Tag Archives: The Servant as Leader

We Are Formed By Those We Serve


Servant-as-Leader-600-x-600-e1417632687696-mnm4xm6n1cq5sae1iq6ntpk08do5anyw3katv3xjaoAn 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?

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Filed under Leadership, Management, Philosophy

Systematic Neglect: Choose Your Priorities and Accept the Consequences


Like Every Function, To Be Strategic, HR Must Bring Expertise to the TableDuring the years I spent in leadership roles, two concepts became critical to my attempts to manage my time: discretionary time and systematic neglect.

I’ve written before about discretionary time—the time we can all carve out in our day to do what we think we should do. It may be fifteen minutes to check on a subordinate, or lunch with a peer to build a relationship, but we can all exercise some discretion in how we spend our time. Some organizations institutionalize the concept, as Google famously did when it encouraged employees to spend 20 percent of their time experimenting on their own projects.

Today I want to focus on the other time-management concept: “systematic neglect.” I learned about this concept in The Servant as Leader, by Robert K. Greenleaf. Mr. Greenleaf says part of a leader’s responsibility is to decide what not to do, what tasks to ignore. He says systematic neglect enables us to focus on the most important work. Specifically, he states:

The ability to withdraw and reorient oneself, if only for a moment, presumes that one has learned the art of systematic neglect, to sort out the more important from the less important — and the important from the urgent — and attend to the more important, even though there may be penalties and censure for the neglect of something else.

All of us understand the concept at some level—there is only so much time in the day. We cannot do everything, and we certainly cannot do everything at the level of quality we would like.

Although that type of triage is intuitive, a light bulb dawned for me when I read Mr. Greenleaf’s statement. Because not only does he say we need to consciously choose to do the more important work rather than the less important, he also makes clear that we must be prepared to accept the consequences of our choices.

My light bulb realization was that other people wouldn’t always agree with me on what to neglect, no matter how reasonable my choice seemed to me. I might choose to neglect a project they think is critical. When other people disagree with you about what is most important—and they will—you must accept their “censure.” You may not change their mind, but you have to accept that they will not be happy with you.

The organization I was a part of at the time embraced the philosophy of “systematic neglect.” Thereafter, there were several times when I was dismayed at the choices some of my colleagues made. They had different priorities than I did. I probably upset them, too, with my choices of what to do and what to neglect. There were heated discussions—censures and penalties—as a result.

Still, when you are prepared to accept the consequences of choosing what to do (using the concept of discretionary time) and what not to do (using the concept of systematic neglect), then you have much greater control of your time. And that lets you set and shape your priorities to a far greater extent than you might think possible.

What have you done when your priorities have differed from those of your co-workers?

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Filed under Leadership, Management, Work/Life, Workplace