Called to Serve: Servant Leadership, A Global Tradition

By Rebecca Self
Rebecca Self

After over a decade of designing and delivering leadership development experiences for some of the world's most respected companies, I still find myself in surprising exchanges almost every day.

Just this week, a young Qatari man, a frontline leader in a Qatari energy company, approached me during the lunch break of a leadership development course. He'd mentioned earlier in the day that his family has lived for almost 150 years in a village north of Doha, and he leads a team in a facility there.

"You know what this course reminds me of?" he asked.
Of course, I could have no idea.
"We have a saying in Arabic... let me see how to translate this... 'A leader is there to serve those he leads.'"
He was describing Servant Leadership... and he was excited about it. He was excited to serve the community where his family lives, to serve his company, to serve his country, to provide for the energy needs of the world.
And he could see that he was simply the next generation, the latest articulation of a long-standing, noble tradition deep in his own culture.
"Ah," I replied "Yes! We have that idea too. We call it Servant Leadership."

Every Culture has a Tradition of Servant Leadership.

The Tao Te Ching, attributed to three different people named Lao-Tzu, believed to have lived in south-central China around 500 BC says:
"The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy. ...When you are lacking in faith, Others will be unfaithful to you. ...The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’"

Indian Professor Chanakya wrote, in the 4th century BC, in his book Arthashastra:
"The king [leader] shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects [followers]" "the king [leader] is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people."

Robert Greanleaf, often credited with coining the phrase Servant Leadership in his 1970 essay "The Servant as Leader," credits Hermann Hesse’s 1932 short novel Journey to the East for inspiring his work. Hesse lived and wrote on a quiet hilltop overlooking Lugano, Switzerland. I myself lived for over five years recently just down the road, and spent many afternoons wandering the chestnut forests and quiet hillsides where Hesse worked. So often I am struck by how small our world is.

Stephen Covey, in his Foreword to the Silver Anniversary edition of Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, wrote:
“The deepest part of human nature is that which urges people—each one of us—to rise above our present circumstances and to transcend our nature. If you can appeal to it, you tap into a whole new source of human motivation. Perhaps that is why I have found Robert Greenleaf’s teaching on servant leadership to be so enormously inspiring, so uplifting, so ennobling.

There is a great movement taking place throughout the world today. Its roots, I believe, are to be found in two powerful forces. One is the dramatic globalization of markets and technology. And in a very pragmatic way, this tidal wave of change is fueling the impact of the second force: timeless, universal principles that have governed, and always will govern, all enduring success, especially those principles that give ‘air’ and ‘life’ and creative power to the human spirit that produces value in markets, organizations, families, and, most significantly, individual’s lives."

Servant Leadership is not something we need to teach. It exists across, time, space and cultures. It is truly a universal human calling.

These writers were from different continents and religious traditions. They wrote over a period spanning thousands of years. There is no ownership of servant leadership, no more or less authentic or original claim to the tradition or concept.

Servant Leadership is not something we need to teach. It exists across, time, space and cultures. It is truly a universal human calling.

How do we build on the universal call to serve?

The question becomes, how do we create organizations and cultures in which servant leadership is rewarded, encouraged and cultivated?

Larry C. Spears, President & CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership has, in studying Greenleaf's work, identified ten characteristics of the servant leader:

  • Listening
  • Empathy
  • Healing
  • Awareness
  • Persuasion
  • Conceptualization
  • Foresight
  • Stewardship
  • Commitment to the growth of people
  • Building communit

    Are these the traits your senior leaders demonstrate for younger employees? Are they the leadership behaviors normalized and lauded on a day-to-day basis?

    This is where we begin.

    The lesson for me this week is clear:

    For all our owning and appropriating the concept of Servant Leadership, it is Universal. We use, to divide and label ourselves, exactly the things that illustrate our shared humanity. Deep down, despite differences in culture and nation, gender and wealth, we each long to contribute, to share, to serve, to love our families, to be true to ourselves and our various tribes and affiliates.

    We do that in a billion different ways, and to varying degrees of success, with different motivations. That's where we differ. The rest of these fissures and divisions in the world? We've created them ourselves.

    Servant Leadership is not something that needs to be taught. It has existed within us and around us for centuries. Servant Leadership needs only to be nurtured, allowed, rewarded, and cultivated.

    People young and old the world over are called to serve, and to lead, in their own unique ways. We are the same, and united, in more ways than we can imagine. Our job is simply to pave the road for young leaders to heed the universal call to serve.