In his legendary essay The Servant as Leader, Robert K. Greenleaf wrote these famous words:
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.
As a management consultant and researcher, Greenleaf realized that the organizations that thrived had leaders who acted more as supportive coaches and served the needs of both employees and organizations. As he once put it: "The organization exists for the person as much as the person exists for the organization."
And so it became his mission to push his ideas forward to transform business and the workplace. In his essays, he stressed that servant leadership emphasizes a holistic approach to work, promoting a sense of community and the sharing of power in decision-making. Unheard-of ideas during the middle of the last century.
Today, because of Greenleaf's findings, scores of successful companies worldwide embrace and practice servant leadership. These companies are known for having high trust, high employee engagement, and low turnover.
Reflecting on the quote
Notice Greenleaf said serving first "begins with the natural feeling ... " In essence, a natural feeling is intrinsic; it resides deep within a person's value or belief system. As a leader chooses to "serve first," then "conscious choice" kicks into gear -- making the practice of serving others intentional and actionable; it is what causes one to "aspire to lead" in this manner.
This inside-out leadership approach is primarily the reason why so many managers never attempt to venture into servant leadership. It's selfless leadership, and not every person is equipped to meet the high expectations that servant leadership demands.
Think about it: "The servant-leader is servant first."
When you serve first, it's for the other person's benefit. It requires the best leaders to focus their attention away from themselves and put the spotlight on their employees -- growing and empowering them first. Greenleaf studied the practices and behaviors of servant-leaders for decades and noticed that they got the best out of their employees; people were more motivated, creative, and productive, which led to improved business results.
The paradox of servant leadership
There's so much tension in the paradox of the term "servant leadership." The words servant and leader are usually thought of as being opposites. And the term is tremendously counterintuitive in command-and-control leadership structures.
In reality, servant-leaders lead with authority, but they do so by supporting the employees from the bottom up. They demand excellence and hold employees accountable for success and high performance.
Servant leadership, in the most conventional business sense, is a total commitment to creating the conditions for superior performance (by serving first). This is what it's all about. The challenge is to set aside self and focus on others to help them reach remarkable results.