By Father William J. Byron, S.J.
Catholic News Service
This season of presidential primaries has shown abundant proof that we have all but lost an appreciation of servant leadership. The term “servant leadership” dates back to the 1970s when Robert Greenleaf, a retired vice president of AT&T, published a book under that title and devoted his time to helping organizations improve the quality of their leadership.
Larry Spears is now executive director of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in Indianapolis. His center is dedicated to the “keeper-of-the-flame” mission of explaining and facilitating the adoption of servant leadership principles in contemporary organizational life.
In an introduction to a book of essays on Greenleaf’s contribution, “Reflections on Leadership: How Robert K. Greenleaf’s Theory of Servant-Leadership Influenced Today’s Top Management Thinkers,” Spears identifies 10 characteristics of servant leadership.
The first is listening. This involves “a deep commitment to listening intently to others.” Servant leaders are able to get at and clarify the will of a group because they “listen receptively.” Next is empathy. This means accepting and recognizing people for “their special and unique spirits,” thus becoming “skilled empathetic listeners.”
Third on the list is healing. Quoting Greenleaf, Spears writes that a leader’s ability to heal is “a powerful force for transformation and integration.”
Awareness is another element of servant leadership that Spears highlights. Being acutely aware of what is happening around him or her, as well as being in possession of a refined sense of self-awareness, is a necessity for any leader.
Persuasion is another characteristic. Positional authority does not confer leadership; the ability to persuade does. “Servant-leaders seek to convince others, rather than coerce compliance.” Leaders are consensus builders.
A visionary function that Spears calls “conceptualization” comes next. Leaders “must think beyond day-to-day realities.” They must seek a delicate balance between conceptualization and day-to-day focus, he writes.
Seventh on the list is foresight, a characteristic that enables servant leaders to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present and the likely consequence of a decision for the future. This is an intuitive quality.
Stewardship is next on the list. It means that the leader is not an owner, but more like a manager who holds both position and property in trust for the good of others. The leader is entrusted with the care of the resources – including people – that constitute the organization.
And the leader guides the use of all these resources with an eye to the common good. “Servant-leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As such, servant-leaders are deeply committed to the personal, professional and spiritual growth of each and every individual within the institution.”
Building community is the final item on the list. True community can be created among those who work in businesses and other institutions. All that is needed “to rebuild community as a viable life form for large numbers of people,” said Greenleaf, “is for enough servant-leaders to show the way.”
The nominating conventions for each political party will soon be upon us. Wouldn’t it be great if the idea of servant leadership found its way into the party platforms as well as the minds and hearts of the candidates who emerge from the conventions hoping to occupy the White House next January?
Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
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