Tuesday, November 2, 2010

One perspective about servant leadership: ‘Small s & ‘Large S’

I. : Who do you think (a) servant leader is/ are, among the people below?

A) “Leo”: The central figure, who accompanies the party as a servant, of Hermann Hesse’s story, “Journey to the East.” He was in fact the titular head of the Order, a great and noble leader (Greenleaf, 1977).
B) “Herb Kellerher”: The successful CEO of Southwest Airlines who contributed to building an organizational culture based on servant leadership principles which provide the foundation of altruism, defined as the constructive, gratifying service to others (Sendjaya & Sarros, 2002).
C) “Gen. Patton”: American general (1885-1945) who never suffered a major defeat in World War II, gaining respect from his soldiers and great popularity with civilians. In 1943, however, he slapped two physically unwounded enlisted men suffering “battle fatigue” at hospital, calling them cowards for seeking medical treatment (Lanning, 1996).
D) “Jesus Christ”: The founder of Christianity. In his lesson, he said “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (NIV Bible, Mark 10:43).

II. Which one did you select? “D)”? “B) and D)”? or “A), B) and D)”?

As it has been, the right answer exists… in your own mind. ( :D sorry.) However, I believe all of them are servant leaders in the perspective: “small s leader & large S leader”. My curiosity was that “if a certain person is a servant, then who (what) could be a master (object) of his/her effort based on servant leadership theory?” In this context, I considered it in the aspect of “the levels of the value which servant leadership pursues.” To illustrate visually, let me explain my idea with Diagram 1 as below.

Diagram 1

I would like to suggest three concepts: the range of the influence, the level of the value, and the exceptional reversal phenomenon. From the viewpoint of the range of the influence, we can horizontally expand the concept of the size of category in which servant leadership could be displayed from “A) Team” to “D) World.” At the same time, from the viewpoint of the level of value, we also vertically expand the value which servant leadership pursues from “the achievement of mission/ assignment” to “the realization of universal value.” Based on these assumptions, we can think about the possibility that exceptional situation could be happened as “the range of the influence” and “the level of value” are changed in its sub-categories/ lower levels.

Especially, the third concept, “the exceptional reversal phenomenon of servant leadership,” is the part where I place a great weight on. The anecdote of Gen. Patton, slapped two soldiers at the hospital, shows a good example of the exceptional reversal phenomenon. Obviously, his behavior slapping the soldiers should be interpreted the opposite action from the standpoint of servant leadership: primary intention (serve other first) and self-concept (servant and steward) (Sendjaya & Sarros, 2002). When we, however, pay attention to the internal motive of his behavior, we also feel his passion and enthusiasm and which make us to understand that it was not because to humiliate or insult the soldiers, but because to encourage and awaken them. Even though some people might criticize it was just the result of an uncontrolled fiery temper, he would not have slapped the soldier if he had been not an army general of United States in the World War II. As for him, it was certain that the nation was more important than the “battle fatigue” feeble soldiers (in his eyes). That is, he was a servant of the nation, the United States, who had a belief that army should be strong enough in order to protect its people and gain a victory in the war. Under special situation, military commander would choose the option to save the nation and the people even if there might be inevitable sacrifice of his soldiers. I believe it is the reason why giving one’s life for higher value is regarded as a lofty behavior.

III. Conclusion

Of course, I think this idea may bring about controversy. Because I know every military general is not a servant leader and it is also hard to say the end justifies the means. However, if a certain behavior/ leadership, which might partially/ temporarily restrained human right, were inevitable under special environment or historical background, we should not devaluate it only as an indiscreet judgment/ decision. Instead, we should understand sometimes it might be performed based on broader range of influence and higher level of value in servant leadership. Actually, in the Holly Bible, the Jesus Christ sacrifice himself not for the goal of an organization, but for the all human’s saving from sin, which was the higher and more comprehensive universal value.


Greenleaf, Robert K. “Servant Leadership,” adapted from “The Servant As Leader” (1977) in R. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power, Paulist Press, 1991.

Lanning, M. L. (1996). The Military 100: a ranking of the most influential military leaders of all time. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group.

Sendjaya, Sen and Sarros, James C. “Servant Leadership: Its Origin, Development, and Application in Organizations.” JLOS 9:2, 2002, 57-64.

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