by Collective Intelligence* (Apr 6 , 2012)
The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. […] The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature. […]
The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: 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?
Nelson Mandela, a beacon of secular leadership, loved to reminisce about his boyhood and his lazy afternoons herding cattle. “You know,” he would say, “you can only lead them from behind.” As a boy, Mandela was greatly influenced by Jongintaba, the tribal king who raised him. When Jongintaba had meetings of his court, the men gathered in a circle, and only after all had spoken did the king begin to speak. The chief’s job, Mandela said, was not to tell people what to do but to form a consensus. “Don’t enter the debate too early,” he used to say.
Now take the example of Jesus. On the night before he died, Jesus rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist. So when he had washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them: “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master’, and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I therefore, the master and teacher, have served you, so you are to serve one another. I have given you a model to follow.”
Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, Vimala Thakar, Vinoba Bhave, César Chávez, Ishwar Patel or so may other servant leaders, at the moment of their deaths carried a mind full of love and compassion, saying a great deal about how they lived their lives. Perhaps, when the work becomes more important than the worker, the leader naturally turns into a servant.