Origins & Deliberations on Servant Leadership

By: Christopher "Matcha" Little


“It is high time the ideal of success should

be replaced with the ideal of service.”

-- Albert Einstein


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Servant. What do you think of when you hear that word? Does the word exude a negative or a positive connotation to you? For many, it evokes an inferior concept of leadership theory. This article will argue that servant leadership is the pinnacle of what aspiring leaders should genuinely strive towards. A successful leader in today's modern United States military needs to be able to put servant leadership in theory into practice in order to be an effective leader. This is done by serving others with your time, attention, and active listening. Additionally, one does this by putting words into actions, instead of talking the talk, like many leaders do. The most successful and impactful leaders revered in the chapters of the history books, led through servant leadership. These were leaders such as Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi, to name a few. Examine the attributes of the most famous servant leader to have ever lived and led in the author's opinion. The characteristics of this person are well articulated by Dr. James Allan Francis:

"He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put his foot inside a big city. He never traveled more than two-hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself…[and yet] all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not have affected the life of man[kind] more on this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life."

How was this person's act of leadership possible? Through a genuine portrayal of servant leadership, he was able to affect so many individuals over the years. I will let you ponder on the name of this person and let you come up with the answer. Think of the impact this person created in their environment as the article continues with our two character examples.

The author Robert Greenleaf is the founding father of being able to codify what the servant leadership theory is and should look like. He wrote a paper in 1970 titled The Servant as Leader, which set the stage for the servant leadership concepts we know today. He writes that leadership is something that is bestowed upon a man or woman. Leadership is something given, or assumed, and can be taken away. However, their servant nature is not bestowed, assumed, or taken away, and is inherent in that person. The servant has to have a natural feeling within to be able to want to serve others. There is a big differentiation from another leader who does not have that same inherent motivating force.


"It is the cause, not the death, that makes the martyr."

--Napoleon Bonaparte


Traditional leadership comes from a top-down approach, which has a boss, and the people below him or her serves the boss. This kind of leadership centers around how much power, control, and clout he or she can have over their organization or sphere of influence. Napoleon Bonaparte comes to mind when thinking about this concept. Bonaparte simply couldn't give up his power over and to the people. He was a master influencer initially because he was victorious on the battlefield and this is also how he seized his power. Still, as soon as Bonaparte started losing battles, people's public opinions about him changed. He was using his leadership for his own good, for his own glory, and not for that of his people. In the quote above by Bonaparte, was his cause a noble cause? No, it was not because he didn't serve anyone but himself. History has not favored the abhorrent overtime. The same goes for Bonaparte. Had he served the people, things might have turned differently. The previous long quote by Dr. James Allan Francis shows that the servant leader will always be more effective at leading than the power-hungry individual looking for all the glory for him or herself.

Servant leadership is traditional leadership's inverse. Let's examine the mythical story of a man named Leo. Leo is a character in Hermann Hess's book Journey to the East. Leo accompanies a band of men on a journey to the east, acting as their servant. He does the menial day-in and day-out tasks for the other characters in the band. He sustains the morale of the band of men by singing and nourishing them with his spirit. The journey was going well until Leo suddenly vanishes from the band. Because of this, the band fell into disarray and didn't know how to sustain itself. The bands vision was lost. The journey self-imploded and they couldn't seem to continue without Leo.

Leo was the one that held "the team" together, although he was acting a servant. He simply lived out his real personal character. Eventually, the narrator, who was part of that band, randomly sees Leo after some years had passed. An Order had previously sponsored the journey to the east. The narrator was eventually taken into the Order. It is upon entry into this Order that the narrator discovers that Leo, whom he had known as the servant on the journey, was actually head of the Order. Leo was the guiding spirit of that journey to the east. He was a great and noble leader. This example is in stark contrast to the rise and fall of Bonaparte. Greenleaf indicates in his essay that a great leader is always seen as a servant first. Leo's story illustrates how vital a servant is, even if others aren't able to immediately see the impact of that leader.

How do you think your organization could benefit by turning its traditional concept of leadership into a servant leadership model? It starts with you, the man or woman in the mirror. People don't change by being told what to do, at least in the long run. It is only through example of another that a person that they will truly see the impact that a change in their life and what it would look like. The character of a man or a woman is tested daily, particularly in the stresses of the work environment. Even more so in the military. As a leader, your most precious commodity in both your personal and professional life, is your time. It is the one inherent attribute we have that is a finite thing to give to another. Do you serve other people with your time? For instance, if an airman comes to you with a question while you are at your computer, do you continue to work and multitask or give them your undivided attention? Servant leadership starts with the most basic of tasks. The act of the leader simply stopping what they are doing, attentively listening, and giving their finite time to that individual is a small, but necessary example of serving that individual. Magnify this act by building upon its foundation day-after-day, and you'd be surprised how effective you'll become as a leader if you genuinely serve others from a good place.