Is Servant Leadership Part of Your Worldview

Is Servant Leadership Part of Your Worldview?

12.2 min read

Dr. J. Howard Baker

Leadership is about the way you perceive and treat yourself and how you perceive and treat others. Personal leadership involves the former; social and organizational leadership involves the latter. The two are interrelated.

Each of us has a unique, complex “thinking system” which has developed since birth. This complex system is believed to actually be a composite of several more fundamental thinking systems layered one on top of the other. Our “worldview” is the totality of our conception of what this complex, fragmented world is like. Our worldview is a composite of our cognitive style, genetic makeup, memory, mental models or paradigms, assumptions, vision of the future, and the fusion of factual and value premises. Our personal worldview plays a major role in determining outcomes in our personal lives. Our collective worldview plays a major role in determining outcomes in our organizations and institutions. This is often described as the “See-Do-Get” cycle. How we “see the world” determines “what we do,” and “what we do” determines “what we get” as an outcome.

Dr. Stephen Covey states that all things are created twice. There is a “first creation,” which is of the mind, and a “second creation,” which is the physical manifestation of the first creation. For instance, a blueprint is the first creation and the building is the second creation. Our attitudes and behaviors flow from our worldview.

Each of us filters the information we receive about the world through our worldview to determine what we consider truth. Our personal worldview will change and become more complex as we grow older and mature. Collective worldviews can follow the same pattern of maturation. (Albert Einstein understood this when he observed, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”)

Our worldview is our mind’s way of dealing with what Dr. Michael Armour calls the “Four Big C’s”: Change, Complexity, Confusion, and Conflict. As we grow older, and our worldview can no longer sufficiently cope with the four C’s, we may experience a paradigm shift to a higher system of thinking. The mind activates more complex systems of thinking to cope with new problems. Rather than totally replacing our old worldview with a new one, we actually integrate parts of our old worldview with the new.

The perception you have of yourself is part of your worldview. It involves such issues as your personal accountability, values that matter most to you, your personal mission in life, and the importance of self-discipline. It also defines what you must do to hedge against leading an inconsequential life.

The answer to important life issues will depend on your maturity level. It is generally recognized that lower levels of maturity exhibit extremely self-serving worldviews. The worldview of an infant, for example, is totally self-centered. The end result of an infant’s worldview is a life consisting of a series of short-term reactions to physiological needs (such as nourishment, warmth, etc.). As the maturity of an individual increases, there is a shift from reactivity to proactivity. Proactivity means that our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. (Dr. Stephen Covey’s Habit 1 deals with this thoroughly.) Higher levels of maturity demonstrate consideration for others and self-sacrifice.

Different people stop reconstructing their worldview at different maturity levels, thus creating the incredible diversity of thought we see in our world today. We must understand that there are no “right” or “wrong” worldviews. Each of us has a unique worldview. However, there are similar worldview patterns that result in similar pursuits and standards of conduct.

Since our worldview determines how we lead others and ourselves, there is also a great deal of diversity of thought regarding leadership. Leadership models can be viewed along a continuum. At one end of the continuum the power model, with its authoritarian style, can be found. At this end of the continuum we find a top-down, command-and-control pyramid approach, with powerful decision-makers at the top. At the other end of the continuum is where we find servant leadership and similar leadership models. At this end of the continuum we find a worldview that sees the world as an interdependent reality where people are treated with respect in a totally egalitarian manner.

The purpose of the mission often determines the use of a given model. For instance, an authoritarian, command and control model of leadership may be very effective for stopping something, destroying something, or conquering something, such as an enemy during a war. The military has used the power leadership model for millennia very effectively. It is a leadership model that is hard-nosed and aggressive in style. The power model of leadership often involves the formation of privileged classes, strict hierarchy, turf protection, intimidation, and rank. Unfortunately, one can find many examples of the inappropriate use of this model of leadership today in corporations, government agencies, and churches. It is interesting to note that modern military organizations use a variety of leadership models to deal with the numerous complex roles they play in our modern world.

If the objective or mission is to build an organization dedicated to service (such as public service, customer service, or serving a congregation), empowerment, creativity, and the growth and maturing of individuals, then the power model of leadership is highly inappropriate. A leadership model based on a totally different system of thinking should be considered.

Our worldview determines our belief regarding whether the power model or servant leadership model is ever a legitimate approach. Our worldview also determines when we think it would be appropriate for us to use either model of leadership. Unfortunately, some worldviews see only one model as appropriate for all situations. As Abraham Maslow said, “He that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail.” Other worldviews acknowledge the servant leadership model as legitimate, but attempt to implement it using authoritarian and patriarchal methods. Addressing this problem, Peter Block states, “the very system that has patriarchy as the root problem uses patriarchal means to try to eliminate its symptoms. This is the dark side of leadership.”

The servant leadership model is not new. However, Robert Greenleaf, who died in 1990, is considered to be the father of modern servant leadership ideas that have recently grown in popularity. Greenleaf was a lifelong student of organization and retired as Director of Management Research at AT&T. He also held a joint appointment as visiting lecturer at M.I.T’s Sloan School of Management and at the Harvard Business School. In addition, he held teaching positions at both Dartmouth College and the University of Virginia.

