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Humility: The Core of Servant Leadership

by Harry Joiner  |  
January 25, 2007

As a marketing recruiter, not a week goes by that I don't get a call from a VP of HR looking for a VP of Marketing who is a "servant leader."  Servant leadership seems to be all the rage these days.  Every company wants servant leaders, but few seem to know much about servant leadership.  They talk the talk, but walking the walk is much harder.  That's because....

Servant leadership is based on humility.

Most people, if they really knew anything about humility, wouldn't like it.  That's why so few people are humble.  Humility involves dying to oneself -- sacrificing oneself to a higher good or yielding to legitimate authority.  Quite often it means doing what you don't want to do.  Sometimes it means going down with the ship so that others may live.  And always, it means killing the egotistical, self-centered person inside all of us who wants to be comforted, petted and admired.

Humility is a Godly thing.

For authentic servant leaders, everyone has dignity.  Everyone is a child of God.  Everyone is the best in the world at something.  Everyone deserves respect.  Everyone deserves to be elevated.  Everyone deserves to be perfected, and servant leaders perfect those around them by investing in everyone and setting a benchmark example.  They walk the talk -- and inspire others to raise their game.  That's why they're so sought after.

But here's the paradox of humility:  If you think you have it, you don't.  Imagine someone bragging about how humble they are.  That's an oxymoron, isn't it?  You can never be too humble.

I'm not talking about the "awe-shucks" false modesty that most of us have.  I'm talking about putting others first always.  That is antithetical to our secular, me first, zero-sum, he who dies with the most toys wins society.  True humility is counter-cultural, which is why it's so rare.  In fact, if you want to be a truly counter-cultural rebel, then rebel against your own vanity.  Master yourself.

Now, I can't tell you how to gain humility.  Usually one has to fail (and fail spectacularly) before one discovers how much one needs others.  But barring that, here are some signs that you lack humility:

  • Thinking that what you do or say is better than what others do or say.

  • Always wanting to get your own way.

  • Arguing when you are not right (or when you are right, insisting stubbornly or with bad manners).

  • Giving your opinion without being asked for it (when charity does not demand you to do so).

  • Despising the point of view of others.

  • Not being aware that all of the gifts that you have are on loan from God.

  • Mentioning yourself as an example in conversation.

  • Speaking badly about yourself so that others may form a good opinion of you or contradict you.

  • Making excuses when rebuked.

  • Hiding your faults from others so that they may not lose a good opinion of you.

  • Being hurt that others are held in greater esteem than you.

  • Refusing to carry out menial tasks.

  • Being ashamed of not having certain possessions.

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Harry Joiner is an executive recruiter specializing in integrated marketing and "new media." He has been featured in MarketingSherpa's Great Minds in Marketing series and received coverage in the Wall Street Journal's Career Journal Online. According to Viral Garden's weekly rankings, Harry's weblog is one of the top 25 marketing weblogs in the world.

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  • by gianandrea facchini Thu Jan 25, 2007 via blog

    Few years ago i have as client Gillette group. In the meeting room there was a sign with a Winston Churchill quote: sometimes we are no ask for to do our best but to do what has to be done. Right?

  • by Lewis Green Thu Jan 25, 2007 via blog

    My response based on the bullet points: Jesus Christ is the only servent leader to have ever lived. And I know for a fact having served as a VP in the corporate world, very few CEOs or COOs want a VP who is closer or more loyal to God than he/she is to them. After all, in their business world, they are the gods.

  • by Elaine Fogel Thu Jan 25, 2007 via blog

    This individual sounds like a saint and hardly human. Maybe the Dalai Lama qualifies? Why would any CEO want a VP who's just a "yes" person? "Humility involves dying to oneself -- sacrificing oneself to a higher good or yielding to legitimate authority. Quite often it means doing what you don't want to do." Good leaders should want to hire those around them who complement their strengths and bring expertise to counterpoint their weaknesses. They should encourage their VP's to push back when there's passion in the argument, without allowing their egos to get crushed. Sounds like a servant leader is another way of saying: "Wanted: puppet executive for insecure CEO who lacks confidence, strength, and leadership."

  • by Maureen Rogers Thu Jan 25, 2007 via blog

    Harry - The notion of servant leadership is interesting and provocative, and gets us all thinking about how and when the ideas and practices of a great philosopher and religious leader apply in the business world. (No argument here that business could sure use some of them!) But I'm curious about whether someone who explicitly wants to hire a "Servant Leader" is expressing an interest in working with people who are religious, or even with Christians-only. What's your sense there?

