This is the first post of two. 

In 1970 Robert Greenleaf wrote about servant leaders. He was the first. It was born out of his need to do something about a leadership crisis in the United States. It seems some things haven’t changed.

Today with global awareness of societies and economies we know that the leadership crisis is not contained within the U.S. (Not that it was in 1970, either.) Yet despite our increased awareness of others, our acceptance of differences is pitiful.

We don’t only have a leadership crisis, we also have a crisis in humanity.

Humanity is the embodiment of the human condition including kindness, generosity, compassion and understanding. It also includes the “darker” sides: fear, aggression, pain. No matter the “good” or the “dark” aspects, it’s how we use them in our relationships that matter most. The darker sides can certainly bring about good.

Indeed we have strong evidence of both leadership and humanity in organizations. But is it enough? Is it at a level to help leaders guide employees through the difficult challenges and changes to thrive in the 21st century? No.

No matter the century, decade, or year crises are constant, part of the human reality. So, too, is our need to do something to counter the harshness wrapped within them. The human reality is not characterized only by the outcomes of our poor decisions. It’s also marked by our ability to triumph, to make light out of the dark.

The actions required to make light out of darkness are not those rooted solely in familiarity. The complexities of our world today demand more from us. Leaders, positional or influential, must reach deep within their aspirations to guide us through today’s crises.

Because the human condition is marred by struggle and made bright by triumph, Mr. Greenleaf’s distinction of servant leadership still matters today. In fact the demands in our world, I assert, put this leadership style in greater need. We need more leaders willing to remind us and show us how to do the impossible. How to tap into “what-if” without ridicule. We need more leaders willing to stand alone, if needed, and serve their employees in a way that unleashes talent, camaraderie, unity. We need more leaders willing to look into the allure of greed, self-preservation, and acts of self-interests and say, “No. That’s not me,” or “That’s not me anymore.”

If you scoff at such notions, look at what Vineet Nayar has done at HCL. He’s inverted the broken and familiar top-down hierarchy and placed employees on the top. Why?

  • He knows it’s employees who make things happen that directly impact and matter to customers.
  • He understands human nature impels us to want to contribute and make a difference in the places we live.
  • He places managers in a service capacity to help make employees’ jobs easier.
  • More simply stated, managers serve employees to move barriers out of their way.

This isn’t a new leadership notion. But it is a rare example of a leader who actually made the notion something real.

We live in a time where employees everywhere have grown tired of self-serving power structures. Where executives give themselves millions of dollars despite underperforming and disappointing investors, for example Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit.

But what is servant leadership? Mr. Greenleaf explains

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.

In the follow-up post, I’ll list seven attributes of a servant leader fit for the 21st century.

Graphic by Shawn Murphy