By Suma Varughese
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
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).
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 you are doing it for the right reasons—the honest desire to help others—it pays great dividends.”
Here in India, Excel Industries, a company that manufactures agrochemicals, industrial chemicals and pesticides, has been practising servant leadership with remarkable success. G. Narayana, its Executive Chairman, is referred to as Narayan Guruji. Narayana forms groups of people and motivates them to produce the required results. Decisions are taken jointly. His motto: “Ethics creates the Energy, which creates Excellence which builds the Economy without disturbing the Ecology.” Such a policy has stunningly contributed to the bottomline. Says he: “From 1989 to 1997, we grew from Rs 40 crore to Rs 418 crore.”
Suresh Pandit mentions the name of N.R. Narayana Murthy, the founder of Infosys, as a practising servant leader. “He came from a household that could ill-afford education and today he is one of the richest men in India. Yet his lifestyle has not changed. His approach to the staff is also nurturing and supportive, not coercive. He calls himself the chief coach.”
Dr Athreya proffers the name of that other software great, the soft-spoken, low-key Azim Premji, as embodying the qualities of servant leadership.
In his book, Indian Wisdom for Management, Swami Someshwarananda, founder of the Vivekananda Centre for Indian Management, explains why servant leadership works. He says: “Caring for others and helping them to solve their problems makes you popular and therefore influential, which vests you with power.”
Because servant leadership is humane, focused on the welfare of the people it serves and effective, it is striking a chord not just in business organisations but in many diverse groups such as NGOs, charitable bodies, educational institutions and religious groups.
In a speech to a group of NGOs, Margaret Wheatley, president of the Berkana Institute and Principal of Kellner-Rogers & Wheatley Inc., says: “(As)… a leader, you need to be a person who has more faith in people than they do in themselves. More faith in people’s capacity than they do in themselves because people have lost their way.”
For religious organisations in the West, Jesus Christ is the powerful role model of servant leadership. The night of the Last Supper, he ceremoniously washed the feet of his disciples and admonished them: “…If I then, your Lord and Master, has washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
On another occasion, he said: “… but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister. And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (St Mark: 10, 43-45).
Christ, Buddha and Moses are the three figures most well-known as quintessential servant leaders, but most of the great leaders of history have embodied some, if not all, of the principles of servant-leadership, for these ideas are eternal and unchanging, based on the laws of life itself.
What are these principles? All of them follow from the idea of service.
Writes Robert Greenleaf in his book, Servant as Leader: “The best test, and difficult to administer, is: 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, will they not be further deprived?”
Greenleaf advocates an essentially spiritual approach to the concept of leadership whose wellsprings are openness, the ability to listen, humility, the cultivation of intuition as a means to insight, introspection and faith—the cultivation of soft skills, in essence.
He writes: “I did not get the notion of the servant as leader from conscious logic. Rather, it came to me as an intuitive insight as I contemplated Leo…. Serving and leading are still mostly intuition-based concepts in my thinking.”
Greenleaf places a great importance on intuition, which he describes as “a feel for patterns, the ability to generalise based on what happened previously. Wise leaders know when to bet on these intuitive leads, but they always know that they are betting on percentages.”
Intuition is of invaluable aid to the leader because it enables him to access knowledge not available at the rational, logical level. He adds: “The leader needs to have a sense for the unknowable and be able to foresee the unforeseeable.”
One of the most important qualities of a servant leader, according to Greenleaf, is the ability to accept his people unconditionally. “It is part of the enigma of human nature that the ‘typical’ person—immature, stumbling, inept, lazy—is capable of great dedication and heroism if wisely led. Many otherwise able people are disqualified to lead because they cannot work with and through the half-people who are all there are.”
Having worked for a servant-leader myself, Nari Hira, founder of the Magna group of magazines, I can testify how empowering the process can be. He had this marvellous ability to pick relatively unknown people and give them the stewardship of his magazines. He would then shower them with so much respect, faith and support that miracles would happen. Under-achievers would become super achievers. The shy and inarticulate would find their voice. The cynical and disinterested would become furiously committed. His secret, as Greenleaf says, was an unconditional acceptance of the individual and an unshakeable belief in their potential. Under his genial influence, I changed from a shy, gawky, underconfident and confused person to one who understood (somewhat) what life was about and what she stood for.
