An acquaintance recently quoted something he’d been told in a leadership development program: “You will be formed by the people you serve.” The program was for leaders in non-profit institutions, and so the service element made particular sense. But I have been pondering that statement for its relevance in all leadership contexts—no matter what organization you are a part of, you serve someone, and you are in fact formed by the people you serve.
I’ve mentioned “servant leadership” before, a philosophy named by Robert K. Greenleaf. My point in my earlier post was that leaders who engage in systematic neglect—who focus on what they think is important and ignore other issues—must accept the consequences of not doing what they neglect. This post examines the root of servant leadership.
In the introduction to The Servant as Leader, Mr. Greenleaf stated
“ A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.”
He describes the servant-leader as follows:
“The servant-leader is servant first . . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve — after leadership is established. . . .
“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?”
This is a high standard—to want to serve first, to meet others’ highest priority needs first, to help those served grow as persons. But think of what it means to one’s own development to aspire to this standard. If I aspire to serve, will I not in fact be formed by my attempts to serve?
If I seek to meet others’ needs, then I will become more discerning of what those needs are. If I seek to aid in others’ development, to make them healthier, wiser, and more autonomous, I will certainly become wiser myself and less autocratic. If I seek to benefit—or at least avoid depriving—the less fortunate, I must first become more humane and empathetic.
I think back on my own career. I admit freely that servant-leadership was often no more than an aspiration, and even more often not even on my radar screen. I fell far short of achieving any type of servant status.
Yet the people who reported to me formed me. Some brought substantive expertise to our department that I did not have, and they taught me. Some had far more emotional intelligence than I have, and they saw issues I glossed over. Some pushed at me when I didn’t want to be pushed, and made me a better and more articulate manager than I otherwise would have been.
Even before we are leaders in an organization, we serve. We have bosses. We have clients. These individuals form us also. So even before I was a manager, I was being formed by those individuals I served. Most of my bosses taught me both about our substantive areas of expertise and about corporate politics. Some of my bosses taught me positively by their examples, and others demonstrated behaviors I didn’t want to develop. My clients pushed me and pulled me to get their questions answered and their needs met. They shaped the expertise I developed.
In every case, I was formed by those I served.
When were you formed by who you served?