Servant Leadership for a VUCA World

As I discussed in my last post, most people in organizational life these days find they live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world.  This inspires people in both public and private organizations to pursue agility as a means for thriving in the present and the future.

Servant Leadership is the most well-known and, perhaps, the oldest leadership theory recognized by many people as valuable for supporting agile teams and organizational agility overall.  Servant Leadership is a philosophy of leadership and is scant on leadership tactics and methods—things you do as a servant leader while you are thinking and acting like a servant leader.  This post relates directly to the essay which launched the servant leader model with specific references so that you may continue reading on your own.

The creator of servant leadership, Robert K. Greenleaf, was an organization man.  He had worked for AT&T for many years and researched management practices for forty years.  Taking an early retirement, he founded the Center for Applied Ethics which later became the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

Greenleaf published Servant Leadership:  A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness in 1977 but it is the first chapter in this book “The Servant as Leader,” written in 1969, describes his vision for the servant leader.  After describing the genesis for his own writing as a result of many years of corporate experience and thinking about the kind of leaders who will be needed in the future, crystallized by a reading of Hesse’s Journey to the East, Greenleaf briefly describes the notion of servant as leader.

Greenleaf describes the servant-leader as “servant first . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”  He identifies the key indicator of a servant-leader that the served “grow as persons.”

While Greenleaf did write extensively about the why of servant leadership, there is not much about “how.”  There is one key evaluative standard that helps determine whether a servant leader is present.  It focuses on the state this kind of leader generates in the follower and makes clear that a servant leader is known by his outcomes, not his espoused theoretical stance.  This standard is called the “best test” in leadership literature:

“Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”  (pp. 13-14).

In the same essay, Greenleaf presents his understanding of prophecy and the notion of contemporary prophets, a prophet being somewhat different from a leader in the popular imagination in that the existence of the prophet does not imply a group of adherents or followers.  Greenleaf writes, “I now embrace the theory of prophecy which holds that prophetic voices of great clarity, and with a quality of insight equal to that of any age, are speaking cogently all of the time” (p. 8).  With regard to power and authority he writes that people are beginning to learn to lead and relate to each other in less coercive and more creative ways.

He relates this to a moral principle, new at the time of his writing, which says that only leaders whose authority is granted by the led are worthy to lead.  This leads to the presumption that followers who hold this principle will neither casually nor automatically accept the authority of existing institutions but will “freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants” (pp. 9-10).  Of particular interest to leaders trying to understand Greenleaf’s intention about the power dynamic between leaders and followers may be his comment that, “(m)y good society will have strong individualism amidst community,”  (p. 13).

Greenleaf ascribes the quality of initiative to leaders (p. 15), and being good listeners to natural servant leaders—they “listen first” because “listening builds strength in other people” (italics mine), and he quotes St. Francis:  “Lord, grant that I may not seek so much to be understood as to understand” (p. 17).

The pages of the essay provide advice, examples, and cautions to the servant leader including the wisdom of withdrawing and recuperating, the value of acceptance (“receiving what is offered, with approbation, satisfaction, or acquiescence”) and empathy (“imaginative projection of one’s own consciousness into another being”) when dealing with others.  Then Greenleaf enters a consideration of the leader’s consciousness itself, her intuitive ability, foresightfulness, awareness, and perceptivity in which he does not distinguish servant leadership from other modes of leadership.

Then he uses the example of abolitionist John Woolman as an example of the practice of persuasion, who was a servant leader because he aspired to free the best in others (pp. 29-30), and Thomas Jefferson as an example of stepwise acting out of who one is, making one’s own choices even in the face of the flattery of being offered powerful and influential positions “he knew who he was and he resolved to be his own man” (p. 31).

He identifies “conceptualizing” or envisioning as “the prime leadership talent,” (p. 32) and considers the dual nature of power and authority.  Greenleaf writes, “Part of our dilemma is that all leadership is, to some extent, manipulative.  Those who follow must be strong!” (p. 42) and apparently, this strength is to be engendered by the servant-leader who sees to it that the followers become “healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous” (p. 13).

Servant-leaders appropriately see themselves as part of the system they serve.  The problems they encounter are seen as “in here, not out there” (pp. 43-44).  And Greenleaf identified the enemy of servant leadership as “strong natural servants who have the potential to lead but do not lead, or who choose to follow a non-servant.  They suffer.  Society suffers” (p.45).

Servant leadership supports business agility by focusing on growing the competency and wholeness of the follower.  But, it doesn’t provide much specific guidance on tools for doing this.  Additionally, many people have been uncomfortable by its religious grounding, though I have seen remarkably clear secular expressions of servant leadership, Peter Block’s stewardship model be an excellent example of this.

Servant leadership is an excellent lens for leaders in a VUCA world, but it has its challenges and limitations and may not meet all the needs of a leader who seeks to evolve the context she is in and to simultaneously evolve through the course of her work.


Source:  Greenleaf, R. K. (1991).  Servant Leadership:  A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.  Mahwah, NJ:  Paulist Press.

Related post:  Forms of Leadership in a VUCA World

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