Servant Leadership as a Catalyst

Making your vision explode into your new reality

In his 1970 essay The Servant as Leader, Robert K. Greenleaf coined the phrase “servant leadership.” Although not a new concept, Greenleaf’s essay popularized the concept and set into motion a decades-long debate.

For me to think I could resolve that debate would land squarely on either arrogance or ignorance.  No, my musings today are more observation than revelation.  Of course I can’t help but also offer encouragement to leaders striving to become more servant-minded.

To anchor our discussion in a common understanding of Servant Leadership, the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership explains:

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.  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. 

My observation

Over the past 20+ years working for and with dozens of companies in a variety of industries, I’ve noticed nearly all seem to struggle with collaboration.  More precisely a lack of collaboration.  The common complaint is, “Our organization works in silos.” 

The more I’ve pondered this common lament, the more I’ve come to believe that organizational silos are symptomatic of organizations lacking a broad-base of servant leaders.  This lack of servant leaders is particularly evident when watching vision flow from senior management down through the ranks. 

You see, corporate vision should, by its very nature, transcend functional and departmental interests.  The problem is that as vision trickles through organizations it undergoes a process of translation.  Functional and departmental leaders are the translators.  If NOT servant leaders, their native language will be self-interest.  So as vision gets broken into its presumed components, and deployment strategies and tactics are formulated, the translators ask and answer questions like:

  • What does the vision mean to my department?
  • What are the specific things I, and my direct reports, have to do in order for me to be successful?
  • What metrics am I going to put in place to measure the people in my department?

The vision is immediately diluted.  The author never intended it to be interpreted so myopically.  Vision-casters would prefer organizational translators to ask servant-mind questions.  Questions like:

  • How could I best align my team to partner with other organizations to make the vision a reality?
  • What valuable resources am I stewarding that, if leveraged more fully, could help activate our vision?
  • How does my team need to change to help our organization realize its vision more completely and quickly?
  • What artifacts (e.g. goals, metrics, budgets) might I have to set aside temporarily or permanently to eliminate unintended barriers to our shared success?

Opponents might argue this thinking is Pollyannaish, altruistic or plain foolish.  I’d argue leaders asking these types of questions are powerful catalysts for change.

In case 7th grade science is a distant memory, The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a catalyst as a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change.   Organizationally speaking, catalysts are leaders that when dropped into an organization, spark sometimes explosive positive reactions enabling organizations to accomplish in short periods of time what might otherwise take years…even decades.

Servant-leaders are the catalysts our organizations desperately need to achieve their vision. 

My Encouragement

If you’re interested in being the catalyst I describe above, there are 3 mindsets to cultivate.

Mindset #1: See the Big Picture

In James Scouller’s classic book on leadership, The Three Levels of Leadership (a must read for serious leaders by the way), Scouller highlights two reasons why not all leaders are servant-minded.  One reason is the very lack of a compelling, shared purpose or vision.  He states, “When there’s no clear direction, the leader isn’t leading; he is presiding over the status quo and because there is no clear need for change, he’s less likely to realise he needs people’s skill and energy.”

Scouller encourages leaders to ask themselves, “Does my group know exactly what we’re trying to achieve, did they agree to it, does it excite them and do they think it’s possible.” (page 115)  If our answer to any of these questions is “no” – perhaps we ourselves need to revisit the vision to ensure we fully grasp it.  In doing so, we empower ourselves to be ambassadors for a new future.

Mindset #2: Be Open (Open-Handed and Open-Minded)

In his classic poem Invictus, William Ernest Henley penned the words:

I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

The unfortunate reality is that marketplace leaders all too often cling to Henley’s words as a sort of mantra.  This radical independence reinforces silos versus breaking them down.  Perhaps we should instead latch onto John F. Kennedy’s words (words borrowed from the New England Council) when he said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

A leader with this mentality shows a willingness to share his or her resources with other departments. This leader trusts that doing the right thing ultimately benefits everyone.  They think and act abundantly.  Doing so might mean releasing a top-performing account manager to focus on a higher order need in the sales organization.  It might mean curbing spending in your own department to reallocate investable dollars to areas capable of delivering higher returns.  While uncommon, these are the kinds of things servant-leaders do to serve others.

Mindset #3: See an Evolved Version of Others

To reiterate Robert K. Greenleaf’s words:

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong…The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. 

It’s incumbent upon servant leaders to help the people we lead (formally or informally), see an evolved version of themselves.  Oftentimes, people fail to see themselves accurately in the here and now.  So seeing a future version of themselves may simply be out of reach.  But as vision comes to life, it necessitates everyone in the organization envision an evolved version of themselves.  A more highly skilled, deeply engaged and intently focused contributor.   To the point, it actually requires everyone see a more servant-minded and less selfish version of themselves.  This servant-minded culture is a virtuous and self-perpetuating pursuit.


Cultivating a deeper bench of servant leaders should be an imperative of all organizations.  Doing so is akin to pouring active yeast into a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and dish soap.  It just might be the catalyst needed to make your vision explode into your new reality.

Question: I’d love to hear about your experiments with servant leadership. What worked…and what blew up in the lab? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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