The Three Major Characteristics of a Servant Leader

Last Updated: 06 Jan 2023
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Throughout our society there have been many individuals that have exposed the world to different leadership skills, traits, characteristics, and ideas. There have been many leaders that are well known throughout our history such as: George Washington, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, among many other great leaders. Every leader, or most leaders, has a different leadership styles and contributes his or her ideas to society in different ways. For example you have some leaders who contribute ideas or theories by being a passive activist for the Civil Rights Movement, Such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. striving for equality among all races.

On the other hand, there are radical leaders such as Malcolm X (or Malcolm Little) who lead African-Americans through the Civil Rights era with his "Any Means Necessary" aggressive and often violent approach. Many people believe there is a certain leader that will one day show the world a different leadership theory that can make all the difference in today's society. What many have yet to realize is that leader's time has come and gone, but his leadership theory will live on and forever be remembered.

Robert Greenleaf (1904-1990) from Terre Haute, Indiana was the author of "The Servant as Leader" which describes his theory on leadership known as Servant Leadership. Green leaf describes his theory by combining what it means to be a servant and a leader. He refers to the servant as one who serves others and puts his or her needs above his own. He refers to the leader as someone who has the power to take action by doing what is best for a group of people or organization. Many of the concepts and ideas that Greenleaf mentioned in his book could help contribute to leadership issues in today's society such as the increasing population of the Burmese in Johnson County and Perry Township. In Greenleaf's "The Servant as Leader" he described three major characteristics of a servant leader that could help the problem with the Burmese Population known as: Foresight, Awareness/Reflection, and Acceptance/Empathy.

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The first major characteristic of being a servant leader understands foresight and how it applies to Greenleaf's theory of servant leadership. According to Greenleaf foresight means "regarding the events of the instant moment and constantly comparing them with a series of projects made in the past at the same time projecting future events" (p.27). As a leader it is crucial to be able to understand the events throughout today's society-which Greenleaf refers to as "now"—and vision or project the possible outcomes for the future. Greenleaf also said that if a leader fails (or refuses) to foresee it then becomes an ethical issue for that particular leader. At that point Greenleaf believed that it becomes the result of a failure to make the effort at an earlier date to foresee today's events and take the right actions when there was freedom to for initiative to act. This characteristic relates back to how the United States are handling the increasing population of the Burmese across the nation.

In my LEA 210 Foundation of Leadership class, a project group whom others and I are a part of interviewed some leaders throughout local communities about this issue. The person who we interview first was Margarita Hart, whom works for Esperanza, to get an understanding of what is the problem is with the increasing number of Burmese in the U.S. According to Hart in 2013 there are approximately 1,700 Burmese individuals scheduled to come to the U.S. The problem is within Johnson County and Perry Township area it is becoming very crowded and over populated. Hart also mentioned that the states bid to receive immigrants/funding is use to assist the Burmese for nine months to get your English classes, welfare, food/housing, and legal status to hold jobs as well as healthcare. Greenleaf would think that our country currently is doing a poor job of handling this problem, which should have been foreseen upon the arrival of the first arrival of the Burmese.

According to Greenleaf foresight is the "lead" a leader has and once he or she loses that then he or she is leader in name only. In this instance Greenleaf said, "He is not leading; he is reacting to immediate events and he probably will not long be a leader" (p.27). Greenleaf would consider many leader, such as President Obama, to be simply be reacting to the Burmese population.

Many people find it stressful that not many leaders are taking the initiative to help find a resolution to the significant number of Burmese within the country. Greenleaf said servant leadership can cause leaders to carry the burden of other people going out ahead to show the way for others which can be rough-suggests that one enters a situation prepared with the necessary experience and knowledge for insight for one's optimal performance. This raises many questions for many American citizens as to if "we" were truly prepared for the incoming Burmese families in the past and the future. It seems that Hart, and Esperanza, are taking steps to preparing for the next round of Burmese to come to the U.S. in 2013 continuing to help make as many people as they can aware of the current situation at hand.

