By Suma Varughese February 2004 Vested with the authority of the world’s religious and spiritual texts, this paradoxical concept’s need in today’s turbulent times is now discussed by management gurus. Even practised by some business magnates, it is an Idea Whose Time Has Come The drive to be of use to the world, to cradle its scarred and wounded form sends people like Mother Teresa into action, slowly gaining the others’ gratitude, trust and love, until lo! they find themselves transformed into leaders, with a multitude of followers. Mahatma Gandhi had this to say about his own motivation: “… service to the poor has been my heart’s desire and it has always thrown me amongst the poor and enabled me to identify myself with them.” G. Narayana, of Excel Industries, empowers his people to take decisions and produce results. His motto: “Ethics creates the Energy, which creates Excellence, which builds the Economy without disturbing the Ecology.” N.R. Narayana Murthy, the founder of Infosys, is a practising servant leader. His lifestyle has not changed. His approach to the staff is also nurturing and supportive, not coercive. He calls himself the chief coach. He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel and girded himself.After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.—The Bible, St John, 13: 4-5 Tesham sukham saswatam. Tesham shanti shaswati (Infinite happiness and infinite peace come to him who sees the Self within and serves the Self in all beings).—Katha Upanishad Sardar Sirdar (He who sacrifices the most is a leader).—Guru Gobind Singh A new moral principle is emerging, which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.—Robert K. Greenleaf An ancient concept, tried, tested and vested with the authority of the world’s spiritual and religious texts, is slowly rising to the surface in today’s turbulent times. Servant leadership it is called. Management gurus are promoting it. Conferences and seminars revolve around it. Religious organisations, NGOs, educational institutions and the ordinary man on the street are engaging with it. The Internet bulges with its reference. Servant leadership. The paradoxical statement is strangely attractive. Even healing, after the glamorised, command-cracking, up-by-the-bootstrap model of leadership we are so used to. The term itself was created by Robert Greenleaf, a retired AT&T executive, in 1977 when his book, Servant Leadership, hit the stands. Greenleaf was inspired by a book by Hermann Hesse called Journey to the East, which describes a spiritual journey undertaken by a group of people. They are lovingly and devotedly taken care of by a man called Leo, who joins them in the capacity of servant. All goes well until Leo disappears and the group members find that they cannot proceed without him. The lowly servant had played an indispensable role. The group disintegrates. Years later, the narrator rediscovers Leo and finds that he was in fact the head of a monastic order, a great leader. When Greenleaf first broached the subject, it created few ripples. However, like all truly great ideas, the concept has gone deeper and deeper into mass consciousness until today it has the power and presence of an Idea Whose Time Has Come. This is the age of paradigm shifts. A huge unwieldy system is gradually moving on its axis and giving way to a new way of seeing and a new way of being. Allopathy is yielding ground to alternative medicine. New models of education abound. Yoga is taking on aerobics and spirituality is edging out religion. The outer view is being replaced by the inner view, extroversion by introspection. The emphasis today is on knowing oneself and relating to the world through the wisdom of that knowledge. This gentle approach is gradually entering the tough and manly world of leadership and transforming it. Writes Greenleaf: “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. He or she is sharply different from the person who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.” The servant leader’s motivation first and last is service. Here, for instance, is what Mahatma Gandhi, the quintessential servant-leader, says of his own motivation: “…service to the poor has been my heart’s desire and it has always thrown me amongst the poor and enabled me to identify myself with them.” This compelling drive to be of use to the world, to solve its problems, to cradle its scarred and wounded form, sends the Buddhas, the Christs, the Mahatma Gandhis and Mother Teresas into action, slowly gaining the others’ gratitude, trust, love and submission until lo! they find themselves transformed into leaders, with a multitude of followers. It is the service motive that makes servant leadership a spiritual idea, for all true service comes from an understanding of the unity of creation. Says management consultant Dr N.H. Athreya: “Either as a strategy or as conviction, unless you subscribe to the spiritual reality of things, servant leadership cannot work. For it comes from the realisation that all are children of God, and when serving mankind, you are serving God.” Adds Danah Zohar, author of the popular Spiritual Intelligence in her book, Rewiring the Corporate Brain: “A great leader serves something from beyond himself; a truly great one serves nothing less than ‘God’. Each of us is a servant of God, or the quantum vacuum, a servant of the manifold potentiality at the heart of existence.” It is this that makes the concept essentially so eastern. Says management consultant Suresh Pandit: “In India we do not say, ‘do this’ or ‘do that’. We say: ‘Be like the sun or the tree or the cow. The sun serves the whole world without discrimination by burning itself to give light. The tree and the cow both abundantly give of themselves to the service of the world. Mothers are the best example of servant leadership. So are gurus, for they give without limits to their disciples.” Swami Vivekananda once remarked: “I am the disciple of a man, who—the Brahmin of Brahmins—wanted to cleanse the house of a Pariah, and that he did day after day in order that he might make himself the servant of all. He is my hero. That hero’s life I will try to imitate. By being the servant of all, a Hindu seeks to uplift himself.”Dr Athreya refers to a couple of Indian concepts that embody the idea of servant leadership. One is that of the Rajrishi—the king as the servant of his people. This was one of the abiding principles of kingship in the ancient days, when the king derived his authority from fulfilling the needs of his people. According to Chanakya’s Raaj Dharma, the best king is one in whose kingdom women and shudras do not have tears in their eyes.The other is the concept of dasoham—the individual as the servant of all. Spiritual ideas such as atmano mokshatam jagad hitaya ca (One must work for one’s own emancipation and for the good of society) echo the servant leadership principle, where the servant leader grows in self-knowledge, skill and power as he pours himself more and more into the service of his people. In Buddhism, bodhisattvas are those who postpone their own enlightenment to be able to work for the emancipation of all beings. Can this lofty idea of service work in the ruthless cut and thrust of the corporate world? Stephen R. Covey, author of the pathfinding 7 Habits series, argues that nothing else will. He writes in a foreword to the Silver Anniversary edition of Servant Leadership, with reference to the global economy of our times: “We’ve got to produce more for less and with greater speed than we’ve ever done before. The only way to do that in a sustained way is through the empowerment of people. And the only way to get empowerment is through high-trust cultures and an empowerment philosophy that turns bosses into servants and coaches and structures and systems into nurturing institutionalised servant processes.” The very processes that have destroyed and degraded human relationships are now generating the need for greater humanity, greater caring and greater commitment to the work force. Covey continues: “…the old rules of traditional, hierarchical, high-external-control, top-down management are being dismantled: they simply aren’t working any longer. They are being replaced by a new form of ‘control’ that the chaos theory proponents call the ‘strange attraction’, a sense of vision that people are drawn to and united in, that enables them to be driven by motivation inside them towards achieving a common purpose. This has changed the role of manager from one who drives results and motivation from the outside in, to one who is servant-leader—who seeks to draw out, inspire and develop the best and highest within people from the inside out.” Radical though the concept is, it has many takers, more abroad than currently in India. Here, for instance, is a testimony from Jack Lowe, Jr of the Dallas-based TD Industries, which has consistently practised the concept in their company: “High trust results in lower cost, and low trust results in higher costs of operation. If you are doing servant leadership to make money, it won’t work. If yo
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