Let's Put Service Back into Leadership



You don’t have to look very hard these days to recognize the role greed plays in our overall society. If you need proof, here are some examples:

  • Pharmaceutical companies charge Americans 2 – 6 times more for prescription drugs than all other countries just because they can. Remember Mylan CEO, Heather Bresch’s, 600% price increase of Epi-Pens over a decade?

  • Almost all airlines are charging for checked bags, seats and drinks. They are now contemplating charging for carry-on bags.

  • Politicians on both sides of the aisle won’t express their own common-sense values or beliefs out of fear of losing political or financial support for their personal re-election.

  • How about that kid who always emptied the whole bowl of candy at Halloween into his bag when the sign said just take two?


If you are as old as I am, you remember the Oliver Stone movie, Wall Street. In the film, the “villain,” Gordon Gekko, famously states


“that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”


Since the movie’s release in 1987 a cult of personality developed around the Gekko character and many actual Wall Street brokers and analysts (jokingly or not) credit the character with inspiring their career choice. Many argue there is strong evidence to support the idea that relentless pursuit of profits, investment returns, and growth stimulates innovation, greater efficiencies and culls out weakness from the market and systems. It is one of the primary motivations that social and economic systems are designed to rely upon. Perhaps greed is good for accumulating material possessions.


Webster’s dictionary defines “greed” as a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money, power or food) than is needed. But a deeper understanding of greed reveals that it is less about money or power itself, but rather the inner conditions those material possessions provide, such as security, status or independence.


Dr. Michael Austin writes that “greed is not just an excessive love or desire for money or any possession, it is caring too much about them. The greedy person is too attached to his things and his money, or he desires more money and more things in an excessive way. Greed has unpleasant effects on our inner emotional lives.” The anxiety and restlessness we feel when we long for some possession, and the false assurance that upon gaining it we'll be put at ease and satisfied is a lie we tell ourselves in the moment. But as humans we are more interested in wanting than having. Wanting is structural and no amount of content can fill that internal void.


There is another way.


Robert K. Greenleaf’s seminal 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader, coined the phrase “servant leadership.” In that essay, Greenleaf said:


“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, who drives to acquire material possessions (power, influence, fame or wealth).”


A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong or represent. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first leader to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.


Greenleaf suggests that the best test to determine if one is employing servant leadership, is to ask the following:

  • Do those served grow as people?

  • 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?

In Greenleaf’s perspective, servitude, not greed, is the truest form of leadership. How would the issues of the day look if we viewed them without regard to ourselves in any way? How might politicians act if re-election was not an issue? Would this approach be at odds with a two-party political system? How might our economy function if more individuals shared in the gains of their companies?


The best leaders are men and women who are secure enough, and mature enough, and whose houses are in such order they are willing to empty themselves for the good of others. At the heart of leading is taking initiative we otherwise wouldn’t take and making sacrifices we otherwise wouldn’t make. It is through being of service to others that we find the greatest forms of leadership..... selfless leadership that is not about us.

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