The second major characteristic of servant leadership is spreading awareness throughout communities. According to Greenleaf "When one is aware, there is more than usual alertness, more intense contact with the immediate situation, and more is stored away in the unconscious computer to produce intuitive insights in the future when needed" (p.28) Greenleaf meant that being aware of situations such as the Burmese requires more than just simply knowing of the situation, but actually taking the steps toward the solution.

In my current leadership class (LEA 210) I learned that there were some important leadership questions that were raised because of Greenleaf's view on awareness. What is happening right now? What do I want to happen? What am I doing to prevent that from happening? Some people understand those who are aware— that the Burmese families are here for what many believe is a chance at having a new life with better opportunities for the families and future generations. Greenleaf's perspective of servant leadership on awareness in this instance would be to learn to serve first before leading others by putting his or her needs first which is what he believes should happen. Greenleaf and Hart have a mutual understanding of awareness because both agree that leaders should be able to serve first, if they cannot then that question if they were truly meant to leads in the beginning.

According to Hart, she said that there are around 9,000 Burmese people living in Perry Township with 20 leaders. Greenleaf would find this unacceptable because it is hard for small number of leaders to spread awareness to other communities about the significant amount of Burmese in local communities. Greenleaf argued that by being aware "A leader must compose oneself in a way that permits the creative process to operate" (p.29). Greenleaf and Hart would have servant leaders to become more creative to spread awareness about the Burmese. It is both the Burmese's responsibility and U.S. citizens to spread awareness to each other. One example of targeting the leaders would be within the Burmese community, because they have different clans and do not talk with other clans for many reasons including religious beliefs.

Another reason would fall of the U.S. citizens behalf because many of us have the "It's not my responsibility" excuse instead of assisting others who actually need it even within our own local government. Some ways through today's society you can spread awareness through social media, flyers, campaigns, and among other ways to spread awareness. By spreading awareness individuals are becoming better servant leaders and more suitable and empathetic toward others.

The third major characteristic of servant leadership is acceptance and empathy. According to Greenleaf, "acceptance is receiving what is offered with approbation, satisfaction, acquiescence; and empathy is the imaginative projection of one's own consciousness into another being. In servant leadership accepting the things that you cannot change in the real world may be easy for some leaders but does not mean you have to accept "some of the person's effort of performance as good enough" (p.21). Acceptance as Greenleaf describes it means as a leader you should accept that you followers will do the best they can in the duties and responsibilities toward you and the organization. At the same time there will be those individuals whom performance and effort does not meet the standard the two of you set, therefore making his or her work is not good enough.

At that point both the leader and follower would need to talk about how to improve the quality of the work and how the leader could help contribute to the solution. The way Greenleaf describes empathy is by putting your own conscience in someone else. It requires you to ask yourself if the task you assigned to a follower can be completed to good enough standards. If not then Greenleaf said those individuals should be empathized and accepted for what they are, even though their performance may be judged critically in terms of what they are capable of. Being empathetic shows that a leader understands the follower is not perfect, therefore fully accepting the fact that he or she is putting forth valiant effort toward the goal of the organization.

Many people say that not everyone can be leaders for several reasons. One reason is due to a lack of confidence. In today's many people do not believe in themselves as compared to iconic leaders in the past. Greenleaf would argue a similar idea. He would say many people could be leaders but they would have to learn to be as servant first. By putting others first and serving them as well as contributing to his or her ideas as a follower it shows that you are becoming a better servant leader. To help the Burmese population Greenleaf would argue that leaders would need to step up by taking initiative by having foresight, awareness, and acceptance/empathy.

I believe that Greenleaf's theory would work because of the root word "serve" in his theory. Most leaders are not into his or her leadership position, unless they come from a certain background that shows society differently. Most leaders have to be developed from being a servant first. Being a servant leader is not a bad thing. It shows that you understand that it is crucial to serve others needs before your own. It is not recognition or praise, but simply for the fact that it is the morally right thing to do. Being a servant leader gives followers the inspiration they need to fulfill his or her duties to you and know that you accept/empathize them for all the hard work he or she has brought to the organization. At the end of the day servant leaders want you to be the best leader you can be, at all costs.

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The Three Major Characteristics of a Servant Leader. (2023, Jan 06). Retrieved from

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