Helping Others Succeed:
Leading from a Servant Perspective

An Interview with Dr. Mike Armour

(Part 2 of 3)

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It sounds like leaders must now be people-centered, above all else.


Well, leaders have always needed to be focused on people. Leadership is a uniquely people-centric enterprise. That’s the primary thing which separates leadership from management.

We speak of leading people and managing people. We also speak of managing budgets, managing inventories, and managing deadlines. But we would never speak of leading a budget or leading an inventory. We only lead people.

What’s different today is the make-up of the workforce and what people expect of their leaders. People look to the workplace for two pay checks. One is a monetary document that they can deposit in a bank account. The other is an emotional deposit in the form of finding fulfillment and meaning in their work. And they look to leadership to create the environment and opportunities in which they secure both pay checks.

Now, this concept of receiving two pay checks is hardly foreign to business leaders, because they have always wanted fulfillment from their work, too. While they may seem to seek success for financial or political gain, they also pursue success to fulfill drives deep within them. That’s why so many of them keep working long after they have fully achieved financial security.

Yet only decades ago few business leaders gave much thought to whether their workers felt fulfilled. Leaders could safely ignore this issue because workers themselves were not demanding fulfillment from their job. But that situation has changed. Completely.


Are you saying that today’s workers are more self-focused than workers in the past?


No, I’m saying that workers are humans. They have multiple levels of needs, as Maslow points out in his famous model of motivation with its hierarchy of needs. What workers look for from leaders depends on where the workers themselves reside on Maslow’s hierarchy.

Until fairly recent times, most Americans gave their daily lives to meeting needs at the lower end of Maslow’s hierarchy. Although fortunes were to be made from the earliest days of American history, relatively few people made them. Well into the twentieth century — beyond the economic throes of the Great Depression and the rigors of the Second World War — the vast majority of working Americans struggled to secure the basic necessities of life and to find safety.

These needs form the lowest two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. To meet these needs, people relied primarily on their relationship with family, church, and community. Work was just a place to get money for basic necessities. Through these same institutions — family, church, and community — people also satisfied needs at the third level of Maslow’s hierarchy, the longing to belong and feel affirmed.

Then, within a generation, this all changed. Post-war prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s expanded the base of wealth in the U.S. immensely. For the first time millions of workers had enough financial security that basic necessities and safety were no longer a daily preoccupation. They were free to move to Maslow’s fourth level, which is the drive to find self-esteem, respect from others, and a sense of fulfillment.

Ironically, at that very moment profound social change began breaking down the very institutions that had long provided a sense of belonging and affirmation. Career mobility took away the proximity of extended family. Denominational loyalties weakened, so that churches held less of a claim on the lives of adherents. And the bond of neighborhood and community atrophied.

With connections to family, church, and community no longer what they once were, people now turn to their work as a place to find affirmation and appreciation. Here, too, is where they focus their search for self-fulfillment. Leaders who fail to recognize this reality and respond to it appropriately are curtailing their ability to motivate and fully mobilize their people.


So, it’s in helping workers experience appreciation and self-fulfillment that leaders function as servants?


Among other things, yes. Robert Greenleaf, who popularized the concept of servant leadership in the 1980s, would have said that leaders need to serve every element of the organization, not just their people. But a litmus test for servant leadership is the nature of the relationship between the manager and the managed.

From Greenleaf’s perspective the ideal leader is someone whose primary motive is to serve. Only secondarily does this person want to lead. Indeed, for Greenleaf the desire to lead should itself be rooted in the desire to serve. In other words, true servant leaders are drawn to leadership, first and foremost, to gain greater leverage for their service.

Greenleaf contrasted the desire to serve with historic motives for wanting to lead, such as satisfying a desire for power or meeting deep ego needs or achieving social prestige. These types of motivation are self-serving at base. They yield leadership styles which benefit the leader above all else. And they also foster organizations in which the leader is the focal point of everything.

One reason that leaders slip so easily into authoritarian styles is that authoritarianism is perfectly designed to accommodate the leader with strong ego needs.

This is not to say that all authoritarian leaders are ego driven. Many are not. I’ve worked with dozens of leaders who combine an authoritarian style with the outlook of a servant. But for leaders who are indeed ego driven, an authoritarianism that is self-centric and self-serving is an ever-present enticement.


You have contrasted leaders whose first desire is to serve with those whose leadership springs from self-serving needs. Except for servant leaders, are the motives to lead always ego-centric?


Not at all. Many great leaders have shouldered the responsibility of leadership out of a sense of duty or a high sense of responsibility. They feel honor-bound to see a cause, a company, or a particular group succeed rather than fail for lack of leadership. Their motivation is not self-seeking. They lead only to serve the interest of something beyond themselves. Their driving motivation is closely akin to the desire for service which Greenleaf idealized.

Whether they are truly servant leaders, at least in Greenleaf’s sense of the word, depends on the nature of their commitment to serve. If their sense of duty or responsibility centers entirely on serving the cause, they may approach their service to the cause with a management style void of servant leadership. That is, they may have a passion to serve the cause, but little or no passion for serving their people.

When this happens, leaders may easily opt for a more self-centric authoritarian style than an empowering style. By contrast, Greenleaf’s servant leader is committed to serving every aspect of the organization, especially its people.

