UNDERWOOD: Servant leadership: Is it possible?

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By Rick Underwood

In recent months we have been rendered helpless as we have watched the grieving of a community suffering through a horrific loss of 25 adult and future leaders. We have been inspired by the stories of heroism and promising futures.

Further we have been party to a divided country debating appropriate ways to respond to the tragedy and others like it. A whole lot of talk and not much action it seems. We have been moved by the events and warmed by young people who want to be a part of an answer to the problems of violence and bullying and the lack of compassion.

While the debates continue about guns, mental health and laws, the root problem lies in how we think about and treat each other. What if every child and youth was taught to treat others as they want to be treated?

Certainly there are those who don’t care and who are out to promote themselves. Even most of the leadership theories grow out of a system that works from a “power over others” model. The question arises. Are there any solutions to the problems of hatred, prejudice, and lack of respect that often times leads to bullying on a junior level and possibly violence on the senior level?



The concept of servant leadership has been around for a very long time. Although many places of faith from various traditions promote servant leadership, it is not a religious movement. Certainly the Judeo Christian faith is more than compatible with the focus.

Servant leadership is a way of thinking and behaving that is compatible with most religious belief systems and draws from the best of all the world religions.

The modern proponent and spokesman of the servant leadership approach is Robert G. Greenleaf. He summarizes the essence of the movement as “a new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant statue of the leader. Those who choose to follow this principle will not casually accept the authority of existing institutions. Rather, they will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted servants. To the extent that this principle prevails in the future, the only truly viable institutions will be those that are predominantly servant-led.”

Behaviors generally associated with servant leadership include but are not exclusive to the following list:

§  Listening.

§  Empathy.

§  Healing for oneself and others by making healthy choices.

§  Awareness of the feelings and values of self and others.

§  Persuasive or inspirational in empowering others to succeed.

§  The ability to create a compelling vision.

§  Foresight or the ability to learn from the past while exploring possible solutions for the future.

§  Stewardship or the ability to use resources responsibly and to value what is good in the world.

§  Commitment to the growth of others.

§  Building community or the ability to ask not what our communities can do for us but rather what we can do for our communities to make them better.

§  Compassion and respect and restorative justice.

Some youth and adults naturally embody these behaviors. But the truth is that most of us have to learn them.

Thank goodness this cadre of behaviors can be learned and developed. Schools, churches and some businesses and non-profit organizations address these development issues in a variety of ways. But can we do more?



What if every parent committed themselves to modeling and teaching these servant leadership values and behaviors from the time a child begins to emerge from that selfish stage of development.

Certainly children need to learn to love themselves in a healthy way. But what if that was balanced with a healthy dose of the servant leadership values? Rather than giving our children everything they want, what if we took some of those resources and involved our children in giving some of those resources to those who need them more than we do?

What if we as parents took some of our resources and actually used them to make a difference in someone else’s life? These teachings could be based on whatever spiritual or religious faith practiced by the family.

What if our schools integrated these servant leadership principles into the curriculum? Obviously the learning of these values and behaviors would have to be acted on. Instead of just talking about or memorizing a list of the theory, what if a part of the curriculum involved the doing projects that applies the theory. A few ideas that are already practiced in some schools are as follows:

§  Community service projects.

§  Peer conflict resolution committees.

§  Research about those who have led cultural change initiatives.

§  Academic credit for doing specific service projects.

William Arthur Ward summarizes what needs to happen in this learning process: “We must be silent before we can listen. We must listen before we can learn. We must learn before we can prepare. We must prepare before we can serve. We must serve before we can lead.”

What if students graduating from high school would serve two years in the Peace Corp., America Corp. or some faith group equivalent? These two years would allow them to leave home, travel, meet other kinds of people, learn to support themselves on a small salary, provide help to those who need it the most, discover what their weaknesses and strengths are and mature. After this time of serving their fellow man and womankind, they would know more about what they want to do with their life. Naturally, their participation in advanced education whether technical or academic would be more meaningful. The servant leadership skills could be integrated into their personhood and prepare them for future work. John Quincy Adams had the foresight as to how this process might work when he said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”


How about businesses

What if every business or organization embraced a servant leadership model? Instead of making the “bottom line” of how much money can be made the primary motive, what if more organizations focused on creating the best possible experience for their customer and encouraged work environments that ultimately engaged each employee with meaningful work? Instead of bosses becoming full of ego satisfaction and greed, what if they fully embraced the notion that we are all in this together to serve others the best we can.

Noted business consultant and author Peter F. Drucker points toward this kind of culture when he says, “The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me never say I. And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say I. They don’t think I. They think we; they think team. They understand their jobs to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but we get the credit.…This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done.”

What if our representatives in the state legislature and national congress were to model this kind of servant model? Well, I am not going there.…I’m just saying.

Perhaps, you are thinking this is fantasy and unrealistic, but is it? Can we at least have a conversation about it? Is some of this already being done here in Shelby County? Can we do more?

If more of this servant leadership approach was taught, preached, modeled, and demonstrated would it reduce bullying, violence, mental health issues, and addictions? What do you think?


Rick Underwood is minister at Hempridge Baptist Church and a performance consultant and managing partner of the Leadership Management Institute. He can be reached at nextlevelinstitute@insightbb.com.