Can institutions be caring servants for a greater good?

In the opening to his monograph The Institution as Servant (1972; rev. ed. 2009), the late Robert K. Greenleaf stated:

THIS IS MY THESIS: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions — often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.

Greenleaf devoted much of his life to advancing the philosophy and practice of servant leadership. I was introduced to this concept by educator Steven James Lawrence, who tied it into the quest for greater dignity in our workplaces. This led me to the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in Atlanta, which describes servant leadership this way:

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“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.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Linking institutions and individuals in a servant leadership mode

You can see the challenge, drawing heavily upon Greenleaf’s thinking:

  1. Organizations have become the conduits through which society does much of its “caring work.”
  2. Organizations are only as good as their citizens, especially their leaders.
  3. Thus, to foster better, more caring institutions, we have to create and empower more caring leaders eager and willing to serve in a servant leadership capacity.

Uh oh, this isn’t going to be easy, right? It runs smack dab into commonly-held notions of self-interested ambition and advancement that are drilled into the heads of high achievers early on. Think family expectations for success. Think the cultures of business schools, law schools, and elite colleges and universities. Many of us (myself included) are where we are because we bought into that achievement ethic, at least in part, and perhaps at times at the cost of conducting ourselves in a servant leadership mode.

Furthermore, changing existing institutions is hard work. Organizational cultures set in good and bad ways. Greenleaf wrote The Institution as Servant especially for trustees in businesses, universities, and religious institutions. However, stakeholders at all levels must be invited to play a role in positive transformation. Also, it may be easier to imbue new organizations with a spirit of servant leadership rather than trying to move existing ones that seem stuck in place.

Finally, as some protested when I first wrote about servant leadership over a year ago, some leaders claim to be operating in servant leadership mode when, in reality, they’re doing quite the opposite. Thus, servant leadership has been hijacked in some instances by individuals who tout themselves as being something they’re not. (I’ve seen folks like this in academic workplaces. They’re also fond of using terms such as “transparency” and “shared governance,” and the more they invoke them, the less they practice them.)

Still, this is all worth pursuing. To a large degree, our society is the product of the institutions that shape it. Better organizations and better leaders can only help us.

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