Glenn Williams

by Glenn Williams


Have we lost the art of serving?

I have observed that for many organisations their focus has shifted from serving a need (outward orientation) to serving themselves (inward orientation), sometimes with disastrous consequences.

The idea of service can be quite different depending on the organizational context. For businesses, 'service' has more to do with making profit from meeting an identified need in the market place by creating, acquiring, importing or distributing something to meet that need. In the not-for-profit context, 'service' usually relates to delivering a product or service for the betterment of others, without the need for shareholders to make a profit from it.

In Walking With the Poor, Bryant L Myers takes a look at transformational principles of development and how we define the ‘poor’ and the ‘non-poor’.[i] At the heart of his thesis is the belief that the problem of poverty is relational, not institutional per se. And while many people and organizations are motivated to serve the poor, many do so in a way that serves their own needs and goals over the ones that need serving the most.

Saul D. Alinsky, in his book Rules for Radicals, presents a perspective on leadership to a new, younger generation who are passionate about wanting to effect social change.[ii] While I found some of his principles and practices questionable, there is no doubt he was willing to challenge the status quo when it reinforced structures and processes of power and authority which discriminated against what he considered to be ‘fair, just and reasonable’ for the masses.

In Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, Robert K. Greenleaf provides some key insights that seek to transform our thinking about leadership and how it is exercised throughout society's different institutions—government, education, health, churches and businesses—with the goal of serving the needs of humanity[iii].

Ultimately, it is focused on a commitment to a vision that can only be achieved by giving authority to those who are being served by the vision, and serving the needs of colleagues who are stewards of the resources being used to fulfil that vision. Kent Keith, CEO of the Greenleaf Center, and author of The Case for Servant Leadership, identifies seven key practices of servant-leaders:

  • Self-awareness
  • Listening
  • Changing the pyramid
  • Developing your colleagues
  • Coaching not controlling
  • Unleashing the energy and intelligence of others
  • Foresight[iv]

What's the bottom-line?

Unlike leadership approaches with a top-down hierarchical style, servant-leadership emphasises collaboration, trust, empathy and the ethical use of power.

Here is my closing thought posed in a question. I wonder what it would be like if our major institutions, and their respective leaders, pursued greatness built on a foundation of service?


[i] Bryant L. Myers, Walking With The Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (New York: Orbis Books, 2009).

[ii] Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (New York: Vintage Books, 1971).

[iii] Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness. New York: Paulist Press, 1977).

[iv] Kent Keith, The Case for Servant Leadership (Westfield, IN: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2008). Kindle Electronic Edition.


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