  • by Harry Joiner Thu Jan 25, 2007 via blog

    Elaine, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Humility is counter-intuitive: Humble people share credit, and they manage others in a way that's hard on the issues and soft on the people. Humble people lead from the front -- by doing. No job or position is below them. Servant leaders know that no occupation is in itself great or small, and that everything gains the value of the Love with which it is done. Humble people are honest with themselves. Stephen Covey has a nice saying that there are only two kinds of mistakes in life: mistakes of the head and mistakes of the heart. A mistake of the head is usually an accident. A mistake of the heart is the result of a person trying to be something they are not. Along these lines, Warren Buffett is fond of saying that he never invests in companies where the management team has shown any tendency to exaggerate or stretch the truth. His reason is practical, not moral: Any one who lies to others ultimately lies to himself about his performance and his capabilities. Because humble people are honest with themselves, they can be truly honest with others in a way that preserves everyone's dignity and inspires them to change for the better. Humble people recognize their own imperfections, and they forgive the imperfections of others. However, that doesn't mean that humble leaders tolerate these imperfections if the imperfections are born of sheer laziness. If a servant leader thinks that pride or sloth are the only reasons that a subordinate is not rising to his or her potential, there's total hell to pay. We all have a responsibility to live up to our potential -- to stretch ourselves, as individuals and as organizations. Contrary to what you might think, humble leaders are indeed the same people who will sacrifice themselves for what they know is right. Martin Luther King is an example. They are the opposite of "yes men." They know that just because something is legal does not make it legitimate. Segregation was legal in the 1960s, and Dr. King gave his life in the pursuit of that change. Has he not been a humble servant of that ideal, who knows where we would be today. Make sense?

  • by Bill Gammell Thu Jan 25, 2007 via blog

    Elaine- I think that you have servant leadership all wrong. A VP that lacks servant leadership qualities is more of a puppet that a servant leader. These VP's are controlled by the strings of their own ego and "looking out for number 1". In my opinion, the people that will say or do anything to further their own agenda (the ant-servant leaders) are the true "yes" people. These "leaders" are hollow and lack any real substance. The servant leader on the other hand inspires others by word and deed. They know that building and empowering others and making them shine is the real goal of successful leader and the makings of a successful team. They are not "yes" people because they do not seek after the "yes" just to look good. They seek after what is right. I am not saying that servant leadership is easy by any means. In fact, it goes against the natural human tendencies. Servant leadership takes a lifetime while those without humility take the easy way out by only look to do good why others are watching. (Dr. Stephen Covey calls it the "Interdependence" (the 'we' mentality) vs. Independence (the "I" mentality) on the "Maturity Continuum"). Harry-great post!

  • by Cam Beck Thu Jan 25, 2007 via blog

    At any moment, we can be a slave to our vices or a slave to our virtues. Here's a good book you might consider: "There's No Such Thing as Business Ethics" by John Maxwell.

  • by Tammy Strnatka Thu Jan 25, 2007 via blog

    George Bush - the anti servant leader

  • by Tammy Strnatka Thu Jan 25, 2007 via blog

    "At any moment, we can be a slave to our vices or a slave to our virtues." Excellent!!!!!

  • by Mario Vellandi Thu Jan 25, 2007 via blog

    I hold egalitarianism as my supreme value as a practicing Buddhist. And as such, our community believes interdependent existence is the nature of all phenomenoa. There is no "I" or "self". I agree with Elaine in principle, and I thank Harry and Bill for further clarifying. I just find issue with the noun "servant" because of its obedient and non free-thinking connotation. Humility is admirable, sure. But it should be complemented with courage, emotional intelligence, and a moral framework built on compassion and aversion to inflicting suffering. Cam: John Maxwell is a great author. He bridges moral behavior, personal psychology and business in an exceptional manner for people of all faiths.

