Servant Leadership

SynchronicityServant Leadership is difficult to define.

Peter Senge, in an introduction to the book, Synchronicity, The Inner Path of Leadership by Joseph Jaworski, comments on an essay titled Servant Leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf.

“The phrase ‘Servant Leadership’ was coined by Mr. Greenleaf in ‘The Servant as Leader,’ an essay that he first published in 1970…few (books about leadership) penetrate to deeper insights into the nature of real leadership…He (Greenleaf) says that the first and most important choice a leader makes is the choice to serve, without which one’s capacity to lead is profoundly limited. That choice is not an action in the normal sense–it’s not something you do, but an expression of your being…Only when the choice to serve undergirds the moral formation of leaders does the hierarchical power that separates the leader and those led not corrupt.”

I found this concept compelling to say the least…

I have a friend who has been a social worker for over 30 years and she is still in the streets. Although not a “leader” in the sense of a CEO, she runs the office, finds the funding to keep it going, and works with clients daily. She said once that being a social worker is what she IS, not what she DOES! That really hit me as a profound statement. Her daughter is also a social worker as a direct result of her mom’s influence.

Prepare to go
As a youngster fresh out of high school and on my own for the first time, I thought it was common to see a pool cue busted over someone’s head or a beer bottle held by the neck as a weapon. When I entered the Army I thought I had some experience with smoke-filled pool rooms and bars but I realized I had entered the “big leagues” where someone could actually could, and occasionally did, get killed in a brawl. I was taught a few lessons by a mentor, “Sergeant Carter” in Augusta, Georgia, where flying glass was not uncommon even on a Saturday afternoon. Carter was at my back which kept my head and body intact and helped me learn a lot.

Jump Wings Fort BraggBefore I arrived at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, I thought I had by then learned something about leadership, but when I entered Special Forces training, I learned that for a teammate to “watch my back” was one of the essential ingredients in the life of the SF soldier. Special Forces polished those skills and taught me teamwork to a level that high school or college sports coaches cannot even imagine. Even in the military, where men can be commanded to work, I learned that you have to make them want to work for you if you want an effective team.

Without teamwork the team can die, literally and figuratively. In wartime, people die because someone did not do their part of the teamwork; back in the barracks, away from combat, the team can fall apart because its members do not work as a team together. “Through thick and thin” may be a cliché but it meant something to us.

The SF teamwork I learned is a classic example of “servant leadership” where the leaders serve the needs of the led. If they do that right, those being led will walk through hot coals or into certain death for the leader. This was a level of teamwork that made sense to me.

Servant LeaderMy last team sergeant in Special Forces, someone we respectfully called “Top,” which was short for top sergeant, had nearly 30 years on duty with 8 years in Vietnam, other parts of SE Asia, and Cuba around the time of the Bay of Pigs. I was on Top’s team for two years and he showed me the same style of leadership about which Greenleaf writes. Top said that a leader “takes care of his people first.”

In war, not recommended for children or other living things, people have to depend upon those they lead just as those being led have to depend upon their leader. In a war, leaders quickly come to the surface, if they “take care of their people,” those who are being led, will take care of these leaders. If one does not serve the other, the consequences can be fatal…

What Top showed by his example of taking care of his people first was exhibited in so many different and subtle ways I find it difficult to list them all.

Some things I remember:

  • On Fridays, he would let us know it was time to quit for the day, by grabbing a broom and start sweeping our teamhouse. By this example he showed us that we should all pitch in to clean up the team house so we could go home.
  • In the physical training area, if we ran 10 miles in formation, he was in the front of it for every step even though he was more than 10 years older than the oldest of us he led.
  • When we went into the field for operations, his rucksack was just as heavy or heavier than any of ours.
  • He was always the first to get his hands dirty and the last to wash.
  • He would be the first off the skids of a helicopter and into the fray.
  • He would often show someone (me especially) how to tie a proper knot while holding his breath 5 meters underwater.
  • He could demonstrate the most complicated of procedures regarding our sophisticated diving rigs in the simplest and most understandable way.
  • He was a teacher and by his example he led us.
    “When we work,” Top said, “we do not party, and when we party we do not work.” We never drank on duty but oftentimes, when off duty, we would “party” together. We worked as a team and played as a team and loved each other because of his ability to select us and mold us, by his example, into that team. Top could have been a private and he would still have been our leader.

    Still servingOver 20 years later, as a civilian, I lived in the same city with him for a while. I had to have surgery for my thyroid and when I woke up from the anesthesia, he was sitting in the chair in my room, waiting to see if I was OK. He simply asked me was I all right and did I need anything.

    In his mind, I was still on his team and he was still serving me…

    Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership
    by Joseph Jaworski (Preface), Betty Sue Flowers (Editor), Peter M Senge#
    Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers; 1 edition (January 1, 1996) ISBN-10: 1576750310

    Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and GreatnessBy Robert K. Greenleaf, Larry C. Spears, Stephen R. Covey
    Published by Paulist Press, 2002 ISBN 0809105543, 9780809105540

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