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Another Look at Servant Leadership

A timeless philosophy that would be of great help here in the 21st century

Another Look at Servant Leadership

One of the most common themes of the last six months is how different things are going to be after the pandemic. I keep hearing how we need new thinking to get out of the current situation. But the interesting thing to me is that there’s more than enough insightful old thinking already out there to help all of us move forward to more positive places.

In 1970, at the age of 65, Robert Greenleaf published the first of many pieces on what he had started to call “Servant Leadership.” In 1977 his full book, Servant Leadership was put into print. A decade or so later, Paul Saginaw read it. Shortly thereafter he passed it on to me to do the same. While the formal ideas and language around Servant Leadership were new to us, what we read was actually aligned with what he and I had already been quietly—almost unconsciously—thinking. Greenleaf gave us the words with which we could much more effectively put our partially formed thoughts into action. Our philosophy at Zingerman’s has evolved a lot since those early days, but Servant Leadership continues to be one of the centerpieces. Today, Greenleaf’s approach remains an uncommon—and yet, highly effective—way to work. If, and when, we put it to action, it has the power to alter almost everything that happens, in our organizations and our communities.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking of late. If Greenleaf’s idea of Servant Leadership was the norm, not the exception, in business and in our communities, the world would be a whole lot different place—kinder, more collaborative, and more effective. Greenleaf once said, “a good society would be dominated by the servant [leadership] idea.” I agree. If you’re drawn to what we do here at Zingerman’s; if you’re looking to build a more caring and coherent team at work; if you believe generosity and compassion can coexist with clear expectations and gentle but firm pressure to perform for the sake of the greater good, then Servant Leadership is one of the tools you might explore.

It’s eight or nine years ago now that we put Secret #23 in Part 2 of the Guide to Good Leadinginto print. It’s my look at Servant Leadership and the way we use it here at Zingerman’s, along with the six elements of Servant Leadership to which we hold ourselves accountable here. Here’s a small bit of what I wrote in the essay:

The phrase “Servant Leadership” may sound like one of those nice throw-aways they always write into the opening section of employee manuals. But please don’t let any perception of passivity fool you—Servant Leadership is very strong stuff. If you really live it, Servant Leadership changes everything. . . . Servant Leadership is, quite simply, one of the easiest ways I know to help make our organization more effective, and the world a better place in the process. Best of all, it’s free. You can make an enormous impact without investing anything other than your own intellectual and emotional energy.

The basic belief of Servant Leadership is that our job as leaders is—first and foremost—to serve our organization. To paraphrase John Kennedy’s magnificent, 1961 inaugural speech, “Ask not what your organization can do for you. Ask what you can do for your organization.” To those who already think that way, this statement might sound obvious, or even inevitable, but in my experience, it’s actually neither. In fact, in most traditional organizations the service flows in the other direction—the rest of the organization exists primarily to serve the needs of its leaders. In a servant-led world, by contrast, we do the opposite—here, we serve the organization. Instead of just being about the boss, Servant Leadership is about success for all involved.

Knowing me as many of you do, you might imagine that Robert Greenleaf was an active part of a Russian emigrant anarchist collaborative on the East Coast. But he was neither an immigrant, nor part of any New York intelligentsia. To the contrary, Greenleaf grew up in rural America. The man who developed the idea of Servant Leadership was born in the small Indiana town of Terre Haute in 1904, on the 14th of July, and he worked all of his formal, 38-year-long career with the rather mainstream AT&T. He was quite religious and most photos of him show him in offices or classrooms wearing a suit and tie. No protest signs, no sit ins, no arrests. And yet, mainstream as he might have seemed to a casual observer, Greenleaf was anything but a status-quo thinker. One AT&T president described him as the company’s “kept revolutionary.” I’m pretty sure Greenleaf wouldn’t have ever considered himself an anarchist, but there are huge overlaps with what he wrote about and what I would lay down as a core set of beliefs for myself. Over half a century ago, Greenleaf was concerned about the quality of life for people working in modern companies. He observed over and over again that there was “a decrease in creative and critical thinking and a separation of work and self by the worker.” It’s very much what later struck me as the “Energy Crisis in the Workplace” (Secret #19, in Part 2). He imagined Servant Leadership as a way to reverse that energy drain. It was intended to help both the organizations that used it and the people who were part of them. “I believe that people grow in these moral, perceptive, creative, and decisive qualities as they achieve the freedom to become themselves.” He was right. Servant Leadership has been shown over time to increase engagement, improve emotional health, and long term economics all at the same time.

Humility, a topic that is close to my heart right now, was both an integral element of Robert Greenleaf’s way of being in the world, and also of the philosophy he put forward to make the world a better place. I wrote in the new pamphlet, “Humility: A Humble, Anarchistic, Inquiry,” about 16 different methods in which we convey the value of humility and systemically reinforce it. One of them is Servant Leadership. Humility is a prerequisite for truly living Servant Leadership in meaningful ways. For himself, Greenleaf said, very humbly, “I’m just doing my part in my small way to help that necessary cultural change to happen.”

Speaking of doing his part, James Perry ran for Mayor of New Orleans on a progressive platform that was based on Servant Leadership. Perry shared,

Among the most important lessons I’ve learned from Dr. King is the example of servant leadership. A servant leader is one who offers an inclusive vision; listens carefully to others; persuades through reason; and heals divisions while building community. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an example of a servant leader. His life shows the extraordinary power of servant leadership to radically transform a nation. Our communities and our country need servant leadership more than ever. Deepening economic woes threaten the American dream for far too many working people. Racial divisions are embarrassingly persistent in too many aspects of our economic and social lives. Political despair is battering the uniquely American optimism that has made us a great nation. There are precious few servant leaders in our current political environment. Many elected officials are more interested in personal power, individual legacy, and financial gain than in the sacrifice and commitment that servant leadership requires.

