The Power of Servant Leadership to Build and Sustain Stakeholder Value


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During a recent series of stakeholder behavior instructional workshops conducted for our clients, one of the strongest areas of interest among workshop participants was how to gain senior management support and sponsorship for various customer-related and employee-related initiatives. For both inspiration and answers regarding the best and most effective approaches to apply, I turned to trailblazing ideas of the two “Fathers of Servant Leadership”, Max De Pree and Robert Greenleaf.

De Pree and Greenleaf have long been considered the most original thinkers in the art, science, and pure knacks associated with the power of leaders to shape and direct an enterprise for the better. One of De Pree’s most memorable quotes, for example, is “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say ‘thank you’. In between, the leader is a servant.” That’s almost Zen-like in its simplicity, accuracy, and application, and they have inspired such well-known CEO’s as Jack Welch, Jan Carlzon (Scandinavian Airlines), Horst Schulze (Ritz-Carlton Hotels), and Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) in their thinking and management styles. We can also see servant leadership in the ideas of Ken Blanchard, Steven Covey, Peter Senge, and M. Scott Peck.

For those unfamiliar with De Pree and Greenleaf, and the leadership concepts they represent they, here are some brief facts. Greenleaf, who died in 1990, is generally acknowledged to be the founder of the modern servant leadership movement. He worked for AT&T for over 40 years, researching management, development and education of employees. What he observed during that time was that the top-down, authoritarian leadership style prevalent in U.S. companies was not effective in providing value for stakeholders. He took early retirement in 1964 to establish the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, which is still active today.

In 1970, Greenleaf Greenleaf identified ten principles in his essay, The Servant As Leader, all of which can apply directly to how leaders help generate a customer-centric culture and create lasting value for all stakeholders:

– Listening – being receptive, and understanding stakeholder needs
– Empathy – accepting and recognizing stakeholders as people
– Healing – being a force for transformation and integration
– Awareness – helping create open and personal self-awareness
– Persuasion – building consensus rather than forcing decisions by coercing others
– Conceptualization – ability to both manage, and look beyond, the day-to-day
– Foresight – understand lessons learned, present realities, and view the future
– Stewardship – all stakeholders hold the enterprise in trust for the greater good
– Commitment to the Growth of People – intrinsic value beyond basic contributions
– Building Community – shaping and reinforcing relationships within the enterprise

If these ten principles seem like they would be applicable to customer-centricity in operations and experiences, and humanistic approaches for building relationships and value for all stakeholders within an enterprise, it’s not an accident. Today, though many enterprise leaders still believe in, and practice, a paradigm which depends on controlled communication and power rather than mutually beneficial agreements, Greenleaf strongly believed otherwise. His ‘best test’ for any enterprise effectiveness was to ask how leaders could serve people, help them grow as individuals, become more autonomous, healthier, wiser, and freer, and, themselves, become servants.

Certainly, we can see Greenleaf’s legacy in organizations identifying themselves as agents of conscious capitalism. In a later essay, The Institution As Servant, Greenleaf wrote: “If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major organizations by new regenerative forces operating within them.” That may feel squishy to some, but it should be recognized that such organizations have the capacity to become engines of growth and profitability, and many of these companies have done exactly that.

Max De Pree, soon to be 90, was the CEO of the Herman Miller office furniture company, his family’s business, through the late 1980’s. His 1987 book, Leadership Is An Art, has sold more than 800,000 copies; and this was followed up by Leadership Jazz in 1993. He established the De Pree Center for Leadership in 1996. Like Greenleaf, De Pree believes that leadership is not about telling others what to do, running their lives through pressure, and narrowly defining their world. It is about creating circumstances that allow individuals to assume responsibility and giving them the freedom to participate, collaborate and work in the best possible way, fitting to who they are and focusing on personal responsibility.

As De Pree has wisely stated: “The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers. Are the followers reaching their potential? Are they learning? Serving? Do they achieve the required results? Do they change with grace? Do they manage conflict? Leaders must understand who should be listened to and when. Leadership is liberating people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible. Leadership is much more an art, a belief, a condition of the heart, than a set of things to do. The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed, ultimately, in its practice.”

The core precepts, and benefits of servant leadership, have been understood for centuries. In the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao-Tzu, it was written: “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy. When the servant leader’s task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say ‘We ourselves have achieved it!” Leaders of organizations desiring to be customer-centric, and managers wanting to help leaders achieve that worthwhile goal, would do well to follow these ideals and the principles of Greenleaf and De Pree.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


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