I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.
–Albert Schweitzer, philosopher, physician, musician, Nobel laureate (1875-1965)
Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990), founder in 1964 of the Center for Applied Ethics, first introduced leaders to the concept of “servant” leadership in a 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader,” which launched the servant-leadership movement in the United States. The title of his 1977 landmark book not only defines that subject matter but the status each of us can reach by following his teachings: Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.
Greenleaf was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, and spent most of his organizational life in the field of management, research, development, and education at AT&T. When he retired from AT&T in 1964, he launched a new career as speaker, writer, and consultant, coining the term “Servant Leadership.” In the following years Robert Greenleaf wrote and spoke extensively on the subject.
“Legitimate Power” – I really like that term. Servant leaders have “legitimate power” because they embody it, yes, but more important, they demonstrate in their actions the moral authority to lead, meaning they understand and value mankind as individual beings. This particular understanding of how leaders and employees really are related, one to another, means that leaders’ actions and use of power liberate workers to be more autonomous and thus to find their work environment nurturing. The workplace becomes for each of them a healthful and natural place to go each weekday—each one feels glad to be there and to be contributing to the whole!
That was the type of power my dad possessed. Long before Greenleaf coined the term, my dad, Joe Costa, was a servant leader. I often witnessed how he lifted many and varied burdens from his workers. How he continually spoke about his people, his employees, rather than about his company. He understood that his autonomously motivated employees were the company.
Most of my dad’s employees were members of The Ladies Garment Workers Union. Periodically, they were called to strike, the predominantly female workforce picketing the building in which my father had his dress factory. My father was often furious because of it. Not because his workers were picketing his business, but because the time the action was called was often winter, and it could be dreadfully cold in New York City. So Dad took his workers hot coffee as he tried to get them to come into the heated building. Truly, my Dad had “Legitimate Power” in the eyes of his employees because he valued their well-being first and foremost.
These are notions that many leaders don’t seem to comprehend. In their opinion, their people are simply gears in the workings of a great corporate machine. Actually, any company’s employees are the gearbox, the motor, and the wheels rolled into one. It would go nowhere without them!
As Greenleaf explains – business leaders are properly servants first, and that gives us the perspective to go on to make the big decisions that are a large part of leading. The problem some leaders have in understanding servant leadership is that they find the concept to be counter to the hard and fast notion they hold about how best to lead. They believe, like many others, that as they ascend in an organization the folks around them are charged with assuring the leader’s continued success: the implication is “You work for ME, and you need get busy—time is money!”
Nope, it’s just the opposite. Since servant leaders bring an ethical perspective to leadership, meaning that they value their employees as individual human beings with worthy, strong, but also fragile souls, their gaining of responsibility requires that they more and more assure the well-being and prosperity of those in their charge. Servant leaders are keenly aware of their own place within the “giant machine” of the company, not above it, like the humbug Great Oz in his Emerald City.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to play golf with Johnny Unitas. I am old enough to have seen the iconic quarterback play in his prime. When he passed over, I decided to read a biography of his life. The author tells us that when Unitas went into the huddle and before he called the play, he would often ask his teammates which play they thought they could best run in the situation given at that moment. He wanted to run a play they thought they could succeed at! Johnny Unitas, voted the NFL player of the 20th century, was surely a servant leader!