At this time in American history, in addition to a treatment and a vaccine to effectively manage the Covid-19 pandemic, I would argue that what we need most is courageous and moral leadership in the government, corporations, mass media and institutions. My daughter, Jennifer Smith Miller, is a leader in the field of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Above, she addressed an audience of leaders in childhood education. I’m biased of course, but those who work with her would readily agree that she could be the poster child for one who lives the values of Servant Leadership because she continuously emphasizes, “It’s all about the kids.”
It’s not realistic to hope or expect that our leaders will adopt the characteristics of the servant leader specified by Robert Greenleaf in 1970, but his criteria can provide us with insight into the qualities that optimize a leader’s effectiveness, particularly when assessing current and emerging leaders across the board.
The deeper territory of leadership is in collectively ‘listening’ to what is wanting to emerge in the world, and then having the courage to do what is required.”
The defining characteristic of a servant leader is the desire to serve, managing with humility and empathy on behalf of those at the bottom as well as the top of the social pyramid. He or she listens with full attention to understand other people’s ideas and perspectives, will put aside his viewpoint temporarily to keep an open mind and use the power of persuasion rather than authority to encourage people to take action. While traditional managers strive to “get it right,” the servant-leader consistently can be counted upon to “do the right thing.” In such a climate, members of the team raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality in the pursuit of their goals.
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?
The servant-leader leads to learn, not win. She engages the team in considering options based on experience, factual information and intuition, examining the consequences of proposed actions, involves them in decisions where appropriate, builds a sense of community and operates ethically with transparency. The result is higher engagement, more trust, increased innovation and stronger relationships.
(Management is) “the act of relationship building in order to achieve mutual objectives for mutual gain.”
From the perspective of living systems, servant leadership is ideal because the focus is on maintaining and promoting the full functioning of the system’s parts—members. It follows the systems principle: “When the parts of a system are in functional relationship to one another, the whole takes care of itself.”
I write this on the day that the body of John Robert Lewis lies in state at the U.S. Capitol. We are grateful for his example of servant leadership. May it be a model for all who choose public service.
Greenleaf, Robert. Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002.
Greenleaf, Robert. The servant as leader. Indianapolis, IN: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center, 1991.
Miller, Jennifer S. Confident Parents, Confident Kids: Raising Emotional Intelligence in Ourselves and Our Kids—From Toddlers to Teenagers. Beverly, MA: Quarto Publishing Group, 2020.
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