You may not be familiar with the term “servant leadership,” but, as the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said on a very different topic, you’ll know it when you see it.

Despite its vaguely biblical sound, “servant leadership” was coined a mere half-century ago by Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990), who, over a 40-year career at AT&T, became disillusioned with the traditional authoritarian leadership model found in most corporations and institutions.

In 1964 he retired from AT&T and founded the Center for Applied Ethics – now the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership -- to research alternatives, and in 1970 published an essay, “The Servant as Leader,” in which the term “servant leadership” made its debut.

There’s a reason the word “servant” comes first in the phrase. Servant leaders see themselves as working for the people they lead – not being the one they work for.

According to Greenleaf, servant leadership starts with the desire to serve others. Then comes a conscious decision to make that happen by taking on a leadership role.

“The best test (of a servant leader), and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons?” he wrote. “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?“

Simply put, a “traditional” top-down leader is motivated by the power, privilege and money that leadership brings, while a servant leader is motivated by the desire to improve others’ lives. Greenleaf acknowledged, however, that these are extremes. “Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature,” he wrote. “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”

Organizations, both for-profit businesses and nonprofits, re about service – to their clients and customers, to their members, to the industry or profession they represent and, in the case of charitable organizations, to the beneficiaries of their charity. Because of that “infinite variety of human nature,” however, association leaders can be sidetracked by the perks of power and drift away from the servant leader role – especially if those around them are apathetic or inattentive. Again, to paraphrase Justice Stewart, you’ll know it when you see it.

At an orientation session for the incoming national board of WIFS, former President Michelle Harm outlined the concept of servant leadership and how it works at the board level.

“When speaking, leave ‘I’ and ‘me’” out of it,” she said. “Check your ego at the door.” In other words, it’s all about “we” before “me.”
That translates to three key points for an association board to keep in mind at all times, Harm continued:

  • When making a decision, always keep your organization's brand, mission and strategy in focus. Consider having your mission statement printed on the back of each board member’s table tent at meetings, so it is literally in front of their faces during discussions and decision-making.
  • Present a united front regardless of personal feelings about things. The board should speak with one voice
  • Board decisions should be for the long run, not short-sighted. This should go without saying, but it’s easy to forget. That’s why it’s important to keep the your strategic plan and mission statement front and center.

We’re happy to report the WIFS board gets it. They are servant leaders all the way. Are there strong differences of opinion sometimes? Of course. They’re human. But they are focused on their mission of attracting, developing and advancing women in a male-dominated industry, and their decisions and interactions reflect this.

If you would like to learn more about servant leadership, the Greenleaf Center has a wealth of information and resources.