Greenleaf said that servant leadership is about making the people around you to grow as persons, to be healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants. Servant leaders facilitate the growth of others along a maturity continuum—to greater and greater levels of maturity.

Although Robert Greenleaf is considered the father of the modern servant leadership model, no single perspective is complete. Rather than thinking of Greenleaf’s description of servant leadership as a single model, one might view it as a portal into a whole new universe of models based on certain fundamental principles. Other leadership thinkers such as Senge, Block, DePree, and Covey give us additional important insights into this universe.

Servant leadership manifests itself in different ways in different organizations. For instance, the fun-loving antics of Southwest Airlines ( probably would not fit the more conservative culture of a major financial organization like Synovus Financial Corporation ( Yet both organizations base their organizational culture on the servant leadership principles articulated by Greenleaf. Both companies consistently appear in the Fortune “100 Best Companies To Work For” list, and both have been the number one company on the list (

Some think that the servant leadership model is too soft and doesn’t recognize the political nature of organizations and institutions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Where there is power there will always be politics. What the servant leadership model does is reshape the political environment so that political power is used to protect and build people, rather than keep them in a state of dependency. It deals with the reality of political power and its legitimate and ethical use. However, while protecting people from danger, servant leaders also expose them to a greater awareness of reality. That is why servant leadership can be so dangerous in some organizations. Challenging the power model of leadership is not just challenging a leadership style. It is challenging a worldview—a belief system—that provides control, consistency, and predictability to those in power.

John F. “Jack” Welch (, 20 year Chairman and CEO of General Electric, and one of the most highly regarded leaders in the business world today, once said that management is “looking reality straight in the eye and then acting upon it with as much speed as you can.” Robert Greenleaf said, “Awareness is not a giver of solace — it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener. Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed. They are not seekers after solace. They have their own serenity.”

Servant leadership involves a mature worldview that chooses service over self-interest. Mature people recognize joint accountability. Achieving a high level of interdependence requires a culture where leaders listen first, and listen intently and for understanding. The job of the servant leader is to listen, to identify, and to clarify what the organization is saying. This level of listening requires more than just hearing. To the servant leader listening means a genuine willingness to be influenced by those you serve.

Servant leadership also involves developing an organizational culture that exhibits a high level of trust. Trust is dependent on having trustworthy people. Trustworthy people are principled and “walk their talk.” This is why personal leadership success precedes organizational leadership success. (Dr. Stephen Covey calls these two leadership successes the “private victory” and “public victory.” He says that private victories must precede public victories.) This “inside-out” approach is captured in the saying; “I cannot call myself your servant until I can call myself my master.” Self-mastery is essential for successful personal leadership. You cannot successfully lead others under the servant leadership model until you have first achieved a certain level of personal leadership mastery and internal synergy.

Practicing servant leadership within an organization means performing acts which help people remove the obstacles in their way—and helping them acquire the tools and resources they need to do their jobs better. It means jumping into the trenches and being willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. It means leading by example. It means lightening the load of another. It means being willing to do whatever you ask others to do. It means leveling hierarchies. It means not only being a boss, but also a friend. It means listening to those served to find out what they really need you to do for them, rather than deciding yourself what is best for them.

Just because one serves, and has a leadership position, does not make that person a true servant leader. Robert Greenleaf says that a true servant leader is servant first. Others may aspire first to become a leader and then to serve, or to aspire to serve in a manner that is patriarchal and controlling. However, a true servant leader is one that exhibits very specific characteristics. Larry Spears, Executive Director of The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership (, has identified 10 critical characteristics that a servant leader should exhibit. These ten are by no means complete, but do communicate important aspects of this leadership model. The ten characteristics are:

1. Listening

2. Empathy

3. Healing

4. Awareness

5. Persuasion

6. Conceptualization

7. Foresight

8. Stewardship

9. Commitment to the growth of people

10. Building community

In describing servant leadership to another, it is recognized that the listener is always filtering and interpreting what is being said based on their current worldview. Truly understanding the servant leadership model may require a paradigm shift from old ways of thinking. It may require discarding old assumptions. It may require viewing the world differently. To accomplish this it will be necessary to be vulnerable, to listen for understanding, to respect differences in perspective, and to receive personal feedback from others. Only then will you be able to effectively examine and modify your assumptions, values, and paradigms–your worldview.

The servant leadership model cannot be achieved with a “quick-fix” approach. It cannot be instilled quickly within an organization. The transformation of the worldviews of individuals that make up an organization is a long-term, continuous effort. The decision to pursue the servant leadership model is certainly a matter of organizational strategy, but at its core it is a matter of personal choice. Is servant leadership a part of your worldview?

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About the author:

Dr. J. Howard Baker is Assistant Professor of Computer Information Systems at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Last year Dr. Baker taught an Honors Seminar at ULM, which included a field trip to the top servant leadership companies in America. Dr. Baker has been a Franklin Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People certified facilitator for seven years, and has served the University of Texas at Tyler as their facilitator for four years. During the summer he offers a graduate and undergraduate course at U. T. Tyler in personal and organizational leadership. He holds a B.S. in Management from Samford University, a Master of Accounting (MAcc) from the University of Southern California, and a Ph.D. in Information Systems from the University of Texas at Arlington.


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  • Quote of the Day

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