  • by Cam Beck Thu Jan 25, 2007 via blog

    I'm listening to an audiobook right now about George Washington. What I find most interesting is how expressed ambition was considered antithetical to republican virtue. I wish for it again. Whereas Washington served as President only after great reluctance, now the presidency is seen as the pinnacle of success in politics, where the inhabitants of that office are afforded luxuries never considered prudent to bestow on any citizen through force of taxation. To your point, Tammy, I don't believe Bush sees himself as anything but a servant leader, but in defense of his actions concerning Iraq, he is only doing what he promised to do when we reelected him in 2004. As for the supposed "will of the people" expressed by the most recent election (that did not include selection of a new President), there is a reason Presidents serve 4-year terms (and originally only put in office by the will of electors not directly tied to the popular vote based on who they would vote for), and that is to remove their motivations from the vicissitudes of fickle public opinion in order to correct against the sort of mob mentality that is often right - and wrong - at various stages. I will not explain my like or dislike of Bush here, but I will say that it's important when expressing political thought to remain more rational than jingoistic. The demagoguery that exists in politics in this day and age is nearly universal - not the sole domain of either Republicans or Democrats - even in political offices supposed to be above such things.

  • by Cecile Reyes Fri Jan 26, 2007 via blog

    I believe that you need to become servant of your employees prior to becoming servant of others.

  • by Paul Barsch Fri Jan 26, 2007 via blog

    Harry, now for the hard part. Finding a "servant-leader" in a sea of sameness. Good luck!

  • by Tammy Strnatka Fri Jan 26, 2007 via blog

    "Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience." --Adam Smith

  • by Tammy Strnatka Fri Jan 26, 2007 via blog

    Cam, Your last paragraph is absolutely correct. I disagree with the rest regarding Bush for numerous reasons. I will abstain from posting my political beliefs jingoistically and not.

  • by Harry Joiner Fri Jan 26, 2007 via blog

    Is that the Adam Smith of "the Invisible Hand of self interest" fame? Like economists, Smith struggled with the difference between freedom and license. Too bad Smith didn't have MLK as a role model.

  • by Cam Beck Fri Jan 26, 2007 via blog

    Tammy - excellent point. This is a great illustration of Washington's tendency to measure relationships with other nations according to an account of mutual interests rather than academic or emotional fondness.

  • by Stephen Denny Fri Jan 26, 2007 via blog

    Harry: very thoughtful (and thought- and comment-provoking) piece. A few thoughts: . Companies asking for "servant leaders" may have found a new buzzword. The idea is great -- leadership without ego, doing the right thing regardless of who gets credit, etc. Clearly, you also need a spine of steel to pull this off, though, because your CEO and your peer down the hall will have you picking up the dry cleaning if you don't. I know this isn't your suggestion, but it bears saying. . I'm wondering where you draw the line at the definition of "servant". The distinction between "dying to yourself" and "getting your agenda accomlished AND treating people fairly AND serving their interests BY getting your agenda accomplished (because it's in everyone's best interest)" is a hazy one. . I've never met one of these people. They sound great, though. . Ain't it funny when political rants find their way into marketing blogs?? No matter what side of the aisle you're on, though, you have to admit that W isn't leading with his ego and Willy sure was. Whoops, there we go again... . While you are animating your point clearly with Christian values, I don't see this as a "Christian" thing -- sounds almost Mahayana Hindu (if I recall correctly, the Buddhists would all just acknowledge that the world is illusion anyway. And if I'm not mistaken, the Muslims would just erupt in rage at something or other). In short, it's a good practice to keep your point in mind: if you don't care who gets credit and check your ego's at the door, you'd be shocked at how much great work gets done. Great post -- thanks!

  • by Elaine Fogel Sat Jan 27, 2007 via blog

    Harry and Bill, thanks for your explanation. This was the first time I heard the term, "servant leader." Maybe the connotation of the term, "servant" threw me. In many ways, your description sounds like leadership with integrity and commitment to the mission and the people engaged in achieveing it - something I'm familiar with from my work in the nonprofit sector. I admire this newfound corporate desire to leave egos at the door and come to leadership with spirituality and humility. I think it will make for better workplaces and an increased sense of team and morale. Forgive my cynicism or naivete - is this another business trend? Or, after taking this approach, will shareholders complain that results have fallen and blame the soft side of this leadership philosophy? Do you think it's here to stay?

