Servant leaders: A rare breed in dire need

Gandhi as a servant leader among the people

The presence and absence of leadership in various circles is very much evident in the current chaos we are experiencing. The illusive and repulsive ways of clinging onto power by so called leaders have demonstrated the absence of leadership essentials in them. Today’s column is yet another reflection on servant leaders, with emphasis on the current Sri Lankan context.


We have got used to worshiping heroes. When heroes become zeros because of their own ill doings, we find yet another set of heroes. The former heroes who left as zeros are now coming back in new clothes to appear as a new set of heroes. This has been the vicious cycle since regaining of independence in 1948. It highlights the acute absence of servant leadership with associated authentic and transparent systems.

Leadership is not about positions and titles, but about decisions and actions. It is essentially a mindset. We look at the leaders at the top but not the “leaders at the tap.” Servant leadership is one solid way of looking at the dynamics of leadership. It is perhaps, one of the most ancient forms of leadership, aptly found in all great religious founders. When you consider the Five Hundred and Fifty Jataka Stories, more than 50% of the time, Bodhisathva is portrayed as a leader. In some cases, as a one who serve others. In brief, a servant leader is a servant first. The simple motto is service first.

Chanakya, the famous author of Arthashastra: wrote, in the 4th century BC as follows:

“The king (leader) shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects (followers)”… “The king (leader) is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.”

There are passages that highlight the servant dimension of leadership, attributed to Lao-Tzu, who is believed to have lived in China sometime between 570 BC and 490 BC

“The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy. When you are lacking in faith, others will be unfaithful to you. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’.”

The fascinating point here is that the servant leader appears as a “leader breeder” in developing his/her followers to serve others.

Branding of servant leadership

As in the case of several management concepts, the west “branded” the servant leadership. Robert Greenleaf, a scholar from USA gets the credit for documenting the features and faces of servant leaders. Having worked for AT&T for several decades, he realised the limitations of typical administrative leaders. Having contemplated an alternative, the resulting model was the repackaged concept of servant leadership.

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