The Rise of the Servant Leader

Servant leadership benefits people and builds better organizations By ken blanchard

Ken Blanchard is chief spiritual officer of The Ken Blanchard Cos. and co-author of “Collaboration Begins with You: Be a Silo Buster.”
He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.


he practice of management and leadership is constantly evolving.

During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, efficient production of goods was the name of the game. Leaders saw their role as getting workers to produce the most goods in the shortest amount of time.

In the 20th century, information became as important as materials, leading to what my friend and mentor Peter Drucker called knowledge work. People were no longer viewed as mere “hired hands,” and managers had to learn to encourage and inspire those who worked with them.

I would like to think that the 21st century will be remembered as a time when leaders realize that in order to produce the greatest results for their employees, their customers and our planet, they must serve rather than be served.

Robert Greenleaf defines servant leadership as a practice that “enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.” It’s a lofty concept. But what does servant leadership look like to the average manager who has a budget to work within and goals to meet?

Let’s take an example shared in an article by Matt Peterson, managing director at Aethos Consulting Group. Matt wrote about a servant leader manager at the famous Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. This manager was faced with a tough decision. An otherwise competent server who knew the hotel’s standards for excellence had messed up an order and handled it so dismissively that a longtime customer complained that she would not be returning to the hotel. The manager had to decide: Should he fire the server — or just rake him over the coals?

Servant leaders don’t deny their power — they just recognize that it passes through them, not from them.

The manager did neither. Instead, this servant leader sat down with the employee, reviewed exactly what he had done wrong and redirected him to change his behavior in the future. Then he pulled out a piece of paper and, together, he and the employee wrote an apology to the guest. The note was delivered to the guest that evening.

As Matt reports, the next day the server happened upon the guest in the lobby. Feeling horrible about the negative effect his carelessness had on both the customer and the hotel’s reputation, the server approached the guest. With tears in his eyes, he apologized for his poor service. The guest accepted his apology and they made a genuine connection. Before she left the hotel, the guest booked her next stay.

This story illustrates the ripple effect of a servant leader’s actions. By treating the server’s lapse in performance as a learning moment rather than a punishable offense, the manager was able to serve the employee, the customer and the organization. The manager’s firm but compassionate approach did not place the employee on the defensive, so he was open to learning a valuable lesson. More important, the employee was able to pass that compassion on to the customer — who in turn remained loyal to the brand.

This story also demonstrates how servant leadership can lead to profitability. When people are well served by their leaders, they in turn serve their customers well. A well-served customer is a repeat customer, which creates a healthy bottom line. In short, doing good is good for business.

Contrary to what many people assume, servant leadership isn’t about shirking responsibility and power. Servant leaders don’t deny their power — they just recognize that it passes through them, not from them. They make the world a better place through the moment-to-moment decisions they make as they interact with others at work, at home and in the community. Like the manager at the Hotel del Coronado, servant leaders reach out to support and encourage others rather than judging and controlling them.

Today, leadership behavior has a greater impact than it did in years past. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, one person’s actions can affect millions — even billions — of lives. That’s why servant leadership is more important now than ever before.