  • by Harry Joiner Sat Jan 27, 2007 via blog

    When I posted this, I was afraid that a lot of readers would write this off as a Christian thing. But it's not. The 9/11 NY fire fighters were of mixed race and religion, as were the GIs who fought at Normandy (recall the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan). These are just two top-of-mind examples. Servant leaders live (and sometimes give) a life of heroic virtue. Yes, it helps to have a supernatural orientation; to see one's life as a means to an end, rather than an end unto itself. But one does not have to be a Christian to live this way. Ghandi was not a Christian. Neither was Anne Frank. And no, I don't see it as a passing trend. The average consumer is hit with %3E5000 commercial messages a day. The poorest among us often has more conveniences than the Ceasars. And sadly, most people in our society confuse this freedom to do what is right with a license to do whatever is pleasurable at any given moment. Not that pleasure is bad, but there's a time and a place for it. Very often, the road to hell is the path of least resistance. The Law of the Farm still applies: Sow first. Reap later. Servant leaders have the ability to impose discipline on themselves -- and that behavior serves as a model for others. This self-discipline can manifest itself at the corporate level though more social and fiscal responsibility, and at the employee level by greater personal honesty and a better work ethic. If you want to be a leader, then do what you want people to do. Be the positive change you want to see. It takes guts to live like that.

  • by Don Frick Mon Jan 29, 2007 via blog

    Harry, This was a terrific post. I'd like to affirm some of your responses, based on my own work in researching and writing Robert Greenleaf's biography. (Greenleaf was the man who first defined servant leadership in a 1970 essay titled "The Servant as Leader." He was a businessman, not a theologian.) Servant leadership is not exclusively Christian. Greenleaf knew, and was influenced by, D.T. Suzuki (Zen Buddhism) and Jewish author Rabbi Abraham Heschel. He became familiar with Hinduism after 6 trips to India, and got the idea of a servant as leader from Hermann Hesse. Personally, he began as a nominal Methodist and later became a Quaker. It's not that a servant-leader has no ego needs (is that possible?), but that s/he gets those needs met in ways that promote the growth of others. This is not possible unless one has done one's own inner work first. Servant leadership is not a philosophy for co-dependent martyrs who claim absolute selflessness and deny personal shadows. Servant leadership is not a pre-packaged fad. If it's presented that way, don't follow but run. It is a journey for seekers, yet demands accountability through measurable outcomes in some of the traditional business categories, like profit, and human categories, like "Are those being served healthier, wiser, freer and more likely themselves to become servants?" Because it is based on a universal impulse in human experience--the desire to serve--servant leadership is trans-lingual, trans-cultural, trans-political and trans-doctrinal. Greenleaf said, "Everything begins with the individual," but perhaps these ideas will also give us a fresh starting place to think about transforming our organizations, governments and international relations.

  • by Tammy Strnatka Mon Jan 29, 2007 via blog

    "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." Ghandi

  • by Paul Thu Feb 1, 2007 via blog

    Elaine: The connotation that you have for servant is a perversion of the real meaning of the word. A servant is one who is in service to something. Hence the terms 'public servant', or 'man servant' and 'maid servant' (domestic help, although these have become archaic and subject to misuse as well). Servant does not mean 'slave', or butt-kisser, or someone who always does what they are told unquestioningly. A servant leader is one who truly appreciates (not just mouths) that they can only accomplish great things through the people/community/employees that they lead, and that to accomplish great things, the needs of those people must come first. The leader is in service to the led. You aren't better than the people you lead, you just have a different role. A servant leader will always try to clear roadblocks for their employees, lead by example, give others credit, build up rather than tear down, and coach, guide and elicit greatness rather than dictate from above. By way of example, they wouldn't expect someone else to put dishes in the dishwasher in the company cafeteria, but would do it themselves if there was a mess. This is a trivial example, but it is precisely because it is a low level task that it has meaning -- no one's work is demeaned, and no one's work makes one a better person. To Tammy: If you actually read Adam Smith rather than simply pull out pithy quotes, you will see that he believed in concepts like "the commons" and "the public good". The reason he advocated for a "free market" (in quotes because most people misinterpret what this really means too) and capitalism is that he felt that greed and self interest, properly channeled and enabled, created the most opportunity to elevate everyone and create public good. He also believed that you could not legislate 'goodness', but that you could regulate and channel baser instincts to create good, and in this sense, he is a classic liberal. He was not "anti-virtue" so much as "anti people-who-promote-themselves-as-virtuous", because their motives were the most suspicious. Suggest you read his essay "Theory of Moral Sentiments" or this short synopsis of Smith's moral philosophy. . When you take his quote out of context, what you miss is that Adam Smith actually was a devout Christian who attacked the leadership of the church of England for their sloth, arrogance and lack of servant leadership. btw, Tammy, I have a sneaking suspicion that you are actually a Bartleby's automaton. Do you have any original thoughts, or do you just spew quotes from others?

