Servant leadership

The concept of servant leadership is heavily watered down, compared to our original examples.

“Servant leadership” gets a lot of buzz in the business world these days. It’s a concept promoted heavily by Scrum, as well as many other places.

The concept is usually heavily watered down, however. Erik Dietrich goes so far as to say that the term usually just means “try not to be a dick.”

I might not go that far.

But I was reminded last Sunday, as I was listening to the sermon at my church, about one of the original servant leaders. One cited in Robert K. Greenleaf’s 1970 essay which introduced the term “servant leader”, in fact.

The story the pastor told was from the gospel of John, chapter 13, and is the account of Jesus washing his disciples feet at his final passover meal. The sermon went on to talk about what an astonishing act this was, in the context of the day.

The washing of feet, so he explained, was reserved for servants. And specifically, for lower-class servants. Yet here, the leader of the group was taking that role upon himself. He was, quite literally, a servant leader.

The article The Scrum Master as a Servant-Leader describes servant leadership as: “Serving others, not yourself; Not leading by title; Leadership that endures; Helping people develop and perform as highly as possible; Selfless management of team members; Promoting genuine team ownership; Harnessing the collective power of a team”.

Now all of those seem like good things to me. But most of them are just normal, run-of-the-mill “leadership”. In fact, a lot of this does indeed seem like “try not to be a dick.”

The example from the gospel of John is a lot more than those things. It’s not merely “serving others, not yourself”. It’s “serving others by humbling yourself”. And it’s not just “Not leading by title”. It’s “leading by example” and even “teach others to serve, by example.”

What if we took this more hard-core concept of genuine servant leadership to the office? What would that look like? I’m not really sure.

When I’m leading a team, I certainly try not to be a dick. And I try to promote genuine team ownership, and I try to serve others, etc. All the things listed above. But can I do better?

What are the tasks that seem beneath me? That might even be seen as humuliating for me to do?

No doubt there’s an element of apples-to-oranges going on here. In the business world, some jobs may actually be beneath any one of us, in the senes that it’s not financially feasible for us to spend our time on a task that someone else can do more effectively. (CSS would be a great example for me…)

Maybe it’s just that Greenleaf’s original concept of servant leadersihp doesn’t really belong in the corporate vernacular at all. But it’s got me thinking.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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