Servant Leadership

A version of this story was published previously in Practical Self Management Intensive.

The idea of leader-as-servant is hardly new. Roughly 2500 years ago the Tao Te Ching said something like:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

If you can forgive the sexist pronouns, you’ll likely agree that this could come right out the latest self-management thinking. Leadership that quietly facilitates, that holds space, that fully empowers. Especially if we agree that “his aim” is short for “the evolving purpose expressed by the organization itself.”

I held some vague notions about servant leadership. Those notions were brought into sharp focus when I read this keynote address given by Peter Block to the 2005 International Servant-Leadership Conference in Indianapolis. Block says:

“To me servant-leadership… is a leadership that confronts people with their freedom… [T]he act of love is to confront people with their freedom, is to assemble, lead, in a way that says the choice resides in all of us. What greater gift can you give somebody than the experience of their own power, the experience that they have the capacity to create the world?”

This is the role of leaders in self-organizing teams. To hold up a mirror that shows every colleague their own agency, their own potential, their freedom in each moment.

And in non-hierarchical organizations, everyone has the opportunity to be a leader. Leadership doesn’t come from titles and is not fixed; it comes from trust and reputation built through each tiny interaction, one after another over time.

Block goes on to suggest that they way to confront people with their freedom is through carefully crafted questions. Not advice masquerading as questions, but honest, open queries such as “What are you here to create?” And “What’s the promise you’re willing to make with no expectation of return?” These powerful questions cannot be answered without admitting our own potential to shape the future.

And so we step into the new day we co-create, leaders all, in service to one another.

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