By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

We’ve seen a revolution in leadership in the past 50 years. It began when Robert K. Greenleaf published an essay titled "The Servant as Leader" in 1970 -- and actually coined the term “servant leader.” 

In 1976, that essay and others by Greenleaf were compiled into a book, Servant Leadership, published by Paulist Press, a Catholic publisher.

A movement had begun.

The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, which he founded, explains his connection to a religious publisher this way: “Greenleaf always claimed that although he was informed by the Judeo-Christian ethic (he became a Quaker in mid-life), servant leadership was for people of all faiths and all institutions, secular and religious.”

Greenleaf’s views of leadership weren’t hatched in an ivory tower. Rather, after studying engineering and graduating with a degree in math, he spent decades at AT&T, where he came to the conclusion that the authoritarian style of leadership which was the cultural norm at the time was not working.

He was so convinced that he had developed a better way to lead that he took early retirement in 1964 to found the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership – although he first called it the Center for Applied Ethics. It was another six years before his essay introduced the idea of servant leadership to the world.

In that essay, which celebrates its golden anniversary this year, he wrote:

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 difference 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?

A new metric

With the invention of a new leadership term, Greenleaf also introduced a new metric for judging the effectiveness of leadership. It involved the growth of people across several dimensions and took into account “the least privileged in society.”

No longer was long-term, self-sustaining organizational success to be measured primarily by short-term, compliance-based leadership behaviors.

No doubt strong-armed tactics could achieve short-term results. But a broader-based concern for the welfare of the people doing the work could achieve better, longer-term results.

It took quite a while for empirical studies to confirm the validity of Greenleaf’s insight. And, in fact, there are many leaders today who will tell you that the only way to get the results you want is to intimidate and threaten other people – to make them perform out of fear.

Beyond compliance

That said, it’s my experience that most leaders today recognize that sustained excellence is not built on a culture of mandatory compliance. Leaders today want people who are engaged in their work – or children who are engaged in their own development.

Participation and contribution are keys to optimal, sustained excellence whether we are talking about the workplace, the home, the school, the team the community or the parish.

The best leaders are those who can foster and provide support for their charges’ self-motivated pursuits of excellence.

Paradigm shift

Greenleaf’s incredible paradigm shift to servant leadership continues to have a growing impact throughout society, as newcomers in every environment have to know more, learn more and quickly grow into self-directed lifetime learners to keep pace with the exploding rate of change that’s occurring in both knowledge and technology.

Indeed, I’m here to argue that human self-consciousness has developed to the point where we have to see and reach beyond servant leadership to embrace two other leadership metaphors:

  • Steward Leadership
  • Shepherd Leadership

Together with Servant Leadership, we call this S3 Leadership.

Biblical roots

Just as Greenleaf said his concept of servant leadership “was informed by the Judeo-Christian ethic,” so too do the metaphors “steward” and “shepherd” come from the Bible. In fact, the three metaphors describe how Jesus led and taught leadership to his disciples.

Put all three metaphors together and you get this little “elevator speech” to explain the power of S3 Leadership:

  • Servant – it’s not about me.
  • Steward – it’s not mine.
  • Shepherd – people are precious.

Role of Stewardship

Any parent knows that one of the first words a child utters is mine. And they usually proclaim it with deep passion. Sharing comes hard to small children. It’s not a natural trait. It has to be taught.

Of course, the concept of “mine” grows out of a sense of “me.” And if things are “mine,” life is always about me.

The Judeo-Christian tradition teaches another way: everything, beginning with life itself, comes as a gift to us on loan from God. The Bible speaks of all creation as God’s handiwork and gift, and Jesus himself acknowledges his Father as the source of everything he has in John 17.

Furthermore, God does not give us our gifts for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. Rather, He entrusts them to us to serve the common good and build His Kingdom    

When the perspectives of Servant and Steward are put together, we understand that life does not revolve around us individually. Our purpose is not to serve ourselves first and foremost, but to serve the larger context that makes all life – including our own – possible.

Self-interest detached from the common good is, in fact, delusional and self-defeating.

The perspective of Steward is helpful, too, when we consider our relationship to the human and natural environments that sustain us. Without a healthy regard for the good of the planet, without a devotion to sustaining environmental health, we threaten to undermine the planet’s ability to sustain all life.

If we see the planet and its natural resources as there for us to plunder as we satisfy our every whim, it will not likely be able to sustain the lives of our descendants. That’s not a good long-term strategy of the human race.

Seeing ourselves as stewards of God’s many graces in the natural order helps assure that Earth will be able to continue sustaining life until Jesus’ Second Coming. And as Pope Francis pointed out in his encyclical Laudato Si’ five years ago, the challenge is not one that can be put on a back burner for our descendants to address. Many critical environmental concerns are also very immediate.

Good disciples are good stewards of Earth -- “our common home,” to use the pope’s own words.

Role of Shepherd

There’s no doubt that Jesus saw the role of a good leader as being a Good Shepherd. He discusses the manner and meaning of this metaphor at length in the Gospel of St. John (10:1-21).

There he makes it clear that genuine, Jesus-like leadership is all about relationships. The shepherd is not able to lead the sheep because he has a title, but because the sheep know and trust him.

And he has earned that trust.

As Jesus explains, the Good Shepherd has spent enough time with his sheep that they know his voice. He knows their names. And he walks ahead of them.

In John 10:12-15 Jesus tells a little parable about a “hired hand” who “works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.” When a wolf shows up, this guy takes off and the wolf has his way with the sheep.

In contrast, the Good Shepherd “lays down his life for the sheep.” We are left to assume that the shepherd protects the sheep from the wolf – so that both the sheep and the shepherd benefit. It’s what Stephen Covey calls a “win-win.”

Indeed, the Good Shepherd is so devoted to the welfare of his sheep that he cannot possibly win unless the sheep win too. Good parents understand this formula intuitively and absolutely. They value their children more than their own lives.

But Jesus tells us that good leaders should also strive to develop the same unity of purpose on the job and in the community. It’s a huge challenge.

Bringing it all together

I’m convinced that the leader who can see herself or himself not only as a Servant but also as a Steward and a Shepherd will ultimately be both a better Servant and a better Leader.

As you face the struggles of leadership that have emerged in this time of pandemic, I hope you will reflect on the challenge and the opportunity to move beyond Servant Leadership to be an S3 Leader.

And I hope you will embrace it – as Jesus surely wishes you to do.

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