The Importance of Servant Leadership for Modern Institutions

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Servant Leadership" by Robert Greenleaf. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the importance of servant leadership? Why do churches, universities, and businesses fail to uphold their social responsibilities?

According to Servant Leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf, servant leadership is the solution to America’s most pressing problem: institutional inefficacy. He explores the origins of that problem and his proposed solution in more detail.

Let’s dive into servant leadership’s role in improving modern U.S. institutions.

The Problem With Modern Institutions

Greenleaf argues that the majority of modern U.S. institutions—namely, churches, universities, businesses, and foundations—fail to uphold their social responsibility. In his view, churches no longer meet people’s spiritual or material needs, universities are overcrowded and don’t adequately prepare students, businesses are often solely motivated by profit and do social harm in pursuit of that profit, and foundations are inefficient with the money they disperse to what might otherwise be good causes. As a result, people are losing faith in the institutions that were created—at least theoretically—to serve them. This is why the importance of servant leadership is crucial to understand in these situations.

(Shortform note: Some studies suggest that Americans’ trust in institutions (such as churches, public schools, the medical system, and the government) is lower than ever—partly because Americans doubt institutional efficacy and accountability. However, most Americans believe that trust can be restored in the government and the public at large, which may also apply to the various institutions Greenleaf is interested in. Among those who believe this, as much as 15% say that stronger leaders can help build trust between individuals and inspire confidence in institutions.)

According to Greenleaf, one factor in American institutions’ inefficacy is their increasing bureaucratization. Bureaucratized institutions have strict rules of operation, value consistency and uniformity, and are committed to maintaining the status quo. Because of this, bureaucratized institutions are resistant to innovation, which prevents them from discovering how to use their resources—including time, money, and manpower—most effectively. As a result, the quality of the services they offer is lower.

(Shortform note: In Humanocracy, Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini argue that bureaucracies are ineffective for several reasons—one is that they treat people like machines whose performance can be optimized, rather than human beings to be nurtured, which makes people resent their jobs and become less effective employees. To solve this, the authors argue that we should shift to building human-focused companies, which empower employees to make decisions, hold them accountable for those decisions, and put them in contact with customers so they can see for themselves that their labor is fruitful.)

Why Servant Leadership Is the Solution

Greenleaf believes that servant leaders will ensure that the institutions they belong to fulfill their social responsibility. They’ll do this by changing these institutions from the inside out—with a clear vision of past institutional failures and of a better path forward, they’ll ensure that their institutions actually serve the needs of the people they claim to serve.

(Shortform note: In Hit Refresh, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella argues that one key to ensuring your institution is meeting people’s needs is empathy—the practice of understanding and empowering others. Nadella explains that to empathize with others, you have to directly communicate with them. For example, he invites customers to annual brainstorming sessions with executives—this way, customers are empowered to share any problems they encounter and to collaborate with executives on solutions.)

Greenleaf argues that only servant leaders can revitalize American institutions because they’re the only kind of leader that deserves the loyalty of their followers—they earn their leadership positions by proving that their vision is the most effective, rather than by coercing (under legal threat) or forcing institutions to go along with their vision, like government officials do.

(Shortform note: In The 5 Levels of Leadership, John C. Maxwell provides an explanation for why servant leaders may be more effective institution-builders than other kinds of leaders. According to Maxwell, the least effective form of leadership is positional leadership, where leaders rely on the authority their formal titles give them to influence followers’ behavior. In contrast, effective leaders influence followers’ behavior by building relationships with them, proving that their methods get results, and empowering others to become leaders—much like servant leaders do.)

Greenleaf explains that the concept of servant leadership was inspired by a story—Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. In the story, a servant named Leo accompanies a traveling party of spiritual seekers, running their errands and keeping them in high spirits. Unbeknownst to his companions, Leo is actually a leader of the spiritual sect that inspired the journey—and when he disappears, the party falls apart because they had relied on his services to keep them going. According to Greenleaf, Leo is the quintessential servant leader—he only earned prominence among his companions because his services were so essential for them to reach their goal.

(Shortform note: According to some scholars, Journey to the East is a semi-autobiographical account of Hermann Hesse’s search for spiritual truth. The narrator of the book—H.H., which may stand for Hermann Hesse—is part of the quest because he seeks to quell his inner disquiet and live a meaningful life. Similarly, Hesse himself spent much of his life emotionally dissatisfied and was always pursuing greater wisdom and meaning, especially from the Eastern religions. If you’re also a spiritual seeker, servant leadership may be one avenue to explore: While Greenleaf doesn’t offer any empirical evidence in favor of servant leadership, some research suggests that servant leadership promotes workplace spirituality—the sense that one’s work is spiritually fulfilling because it contributes to a higher purpose.)

The Importance of Servant Leadership for Modern Institutions

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Here's what you'll find in our full Servant Leadership summary:

  • Why modern institutions fail to meet the needs of those they serve and employ
  • Why institutions must learn to prioritize the needs of their followers
  • How you can learn to become a servant leader

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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