather than being an end to itself.
On the other hand, it could be that leaders who serve – in contrast with servant-leaders—view service as an essential and foundational element or component of leadership. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; but it is certainly a different mindset from the one mentioned above in that it limits service to a being just a piece of leadership rather than the heart of it. They may consider service an expectation of leadership, but not necessarily as the source or conceptual framework for leadership.
Perhaps it might be helpful to think of it this way. For leaders who happen to serve, service is part of how they lead, but not necessarily why they lead. Service is more the how of leadership than they why. That’s why so many advocates of servant-leadership argue that it should be thought of as “a way of being in the world,” as a professor of mine once said. When conceptualized this way, it becomes more akin to a worldview than simply a grouping of management tips.
This distinction – between a leader who serves and a servant-leader – has been an important point on which I’ve had to reflect. The notion that one is to be a servant first, then a leader, is one that looms increasingly large in my mind. The challenge, it seems, is at least partly one of motivation and mindset.
I’ve personally had to wrestle with the idea of both clarity and purity of my motivation. It seems that too easily ego subtly sneaks in and subverts service as a motivating factor. Masquerading as a desire to serve, ego may at times produce a service that is more rooted in a need for public affirmation and admiration than a selfless desire to seek the good of others over the good of self.
As with many things of this nature, self-awareness is a critical but difficult necessity. An impediment to this seems to be a lack of concerted and proactive effort to set aside significant time periods during which the primary focus is personal reflection, perhaps through contemplative practices.
Studying this over the past several months has rattled me to the core and begun a fundamental shift in the way I think about leadership and service, and has set me on a different trajectory both personally and professionally. It’s been an often-painful transition, but one that seems to have placed me on the path toward a more appropriate style of human leadership wherein serving others through leading well becomes a way of being in the world.
(A version of this article was first posted on the CU Water Cooler site.)