Of Servants & Leaders

By Obert Mandimutsira

In 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf published an Essay entitled The Servant as Leader. In that seminal piece, he wrote:

“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”

The servant leader concept is not really new. Even before Robert Greenleaf’s essay, it had been around for over two thousand years. However it has found such strong currency in leadership lexicon to the extent that it is almost regarded as Avant garde in some quarters.

I first came across the story of servant leadership when I was introduced to the Bible in the mid-70s, (not through that famous essay) at the old mission school in the village where I first learnt how to read. No one used the term servant leadership on my impressionable mind all those years back, but the severe looking priest and his missionary band of nuns were trying to demonstrate to these raw village boys how great a leader Jesus was. So, the gospel of Luke was read to us. It is the story of an argument that broke out amongst Jesus’s disciples as to who amongst them was the greatest. Jesus then intervenes in the argument by saying in Luke’s Gospel:

“In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called “friends of the people” (nothing has changed in our body politic from over 2000 years ago*). But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant” (Luke 22:25-26 NLT)

This passage as you might imagine didn’t really make much sense to me at the time as an eight to nine year old village boy who was being introduced to Western education for the first time. Come to think of it, there wasn’t much of servant leadership visible around us at the mission village itself, where the priest and the nuns were clearly the masters, and the villagers, the servants. Anyway I digress because that is not really the reason why I am writing about this concept of servant leadership.

My interest in the concept has really been aroused over the last 5-10 years that I have been actively following the development of new leadership styles and concepts. In fact at just about every leadership seminar, webinar, conference, master class, workshop etc. I have attended, they have all advanced the concept of servant leadership as an alternative to the current forms of leadership we see all around us, that have their foundation in what Greenleaf refers to as “the leader first” approach. This is commonly evidenced in the hierarchical structure whereby the mostly larger than life leader in a manner of speaking, leads from the front with those being led in tow. In both Western and African contexts, this also means that the leader is also availed a myriad of trappings and trinkets including paid servants who attend to her or his every whim. Interestingly this has never been an issue of contention between the former colonisers and the new rulers. I wonder why?

It is telling to note that Greenleaf was inspired to write his essay by one Herman Hesse who wrote a story called Journey to the East. In this story, Leo is a servant who does the menial chores for a group of travellers sponsored by a Christian order.  One day Leo disappears, and the travellers are completely thrown into disarray without Leo’s help (like some middle class families in South Africa and Zimbabwe), as a result the journey is aborted. Years later, it is said that one of the travellers met Leo, who by then had become a great and noble leader of the Order that had sponsored their journey. Thus Leo who started off as a servant became a great leader. This leads Greenleaf to conclude that Leo was “actually the leader all the time”, but he was servant first because that is “what he was deep inside”.  He refers to this as the “key to Leo’s greatness”.  

The phrase servant leadership was coined from this story, but how many of the modern day proponents of this theory of leadership are fully aware of its roots and practical implications? Why is there a sudden upsurge in interest around servant leadership? What does it actually mean in our countries, in our provinces, local communities, businesses, churches and families? How practical is this counter cultural concept that Jesus spoke about over two thousand years ago, and Robert Greenleaf wrote about in 1970?

For those of us schooled and socialised in the predominant concept of leadership of the leader first” approach; where people assume or foist themselves upon others as leaders, but are in the main driven by a desire to satisfy an “unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions”, the idea of a servant leader creates some kind of tension in our minds. How can one lead and be a servant at the same time? Is that not the ultimate oxymoron?  In my view this is not simply a discourse that so called leadership experts or academics should only wrestle with. Or that churches and or church organisations must figure out since their spiritual leader was one of those who first spoke of the concept. A casual look at church leadership architecture globally would appear to suggest that even they, have yet to fully come to terms, with what servant leadership is all about. The only exception in recent times worth noting is the approach to leadership that Pope Francis is attempting to set in motion at the Vatican. But even that has yet to be fully embraced by his flock worldwide.  If the church is struggling with this concept, what chances are there that the secular world can make it work?

The concept itself has some emotional appeal because of its almost Utopian basis. I would love to have my leader take the role of a servant that is until I am in that leadership position myself. Given the dearth of new energising leadership models around, particularly on our continent, is this not a concept we should maybe interrogate and develop a shared view of what it means in practice? Is it not at least a new platform upon which a new African leadership model can emerge? An old change management cliché used by many leaders in the field says; change happens when the pain of staying the same is more than the pain of changing. I think in Africa in particular, when it comes to leadership models and the tragedy that has been unleashed by leaders driven by the “leader first” orientation, we are at that point.


OfServantsAndLeadersThe Image on the left recently circulated on WhatsApp help to illustrate the point about how we all struggle with Servant Leadership. This is a funny, rather irreverent, but relevant look at the type of shoes worn by the different level of leaders at an anonymous church.



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