Do I Have A Hangup On The “Servant” Terminology? Possibly…
Posted by Mitch Mitchell on Sep 8, 2015
A couple of days ago something hit me while I was on Twitter. It’s one of those types of thoughts where the light bulb goes off, your mind crystallizes, your words become focused, and you have to say what you have to say. In this case I wrote this:
“Many might think it’s semantics, but tell a black man that he should be practicing “servant #leadership” & it’s not going over well…”
Ever since the day I heard the term “servant leadership“, it’s bothered me to no end. I’ve read a couple of books where it’s either been talked about a lot or a little. I even addressed the point in a blog post here a few weeks ago when I talked about the wussification of leadership; yeah, I know that’s not a real word, but it’s how I was feeling at the time.
Actually, I feel that right now. What brought it on is that I follow a custom group I created on my Twitter account with the hashtag #leadership. This means every time a post has that in it it’ll show up in this column. I don’t know most of the people who use it but I’ve found it effective to see what others are talking about on the subject, and a lot of people have added me since I started adding it to posts I share on Twitter on the subject.
Anyway, on this particular night I looked at 10 minutes worth of posts and more than half of them were on servant leadership; ugh. I decided I had to explore why it bothered me to much, and my mind went back in time…
I’m not quite a computer geek, but I could have been. I’ve had a computer since 1985, when my mother bought one for my birthday. I didn’t really want it but she said “Computers are going to be the way of the future.” Mom the prognosticator; how right she was. 🙂
After some time I started using it more often. I also started to understand some of the terminology. The first one to jar my mind was the concept of “master” and “slave” drives. For those who aren’t in the know, the master drive is the one that has your operating system on it and possibly the bulk of your files. The slave drive is if you have a secondary drive whose purpose is mainly storage.
The first time I heard the term I hated it. I wanted to get into a debate with my friend who told me the terms and definitions, and he said “I didn’t name them.”
He was right; he didn’t name them. I also knew something else; it wasn’t a black person or any other person of color who named them. And I didn’t like it; still don’t all these years later.
It wasn’t a black person or person of color who came up with the term “servant leadership” either. Robert Greenleaf came up with the idea after reading a fictional book called Journey To The East. He then based the principles on biblical beliefs as applied to business. Here are a couple of quotes:
“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?“
My problem is that this is inherently untrue. Servants were subservient and were always going to be subservient. They were subservient to adults and children. They were relegated to a status that sometimes left them being viewed as subhuman.
The assumption that one wishes to be a leader is related to a power drive or to acquiring material possessions. These days we would call that a gross generalization. Since most people in leadership positions had never led anything before they got those positions, it’s implausible that they had any type of power drive in their minds. As for wanting to acquire material possessions… isn’t that basically ‘everybody’?
As it regards whether people grow as persons if they’re served, it reads well in theory but that’s never been the case anywhere else in history. Servants were there to serve, not boost anyone, train anyone, or benefit anyone voluntarily. Well, maybe children here and there, but overall… wasn’t happening. Does anyone really grow if, as a leader, I treat them like I’m a servant, or as a strong leader who trains them, lets them think for themselves, works on setting a mood where they can thrive and enjoy coming into work everyday and hopefully feel like they’re making a difference in some way?
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just too sensitive on the terminology. Maybe I’ve read too many books on slavery and indentured servitude and relate it to today’s slave trade that, I don’t believe, is training anyone to become better leaders. I don’t really know for sure… all I know is that I’m uncomfortable with the terminology, and now I know why.
Still, I’ll ask you about it and get your impression of it all. I may not change my feelings about the word; I may not be inured by any other points of view. But you never know…