Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Servant Leadership and the Real World

I believe in Servant Leadership's efficacy in the real world. After our discussion of servant leadership, I felt that the topic deserved some further investigation. There exists in Indiana the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, which was originally founded by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1964. I decided to blog about this Center because I think the Center's existence, and more importantly the significance of its supporters show that the philosophy of Servant Leadership has a real presence in many the world's top organizations.

To begin with, the Center's President, Kent M. Keith, lists the following as key practices of servant leaders. These points helped me to view servant leadership in a more practical light: Self-Awareness, Listening, Changing the Pyramid (that is, the traditional hierarchical "boss" structure), Developing Colleagues, Coaching - Not Controlling, Unleashing the Energy and Intelligence of Others, and Foresight.

The Center's Board of Directors includes business and education leaders from around the world. I was most struck by the first person mentioned: Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks North America and Starbucks International. Behar joined Starbucks in 1989 and became president of Starbucks International in 1995 before retiring as Starbucks North America in 2003. Behar champions Servant Leadership. In a forward to James Autry's The Servant Leader, Behar describes how the philosophy of Servant Leadership rejuvenated Starbucks, and in his own book, It's Not About the Coffee, Behar writes that "the person who is a servant of all is the most capable leader," before referring to Greenleaf's The Servant as Leader.

Behar brought the ideas of Servant Leadership to Starbucks because there was something missing in the corporate culture. Rather than working as a cohesive team, Starbucks was a collection of individuals. I think that the fact that Starbucks was led by such a significant proponent of Servant Leadership during the company's most successful period shows that there is something to be said for the practical aspect of Servant Leadership.


  1. I agree with you Mike. I think that Servant Leadership can serve it's purpose in bringing empowerment which we have learned from Choi and McGregor are effective ways of being a leader and influencing and inspiring others. Also, like we discussed in class, this has to come from a genuine place. It seems that the idea of Servant Leadership may also be a matter of traits, and possibly traits you are born with or maybe raised with. Something I wonder is if this idea is more common for women than for men. I feel like as a woman we are taught to serve. Is this something that gives woman power, or does it take it away? Something else to think about.

  2. Hey Mike,
    Thanks for this post. I think you have some excellent timing considering our HP case study for tonight. In both Starbucks and HP, there was a certain type of leadership in place that made it profitable and then a change in leadership style that ultimately resulted in a decrease of profits/revenue. For Starbucks (and from my seemingly limited point of view as I don't know the ins and outs of each company), it went from servant leadership to authoritarian. For HP, it went from what Geneen and the HP founders call participatory leadership to Fiorina's definite authoritarian style of leadership. Does this perhaps have implications to a certain downside of authoritarian leadership in American business practices? If so, what is it that drives CEOs and execs to utilize this style? Is there a correlation between opportunism and authoritarianism (ie: those who see an opportunity for increase profits/revenue gravitate to authoritarianism so to achieve their goal)?

  3. Thanks for your post Mike. In last week's class, I was struggling with the concept of servant leadership, but this post helped me think about it a little differently. I was having the most trouble thinking about servant leadership as a form of leadership that could "stand alone." I think after the discussion and your post I am understanding servant leadership as more of a supplement to other types of leadership. I think you can be a certain kind of leader and then act in a way that is servent-like in your relationships with followers. This happens through the way you empower your followers by helping them develop as followers, by listening,and coaching.

  4. Good blog, Mike. I definitely agree that servant leadership can and does take place in the real world. It's interesting to me that we had such a discussion last week in class about servant leadership standing alone. Have we really found any type of leadership that can stand alone??? It seems as if most can build on eachother. I want to take a second and comment on both Marissa and Cynthia's comments.

    Marissa, I agree with you that servant leadership is most likely based on a set of traits. In our first set of readings, DePree briefly mentions that the role of the leader is to be a servant first and then he continues to talk about effective traits we see in leaders. The most important part of servant leadership to me is that the person is a servant first. And I believe this desire to serve comes from within that person. I think it’s interesting that you mentioned servant leadership as it pertains to women. My first instinct would be to say that maybe women do have the upper hand at this, but in reality I don’t think they do. Women who exhibit this type of leadership may be perceived by their followers and co workers as weak or lacking a backbone. I think most of these perceptions are formed because of a lack of understanding of what servant leadership actually is, but that just hurts the leader. On the flip side though, if women use an authoritarian style (Like Fiorina in the HP case) they may be perceived as a heartless bitch (excuse my language). Of course, it does depend on the organization the woman is leading, but what this says to me is that women have to be extra careful when deciding what type of leadership style to use. And furthermore, women (and men) as leaders have to be able to use more than one style. So what does this mean for people who are from cultures that may not value serving others like we do? What would they think of a leader that exhibited this type of leadership?

    Cynthia, you bring up a great point. I’ve wondered too why leaders choose to use an authoritarian style when it seems to be proven to be the least effective. One explanation I have is that people may not be outright choosing this style: it just kind of happens. Have you ever walked into a great big mess of a situation where the people around you don’t necessarily think that you’re the right person to clean up the mess? I think that right from the start I would feel pretty defensive and I would want to prove these people wrong. In fact I might just lay down the law so these people would know that I meant business. Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s the most effective way to lead, but it’s instinctive to try to overcompensate for the fact that everyone thinks I shouldn’t be the leader. Now I’m not saying that I didn’t choose to be authoritarian because I did make that decision, but in some cases I think this style can be effective in the short run. The problems come, though, when your only style is authoritarian. And as far as the authoritarian style as it relates to opportunism, I think they are related. If you get caught up in taking extreme efforts to make money I think because of your need for control you almost have to use an authoritarian style.

  5. Hello Mike,

    You brought up some good questions. In response to "Is success measured in terms of the amount of money generated for research or by the number of activists who have joined the cause?", it could be both. Success could have hard results such as increased membership or donations, but there are also softer results that would be hard to measure (like increased awareness and lifestyle changes).

    For your second question, "Can you actually set criteria to measure the success of servant leadership?", I think the criteria set would aim at measuring the impact. The criteria doesn't have to be specific to servant leadership if your main goal is to see the final result of certain leaders.

    By the way, if you come up with a way to measure it - be so kind as to share it with the Tuesday night Analyzing Org class. How the heck do you measure the influence or impact of a partnership? Could we not get a more ambiguous project?

    For the third quesion, ". . . servant leadership does not necessarily lead to a particular means end as long as the leader is working to develop his or her followers to likely become servants themselves?"

    Interesting thought. I think creating more servants who support the same vision is the means to achieve the end. The more servants you have doing your type of work can create an exponential effect, so of like paying it forward.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.