Servant leaders resort to authoritarianism in only two scenarios. The first is an extreme situation (like a sudden disaster) where the exigencies of the moment demand the quick decision-making of an authoritarian approach. The second is when they lead in organizations like fire and police departments or the military, where an authoritarian structure is essential.


Apart from wanting to serve, what are the general characteristics of servant leaders?


It goes without saying, I suppose, that they must be good leaders. Having a heart to serve is a necessary prerequisite to servant leadership. But in and of itself, a heart to serve does not assure success as a leader.

This then takes us back to our definition of leadership itself. Like any leader, servant leaders must be adept at rallying people around themselves and around a shared purpose, motivating those whom they have rallied, and mobilizing them for action.

By "mobilizing," I mean seeing that all of the plans, resources, and support are in place for people to accomplish what they are being asked to do. Think of everything that goes into mobilizing an army, and you get the general picture.

Beyond this, the fundamental hallmark of servant leadership is healthy humility. I use the modifier "healthy" because the word "humility" is so widely misunderstood. It doesn’t mean being soft or being timid or being unassertive. It simply means having your ego in check, so that ego does not get in the way of helping others succeed.

True servant leaders measure their own success by how well they help others flourish. Their humility uniquely equips them to promote the development of people around them. Why? Because leaders who are humble have no trouble letting someone else have the spotlight. They are not threatened when someone in their organization outperforms them. In fact, they bask vicariously in the accomplishments of those whom they have coached or mentored.

Because humble leaders have ego in check, failure doesn’t humiliate them. And achievement doesn’t go to their heads. They avoid ego-driven traps like arrogance and condescending attitudes. Yet they are confident and self-assured, in the best sense of the word.

Their healthy self-confidence allows them to acknowledge their fears and short-comings without embarrassment. Yet it gives them the ego strength to make tough decisions, hold people accountable, and bear patiently with difficult and demanding circumstances.

Leaders given to humility are especially effective at building strong interpersonal connections because they are not prone to actions and attitudes which poison relationships. They don’t feel a need to react defensively when challenged, to be judgmental when exercising discipline, or to make a show of their authority, their prowess, or their intellect.


Is this kind of humility just natural to some people? Or does it have to be learned?


I think everyone has to learn humility. Some people are fortunate enough to learn it early in life, so early, in fact, that we see it as natural for them.

But we all start life as a pretty selfish, self-centered lot. How many times have we seen toddlers throw a tantrum or create an ugly commotion simply because they failed to get their way? Or failed to get it fast enough? That’s why we call this age the "terrible twos," isn’t it?

As this child grows older, we will insist that he learn self-control and good manners, but not necessarily humility. Our culture gives lip-service to humility, largely because Christian teachings on humility helped frame the Western conscience. But genuine promotion of humility is not commonplace.

As a result, many aspiring leaders, not to mention millions of men and women already in leadership, do not see humility as a personal priority. Unknowingly they subscribe to a view of leadership which traces to Greek and Roman precedents.

While the Greeks were quick to criticize overweening pride (a regular theme in their dramas), they never went so far as to actively advocate humility. To the contrary, a "real man," in their view of life, was the individual who settled scores on his own terms, in the fashion of Ulysses coming home after 20 years and summarily slaying the men who were wooing his wife.

Yet we have all known and admired men and women of greatness who were also men and women of humility. Somewhere along the way they learned how to abandon the instincts of their "terrible twos." Just as they learned to do it, we can, too. Thus, none of us is excused from practicing the traits of servant leadership simply because we lack humility. Humility can be learned at any time in life.


So, you’re saying that people don’t have to start with Greenleaf’s servant motivation in order to have a reputation as service-oriented leaders.


Precisely. The best of all worlds would be one in which every leader has the spirit of service as his or her primary motivator. That’s the ideal. The truth is, the world has always known leaders who sought positions of influence in order to satisfy ego needs or self-serving drives. And it’s naïve to think that this pattern is soon to change.

The challenge therefore is for leaders to learn how to serve the needs of their people well, even when the primary motive for leading is a desire for power, achievement, or some type of personal gain. Such leaders can learn to lead from a servant perspective, even if they have not developed all the virtues of a servant leader’s heart.


What does it take for leaders to make this change?


It usually requires them to have a strong conviction that leading from a servant’s perspective pays meaningful and worthwhile dividends.

Let’s take leaders who are driven to achieve, for instance. If they can see that using servant principles enhances their organization’s level of accomplishment, then choosing the perspective of a servant seems a wise decision.

Or to take another example, consider people who seek leadership in order to attain social prestige. If the techniques of servant leadership can improve the impact of their organization and thus add to their prestige, they can be motivated to give servant perspectives a try.

Now, purists will argue that I’ve just reduced the elevated principles of servant leadership to mere pragmatism and tactics. And in one sense I have. But it’s not the principles of servant leadership that I’m downplaying. I’m merely looking for an adequate rationale to get otherwise skeptical leaders to give servant leadership a serious test run.

I’m convinced (and experience has deepened my conviction) that when skeptical leaders genuinely adopt servant perspectives, they experience such positive feedback that the principles of servant leadership are authenticated for them. As a result, they begin pursuing servant perspectives, not for pragmatic benefit, but because they fully accept servant leadership principles.

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