In case you thought I pulled that out of yesterday’s paper, Mr. Perry wrote his piece ten years ago. It still stands now. Perry clearly makes the point that Servant Leadership is not new. And yet it’s anything but the norm. But it is life altering. James Autry, whose books had a big influence on me early on, said of Servant Leadership,

Once you recognize it and begin to work on it, you have to stop throughout the day and examine what your actions are. In order to be able to admit mistakes and to learn from others, no matter what their status . . . That’s a huge leap for a lot of people. It seems simple to say it, doesn’t it? But it’s difficult for us to fathom how challenging that is for some people who act out of ego. Because you are saying, “Put my ego in the drawer and I’m going to ask how you think it should be done; you, who are seventeen layers down in the hierarchy from me.”

I’ve been immersed (though I still fall short regularly) with Servant Leadership for so long that I forget there’s any other way to lead. My mistake. Reading through the New York Times over the weekend I came across a couple of quotes from upper-level leaders along the lines of “Bosses shouldn’t ever carry their own bags. It makes them look too ordinary,” and “I’m not worrying about the community or the employees. My responsibility is really only to the shareholders.” Seriously? I guess former Senator Alan Simpson wasn’t off base when he said, “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.” While it clearly is not the national norm, I believe that to truly create a meaningfully connected, healthy organization, Servant Leadership must be in place. The idea of it is embedded in #4 on the list of Twelve Natural Laws that’s in Part 1 of the Guide to Good Leading. (If you want to see the list of the Natural Laws, email me at [email protected] and I’ll send them your way. There’s much more in Secret #1.)

So what would happen if we were to make Servant Leadership the norm? What if it was standard procedure to put Servant Leaders in high-level roles in every organization? What if we taught it to ten year-olds so that by the time we were 20, Servant Leadership was so obviously a better way to work that we’d just as soon abandon it as we would drive on the wrong side of the road?

Servant Leadership is very much a different way of thinking. In fact, as I wrote in Secret #23, I believe it’s actually a different language for leadership. And as linguist Edward Sapir smartly observed, different languages lead to different ways of thinking. And without different ways of thinking, we will not, as I said above, get different results. Gretchen Whitmer said a few days ago, “Words matter.” I believe things would be better for all of us if we just made Servant Leader and “leader” into veritable synonyms. Semanticist Alfred Korzybski said succinctly, “Definitions create conditions.” At the Philadelphia Freedom Schools they call college students “Servant Leader interns” and high school students “junior Servant Leaders.” Imagine if you or I had internalized the idea of Servant Leadership by the time we were 22? Imagine if almost everyone had.

Actually, I can answer that directly. This is what Zach Milner, who started at Zingerman’s four or five years ago as a busboy and was just last week promoted to be a manager at the Roadhouse, shared on the subject.

Although it’s seen as a promotion, true servant leadership sees it less about being vested with more power to tell others what to do and how to do things, and more about the opportunity to lift others up—their success defines how well you succeed. It isn’t done for the fame, money, power, etc. What is the key motivation, above all else, with Servant Leadership? It is that of Love. Genuine love for those you serve. The best examples of Servant Leaders don’t see a hierarchy and decisions to be handed down to those they manage. Rather they see the problems that arise, know they cannot, themselves, possibly know all the answers, and then ask their team honest questions. This line of reasoning falls in line with showing humility—a Servant Leader is a person who strives to be humble whenever possible, as their example will trickle down to the rest of the staff and will become infectious. Servant Leadership is truly the only honest, morally good way to lead others in any setting. It allows all people from all walks of life and positions, from dishwasher to owner, to feel safe and loved enough to speak their minds and truly seek what is best for the whole, not just themselves. This can not only unlocks the potential of every single individual, but makes the group incredibly desirable to want to be a part of, drawing in other people with like-minded passions that will only make the group better over time…

One of the beauties of Servant Leadership is that anyone can do it. And it requires no one to do anything other than us. If we believe it’s the right thing to do, then all we need to do is start doing it. As Peter Block wrote, “We are the cause, not the effect.” What if you aren’t in charge but you like the idea? Just do it anyways. I don’t think anyone needs clearance from corporate headquarters to be kind or to treat everyone with dignity. We don’t need anyone’s permission to write a vision, to give great service to your team, to be ethically grounded in your decision-making, learn, teach, and go to great lengths to say thanks! There are no forms to fill out and no certificates that give you permission to proceed.

The principles and practice of Servant Leadership that Paul and I learned all those years ago from Robert Greenleaf’s writing changed our lives here at Zingerman’s. Clearly, Servant Leadership has done the same for many others—even if still a small minority—around the world. It embeds everything I wrote last week about humility into an effective, grounded style of leadership we can all put into action if we choose.

Robert Greenleaf died 30 years ago, at the age of 86, on Sept. 29, 1990. While his family might not have realized it at the time, he died on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Rabbi Nina Cardin writes, “One grand lesson of Rosh Hashanah [and Yom Kippur] is not that we have to be perfect, but that we are, and can continue to be, very good. It is sufficient if we strive to achieve our potential. It is only when we fail to be the fullness of who we are that we are held accountable.” Robert Greenleaf’s life fit that mold well. He set a positive pace for the rest of us, showing that although the mainstream of the business world didn’t yet see it, that there was another, better, way to work. So maybe we could take Yom Kippur each year to remind ourselves of what Greenleaf and others of his ilk shared with us, and recommit to being held accountable in the book of good leadership and good life? If we do that work effectively into the future, we might find that everything really will be different in the post-pandemic future towards which we’re all slowly moving.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!