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Servant Leadership: Lightning Rod

Servant Leadership

Servant LeadershipServant Leadership is one of my personal favourite Big Ideas in the field of management and leadership. It’s been a discipline to push it this far back in our series of Big Ideas.

And we did cover Servant Leadership within our Management Thinkers series. The article on Robert Greenleaf describes the genesis of the idea.

So, in this article, I want to discuss the idea of Servant Leadership in the way I understand it, and introduce a second voice to Greenleaf’s: that of Max De Pree*.

Continue reading Servant Leadership: Lightning Rod

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Robert Greenleaf: Servant Leadership

Robert Greenleaf was a successful corporate manager, who read a book that crystallised his thinking. But he only started to change the world once he retired. His thinking goes against the grain for many corporate and political leaders, who want to exert control. Instead, he argued, leaders need to be servants first.

Robert Greenleaf

Very Short Biography

Robert Greenleaf was born and grew up in rural Indiana, and studied mathematics at Carleton College in Minnesota. He graduated in 1926, and went straight into a career at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T as it now is). He stayed there, playing a series of important managerial roles, until his early retirement in 1964.

From the earliest days, Greenleaf was aware that big corporations did not serve their employees well. He strove at AT&T to change that from within, and had some notable successes. But in 1958, reading Herman Hesse’s novella, Journey To The East, Greenleaf had a revelation. The pivotal character Leo, whilst seeming to only serve a group of travellers, is in fact, taking upon himself the role of motivator, teacher and guide. When he leaves, the group flounders. Leo has, in truth, been leading the group.

This led Greenleaf to form his concept of Servant Leadership.

On his retirement, Greenleaf founded The Center for Applied Ethics (which was renamed The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, in 1985). He wrote several books on Servant Leadership, most influential of which was: ‘Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness‘ (1977 – re-issued in a 25 anniversary edition).

He strived to live according to his philosophy of ethical leadership, and died in 1990. The Greenleaf Center continues to promote his work.

The Genesis of Servant Leadership

Arguably, Greenleaf’s work has been based on a mighty misinterpretation of Hesse’s message. For Leo tells the central character that, in abandoning their goal when he left, the group failed its test. Enlightened people need to sustain their own self-leadership.

However, Greenleaf’s interpretation is coherent and would, I believe, have found favour with Hesse. He argues that Leo, is, in serving the group, its leader. From this, Greenleaf goes on to deduce that leaders need to serve those who follow them, as Leo served the group in Hesse’s novella.

Why do I suggest Hesse may have favoured this interpretation? For two reasons:

  1. In the book, Leo does indeed provide leadership to the group, though none recognise it at the time. (I shan’t say more – read the book)
  2. Secondly, in Hesse’s finest work (in my view), the The Glass Bead Game, the central character, The Master of the Game, is called Joseph Knecht. In Hesse’s language, German, Knecht means ‘servant’. The master is servant. Curiously, Hesse is not alone in this insight: etymologically, the English word knight originates from the Old English, Cniht, meaning servant, rather than from the French, chevalier (horseman) or the Latin, eques, also meaning horseman. Knecht and knight are the same word!

What is Servant Leadership?

Servant Leadership is a model of leadership based on the ethical principle that  leaders must first of all serve those who follow them. They have a moral responsibility to help the people they serve grow and thrive, as people. There are therefore a number of behaviours that are characteristic of a servant leader. Thus, Greenleaf’s concept is a behaviours, or roles-based, model of leadership. He argued that we can all become servant leaders by making these behaviours the centre of our practice.

Some of the behaviours a servant leader needs to exhibit are: listening, empathy and healing relationships, awareness, foresight and conceptualising the world, building communities and stewarding resources, influencing through persuasion, rather than control, and finally, a commitment to the growth and wellbeing of the people they serve.

Greenleaf’s Influence

… seems disappointingly slight in the upper echelons of modern business, public service (yes, I know) and politics. Whilst a former British Prime Minister referred to servant leadership, I doubt he will be remembered for it. The current crop of world leaders hardly exhibit any signs of it (and neither do some of the prominent candidates for future roles).

Where I see servant leadership in my work, is in many of the small business entrepreneurs and among middle managers. These people are where deep care for colleagues and staff are most manifest in my experience. It would be lovely if our culture allowed these qualities to thrive as those people rise to top leadership roles on national and global platforms.

Robert Greenleaf in his own Words

I can only find one video of Greenleaf himself. Here he is, in later years, talking about the role of institutions.

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Mary Parker Follett: Management Visionary

‘Ahead of her time’ seems to be the most appropriate epiphet to apply to Mary Parker Follett. And many have done so: Peter Drucker described her as a ‘prophet of management’, while Warren Bennis has said:

‘Just about everything written today about
leadership and organizations comes from
Mary Parker Follett’s lectures and writings.’

