James Heskett, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, recently wrote a short piece titled “Why Isn’t ‘ServantLeadership’ More Prevalent?”. It was published on May 1, 2013 in the Harvard Business School’s newsletter, WORKING KNOWLEDGE.
Heskett’s idea of servant leadership “is an age-old concept, a term loosely used to suggest that a leader's primary role is to serve others, especially employees.” He shares an example of what he sees as servant leadership from when he observed Service Master CEO William Pollard ask a colleague to go get him some cleaning supplies so that he could then use them to clean up a cup of coffee he had spilled. Heskett also believes that at times it requires “near-theological values” like those espoused by Herman Miller former CEO Max De Pree, or the Catholic Church’s pope who washes and kisses feet once a year.
Based on this summation of the servant leader, Heskett’s question seems to make sense. For if all it takes to be labeled a “servant leader” is to take responsibility for cleaning up your spilled coffee, or to write some books about how practicing it can make your company a profit making office furniture in the name of God and at the same time let you feel good about how your treat your employees, or if all you need to do is get down on your knees once a year to kiss a few feet and you get to carry the title; then why indeed isn’t servant leadership more prevalent?
To really understand why it is not more prevalent in our corporate capitalistic world requires a bit more in depth understanding of Robert Greenleaf’s concept of the servant-leader than that which is provided in Heskett’s excerpt. His excerpt from Greenleaf’s best test of servant leadership from the essay “The Servant as Leader” states: “The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons … (and become) more likely themselves to become servants?”
Greenleaf’s whole best test, reads as follows:
“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, not be further deprived?”
Greenleaf also amended the best test with an addition in the 1980 essay he wrote titled “Servant: Retrospect and Prospect”, which can be found on page 43 of the book THE POWER OF SERVANT LEADERSHIP. The amended test includes the closing line “No one will knowingly be hurt by the action, directly or indirectly.”
When you include looking into if those served will become “healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous”, and “what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived”, and you stipulate that in a servant leader institution that “no one will knowingly be hurt by the action, directly or indirectly”, then the answer to why servant leadership isn’t more prevalent becomes much more apparent.
Namely in our capitalistic corporate controlled world the true test for all decisions is doing whatever it takes to be profitable, and assuming that is what is best for everyone - even the least fortunate on whom our profiteers prey. And if couching ideas behind the curtain of terms like “servant leadership” helps achieve that goal than it will be adopted, especially if makes the whole pill easier to swallow. But if you can achieve profit without the nice labels, then there is no need for the label.
For more on Greenleaf’s ideas on the true servant-leader see his essay here.