  • by Jenna Thu Feb 1, 2007 via blog

    Harry, thank you for this wonderfully thought-provoking blog. I've heard a bit about about servant leadership and after reading more and understanding more, I feel it's an ideal all employees - not just leaders or managers - should strive for. When a team drops their individual egos at the door and work to better themselves by bettering the team, who benefits? The team. CEO's (at least the good ones) will see the increased producitivity and positive morale and who will they thank? The manager/leader who promoted the philosophy. Many employees who are striving to climb the ladder of success in their field or company will watch and learn from the folks up that ladder. It really does pay for leaders to work as closely to servant leadership as possible. What results is a company that is driven by people who are passionate about what they do and how they do it and is a good corporate citizen. That sounds like a company many would want to work for and to me makes total sense that CEOs are seeing the value in "servant" leadership - or any leadership style modeling this by any other name.

  • by Hugo Caicedo Mon Feb 5, 2007 via blog

    I am from Panama City, Panama, and I and very great full of your ideas, they are very well express and exactly what a lot of us need to be a better person.

  • by John Wed Feb 21, 2007 via blog

    I'm a fan of Servant Leadership. I've seen it practiced by leaders in government, academia, and the business community...and it works. The best leadership book I've ever read is "The Servant" by James Hunter.

  • by stephen m bauer Fri Mar 23, 2007 via blog

    I find this site via Google. I am in a continuing ed program in management, and I am in the midst of writing a term paper on some research that substantiates the validity of servant-leadership as a leadership model. At first, servant-leadership is highly counter intuitive. It would be most readily acceptable to those with Christian values who already value servantness. The most successful leaders in the corporate world are servwnt leaders. This has been substantiated by formal rigorous research presented in the book, Good To Great, by Jim Collins. Read chapter 2. Collins' research team chose to label the CEOs of the good-to-great companies as Level 5 leaders. They also felt that the term servant-leader gave the wrong implications. I don't have a problem with it. See also the 1977 compilations of Greenleaf's essays, titled Servant Leadersship. You just need to read teh first chapter to get the full idea. The most successful leaders in history have all been servant leaders to some degree. Just some examples: Lincoln, Jefferson during the colonial era, Ganghi, MLK, Winston Churchill; Hewlett and Packard, founders of HP, Inc.; David Maxwell, onetime CEO of Fannie May;Coleman Mockler, one time CEO of Gillette; Darwin Smit, past CEO of KImberly Clark; Alan Wurtzel of Circuit City. Collins says that Level 5 leaders are actually everywhere. He says that if find something that is a great success story, commonly you will find a Level 5 leader that led the effort.

  • by Thomas Coutouzis Fri Apr 6, 2007 via blog

    My hope is that this posting will not be seen as proud. I actually teach on servant leadership. I was let go by a big advertising agency here in Raleigh, NC back in 2002. My manager and the HR representative told me that "because I cared about people so much and because I was a good person that I shouldn't work in advertising, but work as a social worker or for a non-profit". That was the tipping point for me. I saw the lack of servant leadership in the Corporate culture and have been trying to fill the void by teaching college kids and professionals what it is to be a servant leader. When I get a chance I speak as an alum to the young SAE undergrads at National and regional leadership schools. I work in Marketing as a professional. I cover Humility, Resolve, Integrity, Discipline and Faith in God as being the core of a servant leader. However, you cannot truly be a leader with humility, resolve, discipline and integrity if God is not first in your life. God is the originator of this wisdom and only he can remove the scales from ones eyes to see the truth in these virtues. It is in our human nature to be proud, fearful, depraved, undisciplined and faithless. This is what comes to us naturally. That is why we see such a lack of servant leadership out there. As a younger man I was the most proud and egotistical person on this planet. God humbled me in so many ways that I try to teach people not to make the same mistakes I did. So much so that I have taken the wisdom God has shown me from experience and scripture to share with people, so as to prevent them from making the same mistakes I did. God has been gracious enough to allow me to teach on what it is to be a servant leader. I am actually teaching in May in my Sunday school class of young professionals about servant leadership. I will be leading off with Humility first. Isn't the Lord funny. He takes an extremly proud man, changes his heart and moves him to teach on humility. I am grateful that you are putting this out there to challenge people with discussion. Proverbs 11:2 "When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. Proverbs 13:10 "Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice." Luke Chapter 14 (Christ's parable of the wedding guest)and Daniel 4:28-37 (Nebucaddnezzar's fall from glory)

  • by Doesn't Matter Sat Oct 30, 2010 via blog

    You missed the point all together. It is obvious that you need a littel development in the humility department.

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