Mary Parker Follett

 

Brief Biography

Mary Parker Follett was born in 1868, into a wealthy Quaker family in Boston. She was an exceptional scholar and a polymath, attending university at Harvard (the Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women – later Radcliffe College), during which time she also spent a year at Newnham College, at Cambridge University (in England). Although denied a PhD by Harvard, she studied widely in law, economics, politics, philosophy, and history. While at Cambridge University she prepared and delivered a paper that was to become, in 1918, her first book: ‘The New State’. It was about social evolution and group-based democratic government. It was reviewed by former US president, Theodore Roosevelt and remains in print today.

After studying, Follett spent the next thirty or so years (from 1890 to 1924) focusing on voluntary social work in Boston. She innovated, being the first person in the US to use a school as an out-of-hours community centre; a model that was widely reproduced across the country.

However, what interests us most at the Management Pocketblog is her work from 1924, when she turned her focus to industry. She wrote that it is ‘the most important field of human activity’ and that:

‘management is the most fundamental element in industry’

She became an early management consultant and was much in demand by industry leaders and academic institutions. She spent her time advising and lecturing, up until her death, at a relatively young age, in  December 1933.

Sadly, her work is not widely known of in the western world, despite notable figures like Drucker, Bennis and Sir Peter Parker praising her to the rafters. This is despite the fact that she anticipated a wide range of issues and thinking that is still today presented as modern and aspirational for our large organisations.

Follett’s Visionary Thinking

Let’s count the ways that Follett was ahead of her time in the field of management. I get to eight.

1. Humanistic Approach to Organisations

Growing up in the time of FW Taylor, and ahead of the work of Elton Mayo, Follett rejected the functional approach to industry in favour of her emphasis on what we now call humanistic principle. She was a progressive, rational humanist in the management field as well as in the political and social arenas, and puts me very much in mind of George Eastman, whom I also described as a visionary. She very much anticipated the work of Douglas McGregor.

2. Empowerment

Follett rejected the idea that managers and staff have fundamentally different roles and capabilities. Instead, she saw that an organisation’s success would come from recognising the part that each has to play in delivering its services or creating its products. She advocated giving power to where it matters.

3. Joined up Business (… and hence, Re-engineering and Lean?)

This created a need for a joined up organisation, where activities, departments, functions and people are properly co-ordinated – both across the organisation and from the bottom to the top (and vice versa). She referred to the relationships between staff and managers and among functions as ‘reciprocal relating’. A leader’s role is therefore to see the whole organisation and the ‘relation between all the different factors in a situation’. Is it too much of a stretch to see this as anticipating the mission of re-engineering and lean management to close gaps in process flow? I don’t think so.

4. Group Dynamics and Team Working – Participative Leadership

The equal balance of power between management and employees leads to the need for team co-operation and that, she suggested, develops a true sense of responsibility in workers. To me, it also demands a model of leadership that Robert Greenleaf was to call ‘Servant Leadership’. Follett did not herself go as far, but identified ‘Participative Leadership’ as the style that involves a whole team in creating products and delivering services.

5. Personal Responsibility

Tying together empowerment, co-ordination and group working is the sense of responsibility they inculcate in workers. Follett again anticipated McGregor’s Theory Y, by arguing that it is this which most develops people.

6.Management Training

If we are to delegate greater responsibility to our people, we must do so well. Follett was an early advocate of management training, believing when many did not that the leadership aspects can be taught.

7. Transformational Leadership

In a paper called ‘The social construction of leadership: From theory to praxis’, Edith Rusch notes the unacknowledged similarities between James McGregor Burns’ articulation of ‘Transformational Leadership’ and Follett’s writings. She presents a compelling argument that Follett not only anticipated the ideas of transformational leadership, but that she was the first to put them forward and even used the term.

8. Win-Win Negotiation and Conflict Management

One particular interest of Follett’s was conflict. She suggested three approaches of domination, compromise and integration, that  Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann would later refer to as competing, compromising, and collaborating. Her thinking on the benefits and mechanisms of creating integrated ‘win-win’ resolutions is rich and sophisticated. In her suggestion that we uncover the real conflict and get to each party’s deeper aims, and then seek to satisfy those, she anticipated a lot of the thinking in best-selling negotiation book, ‘Getting to Yes’.

My one Favourite concept…

from all of Follett’s writing is this: the idea of ‘circular response’. This is that our behaviour helps to create the situation to which we respond. It is the idea of a feedback loop of self reinforcing interpretations and behaviour. I don’t doubt that the essence of this very modern sounding idea goes back to the ancients and classical writings of many cultures. But her articulation of it (and of the compelling phrase ‘circular response’) is so clear, that it has got me thinking.

Thank you…

to Mary Parker Follett. Before I started researching this blog, I knew nothing of her (unlike almost all other management thinker subjects). I had hoped that, being less known, there would be little to read and writing this would be quick. Far from it. But I have gained a lot from learning about Follett, and I hope you will too.

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