On Servant-Leadership: What’s in it for them?

Leaders are often depicted as resolute, visionary, motivational, intent on reminding followers to get with the program or get off the team.  And we’ve all heard that it’s lonely at the top.  No question that leaders may be called on to make difficult decisions and to demand compliance with those decisions.  To fail to do so would, at times, be an unforgiveable dereliction of duty.

Servant-leadership, which may incorporate similar traits and approaches, operates from the perspective of leading for the best interest of the people or organization being led.  Robert Greenleaf coined the term in a 1970 essay that drew a picture of a different kind of leader:

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 different 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?

M. Scott Peck wrote, “Servant Leadership is more than a concept.  As far as I am concerned, it is a fact.  I would simply define it by saying that any great leader, by which I also mean an ethical leader of any group, will see herself or himself primarily as a servant of that group and will act accordingly.”

Consider what it might mean for a lawyer to consider him- or herself a servant of the group he or she is leading.  It’s a natural model for client relationships, since an attorney is ethically bound to serve a client’s interest (within appropriate boundaries) and to conduct an engagement not by asking what’s best for the lawyer or the firm, but what’s best for the client.

What about the law firms?  Imagine law firm leadership determined to serve the firm.  Partners might be more inclined to mentor more junior lawyers, to grow them not only in substantive lawyering skills but also as ethical, civil professionals, viewing the activity as an investment in the firm’s future.  Rather than cutting associates when the economy dips as a way to protect the firm’s income (and the much-reported profits per partner), firm leaders might elect to put the economic burden on those who might best afford it — the partners, particularly those who earn jumbo partnership draws.  The culture would likely value “we” over “me.”

Before you conclude that such an approach would be too “soft” to survive, consider the leadership that would be required to enforce the policies.  I suspect that any leader would require a backbone of steel to invite a major rainmaker to leave the firm rather than to allow the rainmaker to put his or her own interests ahead of that of the firm as a whole.  Difficult decisions remain to be made and implemented.  Servant-leadership is not by any means weak leadership.

How might a firm run under a servant-leadership approach differ from one run with a “me first” mentality?  What do you suppose would happen to associate attrition?  How do you imagine associates who did choose to leave such a firm would regard the firm?  Would the firm be more or less stable?  Would clients notice a difference?  What’s the downside?

For reflection:  how would you change your leadership (of self or of others) if your focus were on serving those you lead?

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