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Servant-Leader as President: A Paradox for Turbulent Times

David T. Houglum, Ph.D.
Sep 22 · 6 min read
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Photo by Tina Rolf on Unsplash

To say these are turbulent times is an understatement. I have dedicated my life to understanding, teaching, and developing leadership at the personal, organizational, and global levels, and I have been disturbed and awakened by the toxic manifestation of presidential leadership that I have witnessed over the past three years. Instead of regurgitating all of the negative elements, behaviors, and impacts associated with the current President’s manner of leading, I am making a radical assertion as we contemplate our presidential leadership choices for the 2020 election: we don’t need a “traditional” presidential leader. The “traditional” expression of leadership is often defined by commanding, controlling, and coercing others — and often it is the leader that benefits through this manifestation of leadership. The current age, characterized by the crucible of unprecedented technological change, dynamic complexity, ambiguity, interconnection, paradox, and constant disruption, demands a different paradigm of a leader — one who leads by serving others first. By serving first and then leading, the servant-leader has the opportunity to embody and enact the healing and restoration that is desperately needed in our nation and world, as opposed to creating discord, division, and hostility that is prevalent in society today. Not only do we need a servant-leader as President, but we also need to consider how we might embody servant leadership ourselves with our neighbors, friends, and those who don’t share our values and beliefs. This requires a reconceptualization of recognizing our neighbors and the understanding that we are all a part of an interconnected mosaic.

While the idea of servant leadership has been present throughout millennia and is found in many different religions and cultures, the modern conception was coined by AT&T executive Robert Greenleaf during the 1970s in his seminal article: “The Servant as Leader.” It is both a powerful and complex idea that has the potential to transform individuals, systems, and societies. At its essence, the idea of servant leadership is that a leader does not exercise authoritarian power and control to further her or his own agenda, as is often the case with the “traditional” approach to leadership, but instead the servant-leader leads by serving others first. Servant leadership has been utilized to help revive struggling organizations and help heal nations who have experienced atrocities and strife. It is a long-term, holistic approach to the transformation of self and society; a marked difference from the damaging quick-fix, short-term approach seen in multiple contexts.One doesn’t need a position or title to be a servant-leader or express servant leadership. It is quite possible that you know people in your life such as a teacher, coach, manager, clergy member, or parent who has been an influential servant-leader in everyday life. It takes a deep sense of humility, character, courage, and vulnerability to serve and lead as a servant-leader, perhaps even more so as the President of the United States.

How do we identify the person who is qualified to courageously serve and lead us moving forward? What criteria should we use? Some key ideas and competencies from the field of leadership may provide insights for our considerations for the upcoming 2020 Presidential election.

Larry Spears, President and CEO of the Larry C. Spears Center for Servant Leadership, who studied Robert Greenleaf’s writings extensively, articulated ten characteristics of servant-leaders: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. Chief among these qualities is the inclination and capacity to listen first, for it is through listening first that the other components of leadership come to life. Other scholars add the important qualities of humility and systems thinking as integral for servant-leaders. While this is by no means a definitive list, Robert Greenleaf provides a litmus test by which we can measure the impact and legacy of the servant-leader:

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? (Greenleaf, 1977, pp. 13–14)

Sometimes this test is accomplished with great acts, but often, I think that it is in the smaller acts done with great love like Mother Teresa embodied, where we see leadership expressed every day in our lives and in our world. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve. It only takes a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” It is not only the strong and privileged that are positively impacted by the servant-leader, but also the countless others who face significant individual and systemic challenges such as parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet, individuals experiencing social isolation and loneliness, people burdened with medical costs and/or limited mental healthcare access, people with disabilities, students struggling under the weight of crushing student loan debt, refugees escaping catastrophe and violence, and people navigating systemic racism and oppression. As Mahatma Gandhi reminds us, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

Some critics might say servant leadership sounds weak or that it is too idealistic for the complex realities of our time. And yet, servant leadership has been espoused as a guiding leadership philosophy for many well-known organizations, such as Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, The Container Store, Vanguard, and many others. Additionally, many organizations that embrace servant leadership have consistently been ranked in the top 20 of Fortune magazine’s “Top 100 Best Companies to Work For.” I have also personally educated leaders from multiple sectors who express servant leadership in their daily lives, including the military, non-profit, health-care, education, professional athletes, and clergy, to name a few. I invite you to reflect on the people in your life who you might consider to be servant-leaders. Were they weak? Pushovers? From my experience and reflecting on the many discussions I have had with students about servant-leaders, those who serve first possess a deep inner strength rooted in the unconditional love of others and the ability to diminish power relations by seeking to accompany others.

What would it look like if the President and her/his administration were rooted in servant leadership? What difference would it make if you and the communities you are involved with embodied servant leadership? Like the African philosophical notion of Ubuntu expresses, we are constantly shaping and being shaped by our world. Servant leadership is the expression of leadership that will be instrumental in the continued creation of the Beloved Community that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed.

With the vitriol, hatred, and polarization, that has permeated our politics, places of worship, businesses, and educational institutions, we are desperately in need of a government — in particular, a President — who can be a catalyst for healing and wholeness both individually and collectively. Let me be clear — the President cannot do this alone. She or he sets the tone for the nation and is therefore critical to our own co-creative work that we must do to bring healing to our nation and the world. We don’t need or want a lone heroic leader who will “save” us. This is work that we must all do together in concert with our current governing systems and structures. We have the opportunity and obligation to build a better more servant-led society that brings about our individual and collective liberation and healing by being deliberate about electing a candidate who has the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of a servant-leader.

While we will never find the perfect candidate who embodies all of the characteristics of a servant-leader, what if we could take a step closer to soaring with the “better angels of our nature,” like Lincoln described, by being intentional about electing a President who serves all of us — who accompanies us in all of our messiness and brokenness; in our despair and in our hopes for ourselves and a better world. With so much divisiveness and dehumanization of each other, we are in desperate need of a servant-leader as President who can help inspire us to see the common humanity, dignity, and divine spark within all of us, and encourage us to listen, understand, forgive, and reconcile with each other, regardless of our individual and collective brokenness. Finally, let us always remember that the leaders in our government are public servants — their position titles literally focus on service. Their important duty as public servants is not to serve themselves, but rather to co-create a better nation and world for the common good of all of us whom they serve and lead.

As Victor Hugo asserted, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” The time has come for servant leadership — not only from our President and all of our public servants, but ultimately from ourselves. We are the servant-leaders that we have been waiting for.

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David T. Houglum, Ph.D.

Written by

Director of Leadership/Leadership Professor of Practice: University of Portland, Leadership & Executive Coach (Eye Level Leadership: www.eyelevelleadership.com)

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +721K people. Follow to join our community.

David T. Houglum, Ph.D.

Written by

Director of Leadership/Leadership Professor of Practice: University of Portland, Leadership & Executive Coach (Eye Level Leadership: www.eyelevelleadership.com)

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +721K people. Follow to join our community.

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