Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Servant Leadership in Dr. Keith's Own Words

To kick off our guest interview series for CSI Season 2, I'm pleased to present the client service insights of renowned scholar, author, and CEO of the The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, Dr. Kent M. Keith.

CSI:  What is servant leadership?

KK:   Servant leaders identify and meet the needs of others, rather than trying to acquire power, wealth, and fame for themselves. Robert Greenleaf described the servant-leader this way:

"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 difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?"

CSI:  What prompted Robert Greenleaf to coin the term back in 1970?

KK:   Robert Greenleaf worked for AT&T for 38 years, retiring in 1964. Toward the end of his career at AT&T, he was Director of Management Research, which meant that he was involved in educating and training senior leaders and managers. After retiring, he worked as a consultant and continued to reflect on his experience. He concluded that the power model of leadership that he had seen at AT&T did not work well. There was a better way—servant leadership. He published his essay, “The Servant as Leader,” in 1970. That essay launched the modern servant leadership movement. Hundreds of thousands of people have read the essay and other Greenleaf writings.

CSI:   What do other leadership experts think of servant leadership?

KK:    Many experts understand the importance of servant leadership. Warren Bennis, Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Max DePree, Joseph Jaworski, Jim Kouzes, Peter Senge, and Margaret Wheatley have all spoken at one of our annual conferences, and they have been very supportive of servant leadership. Other experts describe servant-leaders without using that label. For example, Peter Drucker’s “effective executive” is a servant-leader, as is Jim Collins’s “Level 5” leader.

CSI:   How can understanding servant leadership principles help us to better serve our clients?

KK:    Servant leadership is effective because it is focused on identifying and meeting the needs of customers or clients as well as the needs of the employees or colleagues who serve them.

One key practice of servant leadership is comprehensive listening—gathering a wide range of in-depth information about customers or clients to make sure the organization understands what people need. It is hard to meet people’s needs if you don’t know what those needs are! Another practice is changing the traditional hierarchical pyramid, so that the chief at the top is not isolated but is part of a team, and people in the organization look out at the customer as well as looking up at their bosses.

Servant-leaders also pay attention to developing their colleagues, coaching instead of controlling, and unleashing the energy and potential of others. They know that when you take care of your colleagues, they will be able to take care of your customers. These and other practices make it possible to provide superlative service to customers and clients.    

CSI:   Who would you identify as examples of servant leaders?

KK:    Servant-leaders can be found in many roles and occupations. There have been many famous servant-leaders, such as Washington, Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Cesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Most servant-leaders are only known within their organizations and communities. They are not trying to be famous, they are trying to make a difference—and they do.

Over the years, a number of companies on the Fortune magazine list of “The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America” have implemented servant leadership principles. Those companies include Starbucks, TDIndustries, Southwest Airlines, Synovus Financial, Men’s Wearhouse, and The Container Store.   

CSI:   How do you and the Center promote servant leadership today?

KK:    We promote the understanding and practice of servant leadership through an annual international conference, publications, workshops, newsletters, a speakers bureau, and our website, We work closely with affiliated organizations in The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Singapore, as well as colleagues in other countries throughout the world.

CSI:  Thank you Dr. Keith!


  1. Katherine HowbrookMay 1, 2008 at 2:06 AM

    Great interview Leo - Reminded me a lot of the advice we're being given on a 'Visionary Client Leadership' course I'm currently taking here at BM London.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks Katherine. Glad to see you're receiving leadership training at BM. It's not only helpful to us as we grow as leaders in our own organizations, but I don't believe one can provide counsel to leaders without having a good grasp of leadership. I think the brand of leadership espoused by Dr. Keith is particularly important.



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