Servant Leadership un-neutered

In recent weeks I have had the very good fortune of working with my good friends at Code Genesys LLC who have supported me in the development of a new 2-day class in values-based leadership. Our client (already committed into a values-based approach) refers to it as “Applied Servant Leadership”, and that choice of words is quite telling.

It’s not hard to see why such a class is needed. I might characterise much of the Agile community’s understanding of Servant Leadership as little more than “unblock all the things and get out of the way”. I don’t think I’m being too unfair, and it’s woefully inadequate!

With Greenleaf as our highly-recommended (and still inspirational) reference, here’s how we might summarise it:

  1. Yes, removing impediments so that others can be successful
  2. Enabling autonomy and meaning in others as together we meet external needs in the pursuit of the organisation’s mission and purpose
  3. Developing servant leadership and servant leaders for the long term

See how recursive this is? The systems thinker will recognise that there are reinforcing loops at play here. It’s the kind of thinking that long-lived organisations have already applied – they understand that without it, their culture is unlikely to be sustained across generations. Greenleaf goes on to describe this process at the level of the individual (“The servant as leader”), the organisation and its service to society (“The institution as servant”), and the governance and stewardship that keeps it true (“Trustees as servants”). It’s stretching stuff, but still reachable.

Don’t get me wrong – there can be plenty of meaning to be found in “unblocking all the things”. But please don’t call it Servant Leadership if it stops there. Ask yourself: are you enabling others to find meaning in the mission and purposes of your organisation, and do you feel part of a system that will sustain this into the future? If not, what do you do about it?


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