It must have been around 2015/16 when I was formally introduced to ‘servant leadership’, a term coined by Robert K Greenleaf in an essay titled ‘The servant as leader’. I was attending a youth leaders’ training event and little did I know that the training event would redefine my perspective on leadership. Servant leadership totally changed my lens on how I typically viewed leadership. It is at this point when I fully understood that the core of being a leader lies in serving others. As a leader, you exist purely to serve the people.
When leaders neglect their responsibility of service to others but rather shift the focus to self, things tend to get out of hand. I am firmly convinced that the failures we continue to see in corporate SA, in government and in our society at large, can be largely attributed to the fact that leaders focus on self at the expense of others. Considering our current state of affairs as a nation, the level of corruption being reported on daily is a clear indication of how ill our society really is. It is not surprising that certain individuals saw an opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic to benefit from the plight of others, which speaks volumes about the moral fibre of our nation.
Some individuals assume leadership positions in pursuit of power. Edmund Burke once said, ‘The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.’ The world as I have come to know it is not short of leaders who are leaders first, driven by power and self-gratification. It is for this very reason that servant leadership is crucial. In the words of Greenleaf, servant leadership is the foundation of a good society. Servant leadership can serve as a moral compass.
One of the key principles of servant leadership, apart from primarily focusing on the well-being and growth of others, is power-sharing. Servant leaders are not sole leaders with power. They encourage and embrace different ideas. They build high-performance teams. I have experienced servant leaders in my career and I can only be eternally grateful to have encountered such leaders who gave me a shot at career development and always encouraged me to reach for the stars.
I implore all leaders to consider themselves servants first. It is imperative to note that as a leader your needs are secondary to those of the people to whom you are called to serve. Whether it is at work or in your community, it’s is vital to display the key principles/characteristics of servant leadership – be a good listener, show empathy, commit to the growth and development of others, be a good steward, build community.
‘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 …’ – Robert K Greenleaf