Leading is serving, first
Updated: Jan 20
Servant leadership is as old as humanity. In the Arabo-Islamic culture, leading has always gone through serving and it is affirmed that a master is only his people’s servant. –Dr. Latifa BELFAKIR
A growing interest is given to a philosophy as old as humanity itself. It is the belief that serving is leading or leading must go through serving. Leaders were conventionally considered the highest point in a hierarchy and used to talk essentially over the heads of the people they had under their control. This conception of leadership has, however, become obsolete with today’s socio-economic improvements and technological trends. Firstly, people are more in dire need of leaders who are not consumed by their own personal aspirations. Secondly, there is a genuine awareness that a people-oriented approach to leadership, where followers feel valued and involved, is more likely to benefit organizations than a leader-centered approach. It is a fact that people may work more conscientiously and collaborate more thoroughly with their leaders when they feel they are important and are empowered enough; but above all, they need to see that these leaders are exclusively enabled by the motivation to serve the common good and nothing else.
The majority of academics and professionals in different disciplines claim that we are in the glory days of a type of leadership that is tightly linked to ethics, virtues, and morality (Graham 1991; Russell 2001; Whetstone 2002) and that does not hide its preference of the followers over their leaders. In the same vein, Schneider (1987) assumes that people are the most important part in building a legacy of success in organizations. In fact, the rapidly increasing research in leadership theory happens as a reaction to the growing ‘what’s in for me’ culture that prevails in corporate leadership. The selfish business (and also political leaders), who forever have taken whole tribute for the success of their organizations, seem to be passé. In fact, a selfless and humane vision of leadership, embodied by leaders, who are even-handed and righteous, is not just more fashionable but it is also more viable. These leaders magnetically draw people towards them by their strong belief in and practice of ethics.
Besides, the moral nature of this approach is admittedly a human phenomenon; it is not related to one or the other religion or spiritual movement. However, there is no harm in linking beliefs about how leading is serving to peoples’ minds and cultures. If serving others and putting their needs prior to one’s needs is the most favored stance that a correct believer is expected to adopt from the religious point of view, the same or even more would be expected from a formally acknowledged leader. Leaders, who have been chosen by people to lead, would have high degrees of self-sacrifice and empathy before they venture into such a role. The public welfare is their only concern and their personal interests should be relegated to subsidiary positions in their agendas.
The leader, in this sense, is neither bombastic nor domineering. He is both self-assured and people-based. He is keen on putting the wellbeing of his people on top of his priorities; and in so doing he instills a climate of trust and support where the worries and dreams of the masses are never discarded; in fact, followers’ concerns are at the forefront of all discussions and decisions. The modern academic version of this type of leadership was instigated by Robert K. Greenleaf, who admitted that it was ‘just an intuitive insight’ (1977: 25). Since the publication of his seminal essay The Servant as leader (1970) the words servant leadership and servant leader have become used.
For Greenleaf, servant leadership is ignited with an earnest natural need to serve. Greenleaf believed that "a great leader is seen as servant first" (1977: 21). Then, through serving one can consciously make the decision to lead. In fact, for Greenleaf, leadership is conferred on people who never renounce to the idea that it is natural to serve. Thus, leadership is “something given or assumed that could be taken away” while the servant nature of a man was the real man and never fades away. In this sense, the individual who is a fervent believer in the leader-first approach will hardly go for the servant-leader dynamic. The leader-first leader is more self-centered and conceivably driven by an inner will to appease a personal craving for power and wish to amass material riches where the servant leaders look first to how their efforts service others’ benefits. Servant leaders boost the economically disadvantaged and the socially and politically neglected instead of hunting for positions of authority and control.
Since servant leaders’ access to leadership is bound by a vow they made to serve others, their main focus is on the growth of those served. Put in Greenleaf’s words if one is a servant, “either leader or follower, one is always searching, listening, expecting that a better wheel for these times is in the making” (Greenleaf, 1977:23). Servant leaders are “proven and trusted as servants” (p.24). While being leaders they seek to be servants first and to cater for the needs of all others around them. In possessing these traits, an individual would be classified as a servant-leader irrespective of their political affiliation or religious beliefs.
I believe that Islam and all the monotheist religions commend and encourage servant leadership by inculcating the values of selflessness, empathy and common good. The religious dictate to help the weak, senior, and the needy is not simply an indication of altruism and appreciation of the other but it is also a sign of love of the goodness in God. As it is alleged by Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him), everyone must be servant to everyone. Starting from the family unit, relatives are servants to one another: parents serve their children, the husband serves his wife and the wife serves her husband. Of course, in doing so, they are not just proving their unconditional love to one another but they are also trying to create a certain order and harmony within the boundaries of their home. Furthermore, Muslims are encouraged to emulate the same behavior outside of their home, serving others and supporting the ones in need.
Similarly, a leader in this view, must authentically be servant to his followers, and be in charge of serving them all the time. This means that if one is chosen to lead, it is because people have detected his inner drive to help and wait on others. They have, in sum, noticed that he is morally and psychologically apt to let others’ needs go before his. That’s why, it really is not easy to call someone a leader in this sense because when accepting to lead, a servant leader is allegedly swearing to be a servant first and remain a servant till the end.
To give an example from the Arabo-Islamic culture, the most powerful and influential servant leader after Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him) is Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattab. He was the prophet’s companion and emulated his behaviours and followed him wholeheartedly. During Umar’s reign, the caliphate expanded at an unprecedented rate thanks to his leadership. As the second Caliph, he showed exceptional servant leadership attributes. He had difficulty taking rest because he was consistently trying to solve others’ issues, help the elderly, support the deprived, comfort the orphan and provide for the widow. He sacrificed his well-being for his people; he deprived himself of luxuries to feed the poor. He was a night owl, moving around the place checking on people. Today, most acknowledge that he is one the most influential servant leaders the Arabo-Islamic world has known.
Finally, whatever one’s faith is there is a fairly general consensus that servant leadership is a timeless philosophy that has emerged and developed with humanity, and I believe it will dramatically continue to gain more momentum with our interest in the human welfare. I believe that servant leaders will remain the most closely linked to human conditions with its sufferings and joys, though they may be considered naïve by some of the worldly-wise.
Dr. Latifa BELFAKIR
Faculty of Letters and Humanities-Dhar Mehraz, Fez
Université Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah
Graham, J. (1991). Servant leadership in organizations: Inspirational and moral. Leadership Quarterly, 2(2), 105–119.
Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant Leadership — A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness Paulist Press. ISBN 0-8091-2527-7
Russell, R. (2001). The role of values in servant leadership. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 22(2), 76–83. CrossRef
Schneider, B. (1987). The people make the place. Personnel Psychology, 40, 437–453. CrossRef (http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.17446570.1987.tb00609.x)
Whetstone, J. (2002). Personalism and moral leadership: the servant leader with a transforming vision. Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, 25(3/4), 349–359.