Is the term Servant Leadership* and oxymoron? Believe it or not, Servant Leadership is a concept that is as old as time, and is one often misunderstood and thought of as an oxymoron in a parochial sense. The term “servant” is generally defined as a person who performs duties for others, especially a person employed in a house on domestic duties or as a personal attendant. Whereas, when we traditionally think about leadership we might think of the man leading his men over the wall in the midst of battle; Audie Murphy, Joh Wayne, Chesty Puller(for the Marines reading this), etc… As well we are inspired by great men such as Gandhi, Mandela and Lincoln.
So how is it that these two terms find themselves combined and what does it mean to me? First, to draw on my time in the Marine Corps, ingrained in us from the first day is, “take care of your men.” How we take care of our men varies in many ways. Sometimes it comes in the form of annealing them for battle, going through ordeals of personal survival and hardship; or encouraging them when they stumble; or instilling the sense of duty and honor where men embrace the Bible verse “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.”
In other ways we see examples where the leader sees that his men are fed first, have the best supply chain of food and equipment, and is the one who places himself in harms way before exposing his men to danger. We see him exercising love and compassion for another human being, and knows and exercises the essence of the Golden Rule. It is in these ways that we recognize the traits of a servant leader; a man who serves his men so they can be, or become, their best so that when on the front lines, whether in business or battle, they are ready, willing and able to accomplish the mission at hand.
Servant leadership is no different in business. It can be said that Southwest Airlines is in a life and death business that parallels the armed services. If someone does not do their job, people die. One of their mantras is, “If you take care of your people they will take care of the customer, and the customer will take care of the profits.” Again, it begins with taking care of your people.
I do not believe servant leadership is an oxymoron. In fact, the essence of what true leadership embodies “is” servant leadership.
* The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader”, an essay that he first published in 1970.