By one definition, servant leadership is about following in order to lead. By another definition, it is serving to lead. The philosophy closest to my heart, one that I have adapted to my organization is of “service above self.” To elaborate, it means to serve to the exclusion of oneself, to the exclusion of caring about oneself. The magnitude and depth of service is exemplified to the world by the lives of great souls such as Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. They dedicated their lives in service of others, but were clearly leaders who inspired millions.
So what sets servant leaders apart from other types of leaders?
The verb “caring” is a sometimes overused word, but one that is critical in serving others. Here I refer to care that comes from the universal love for all of creation and in particular to your extended brothers and sisters of mankind. It is to recognize that you are placed on this earth alongside other wayfarers in this journey of life. That none of them come into your circle of influence by coincidence and that, ultimately, you must extend your circle of care to include everyone you know and meet.
Servant leaders see no difference in color, caste, country, or creed. They care without restraint, without constraint, without condition.
Clarity of Vision
In order to understand one’s purpose, focus on one’s objectives, and carry these out, clarity of vision is critical. You must realize that in the service of others, you are ultimately part of a grander master plan. And that ultimately you are just another cog in the machinery, one with the specific purpose of uplifting yourself in order to raise mankind as a whole.
Once you clarify your vision and understand your purpose in life, you need to have a plan—to have objectives to meet and goals others can see. And it is critical that you bring all those around you in a common, unifying vision of reaching these objectives.
This is the one cause that all can see and identify with and, to a great extent, empathize with. A servant leader is a servant to the cause. To the true servant leader, the cause is above everything he or she does. Thus, this compelling reason supersedes all other objectives, and has to be, without a shadow of doubt, altruistic to its core. The cause itself should serve a greater purpose for the organization, and even more so for mankind itself, for it is this burning desire that transforms a servant into a leader. It is a critical tool that must be evolved, developed, propagated, and consistently instilled in all.
Values are the pillars that uphold the entire structure of servant leadership. The core values must never be lost nor eroded. They must include such essential qualities as honesty, truth, compassion, and acceptance. The values need not be all spiritual in context but have to be moral, ethical, and clearly communicable to all without exception. These values will remain the light that dispels the darkness along the path towards the vision.
Willingness to Sacrifice
The willingness to sacrifice is the greatest sign of an individual’s identity and the sincerity of his or her ambition. Herein lies the true secret of servant leadership. Historically, every servant leader has had leadership thrust upon them. They were the ones most prepared to sacrifice, give up, surrender, and do whatever was necessary to attain the goals for the greater good. This incredible willingness to sacrifice everything for their cause is a powerful tool that unifies all those within the fold while inspiring and motivating them to greater success. Ultimately, success will always painstakingly collect a price. This price has to be paid either along the way, or even on rare occasions after the fact. It is inevitable and has to be recognized as a practical consideration of every leader in developing their strategy.
This is probably why we can say that the greatest of all servant leaders is Jesus Christ Himself, because His entire life exemplified service and has made him a great inspiration to many—Christian and non-Christian—in becoming true servant leaders.
In today’s world, servant leadership is transformed into the context of service to all those you lead. Thus, despite being the head of a community or organization you are without any contradiction, a servant among servants. You lead by what you do, as opposed to what you say. It is the most challenging, yet most rewarding path to leadership. And there is no question in my mind that it is the only kind of leadership that prevails through the travails of time.
Dr. VIJAY ESWARAN is Executive Chairman of a multinational conglomerate headquartered in Hong Kong. He also is a veteran networker, popular speaker, and author of In the Sphere of Silence, a bestselling book outlining his business philosophy.
Back to top