Servant leaders transform people and bring out what they themselves don’t suspect is in them.
One of the key qualities of the true servant leader is that he is chosen by the people. When Mahatma Gandhi was returning to India after the conclusion of the case for which he had gone to South Africa, he was given a farewell party by his client, Seth Abdullah. Over there, he mentioned his concern for the Bill that was then before the House of Legislature that sought to deprive Indians of their franchise. Before he quite knew it, he had been elected by the people to stay on and fight for their rights. This was the beginning of his mission to serve humanity.
I was once part of a group of friends who went on several outings and picnics. At the very outset of the activities one among us distinguished himself by the way he tenderly cared for an injured member of the party. Soon, he was spontaneously elected leader of the group and we trusted him implicitly with money, planning and other details. He was our chief and we went wherever he led us.
Indu Kohli is the Asia-Pacific head of training for an International NGO, Habitat for Humanity, which believes strongly in the concept of Servant Leadership. She says: “A servant leader leads by example. He does what he wants others to do.” She cites the case of her superior, Steven Weir, who embodies it. She says: “No job is too small for him to do. Even if he wanted some photo-copying done and we were in the cabin, he would insist on doing the task himself rather than giving it to us. And he keeps a low profile at conferences and meetings, while encouraging us to come forward and handle the show. Such an attitude makes you very motivated and generates loyalty and trust. We are allowed to be human because he too is human. The bottomline is that you grow and flower in that environment. ”
Dhirubhai Mehta, the Executive Secretary and Director General of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and President of the Kasturba Gandhi Trust, emphasises the need for the leader to share his people’s travails and problems. During the Bodo struggle in Assam, he had gone to meet some of the women workers of the Kasturba Gandhi Trust who were bravely preaching peace among the terrorists. However, the protocol office of the state government met him and advised him not to venture into the turbulent terrorist zone. Says he: “I asked him, ‘Where is my sevika?’ He told me that she was in the middle of the unrest. I told him: ‘Then I will go tomorrow morning. Don’t stop me.” He adds: “You cannot lead by sitting in air-conditioned cabins.”
Servant leadership is creative, argues Greenleaf. Because it stems from a genuine concern for the people and not from external motivations such as the need for money or power, its prescriptions and solutions are original and unique to the particular problem. He cites the case of the Danish theologian, Bishop Nikolai Grundtwig, who almost single-handedly uplifted Danish peasantry by designing and popularising Folk High Schools, where they were exposed to the culture and heritage of their land in an accessible way and encouraged to develop a national identity. In time, from being downtrodden and illiterate, they became the backbone of Danish society. A remarkable achievement and one we in India could well emulate.
Servant leadership inevitably leads to larger issues, for it ultimately leads to a desire to serve the society at large. Greenleaf’s concern revolves around the formation of communities where everyone, from the sick to the mentally retarded to the orphans and the aged can find a place. He deplores the present practice of caring for the sick in hospitals and taking care of the aged in special homes. These homes separate them from the community and deprive them of the love and care that only personal caring can give. Institutions, he argues, cannot give love. He cites the case of orphans who are now taken care of in foster homes because it was understood that children needed love that orphanages could not provide.
Gandhi, too, in his fervent focus on the larger weal, designed economic, political and social systems that are unique and suited to Indian conditions. His concepts of the panchayati raj (decentralised governance with power vested in local village leaders) and trusteeship (where wealth and property are treated as a trust to be used for the welfare of the people) are ideas whose time will one day come.
It’s not too far-fetched to think that if the concept of servant leadership takes deep root, the average corporate honcho will one day design and operate from holistic models of production, which will benefit the environment, society and the company. No more profit motive, no more buccaneering in the name of globalisation and liberalisation; no more degradation of the environment. The service motive will etch out its own ethic.
Perhaps we will live happily ever after, eventually.
Servent leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf,
magna publishing, Rs 175
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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.