I am generally not a big proponent of self-help management books, as they are not generally scientifically validated and I feel that they are very opinion driven. However, a friend recommended one to me a month or so ago and I used it as my restroom reading material (don't laugh, we all have that literature on the back of our commodes). In it I read an excellent story about George Washington that I felt was a strong example of servant leadership in practice. One rainy day during the American Revolutionary War, George Washington rode up to a group of soldiers attempting to raise a wooded beam to a high position. The corporal in charge was shouting encouragement, but the soldiers couldn't get the beam in position. After watching their lack of success, Washington asked the corporal why he didn't join in and help, to which the corporal replied, "don't you realize that I am the corporal?" Very politely, General Washington replied " I beg your pardon, Mr. Corporal, I did". Washington dismounted his horse and went to work with the soldiers to get the oak beam in position. As they finished, General Washington was wiped perspiration from his face, and said "If you should need help again, call on Washington, your commander-in-chief, and I will come" (Maxwell, 2011).
True servant leadership occurs when leaders follow Washington's lead and assume the position of servant in relationships with fellow workers, focusing on the needs of the follower to add to the greater benefit of the whole (Russell and Stone, 2002). Leadership comes with defined power over followers, so how do we balance that power to ensure we are acting to the benefit of not only our organization, but to better our followers lives as well? "As long as power dominates out thinking about leadership, we cannot move towards a higher standard of leadership. We must place service at the core: for even though power will always be associated with leadership, it has only one legitimate use, service" (Russell and Stone, 2002). The idea that leaders are given power to serve, both the company as well as the follower, is a powerful one, and one that I think all leaders need to keep in mind. The ideal leader uses their power to build trust with his/her followers. In fact recent studies have shown that there is a strong relationship between trust and servant leadership. Servant leaders increase trust not only between themselves and the follower but between the follower and the organization as well (Joseph and Winston, 2005). This study confirmed the prediction of Robert Greenleaf, the person that proposed servant leadership, who perceived servant leadership as both a product and an antecedent of leader and organizational trust (Joseph and Winston, 2005). This increase in trust aids in increased confidence in the organization, higher employee retention and satisfaction, as well as performance outcomes as followers become more emotionally invested in the leadership.
In the above example of George Washington, it would have been completely understandable for General Washington to order the corporal into the mud to help his team or even to merely add his voice of encouragement to the soldiers. It would have been easy for him to say, "I am the commander-in-chief here, do it because I said so". Instead he did was was necessary to benefit the team and led by example, not because someone was looking, but because it was the right thing to do. At the end of the day, how do you perceive yourself as a leader? Do you see your self as the corporal, encouraging your team to do better and reach the goal, or do you see your self as George Washington, willing to get your boots dirty, be a servant, and get the job done?
Joseph, E. & Winston, B. (2005). A correlation of servant leadership, leader trust, and organizational trust. Leadership & Organization Development Journal. 26 (1), pp. 6-22.
Maxwell, J. (2011). 5 levels of leadership: Proven steps to maximize your potential. New York, NY: Center Street Press.
Russell, R. & Stone, G. (2002). A review of leadership attributes: developing a practical model. Leadership & Organization Development Journal. 23 (3), pp. 145-157.