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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Servant Leadership in a Digital Age

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

Servant Leadership is a trending topic in all forms of organizational life, from churches to universities to non-profits, small businesses to multi-national corporations. Yet as the popularity of servant leadership has increased, its definition has become increasingly ambiguous. What exactly is servant leadership? How is it practiced? And what might it mean in a world of continuous social change and digital acceleration?

Google searches for servant leadership have doubled in the last 14 years.

Robert Greenleaf first coined the term Servant Leadership in a seminal 1970 essay, "The Servant as Leader."

In the essay, Greenleaf writes:

"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 leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature."

Greenleaf's roots were in the corporate world. He worked at AT&T for nearly four decades. Yet despite his work in the telecommunications industry, one wonders how Greenleaf's ideas might have evolved were he working in our contemporary tech-shaped culture. He passed away in 1990 at age 86, leaving a legacy that continues to shape leaders of all vocational and spiritual backgrounds. In this post, we'll explore how the idea (really, the ideal) of servant leadership transfers to a digital age, and what it means to be a servant leader in a time of constant technological acceleration.

We need a new approach to leadership

Acceleration and a drive towards efficiency are the only unifying aspects of all organizational life life today. Digital technologies have expedited the flow of information providing us with an abundance of data while conditioning us to move quickly. As communications dart across our screens we cannot help but feeling a sense of busyness, even a sense of overwhelm and malaise. The same corporate world that gave rise to the concept of servant leadership expects constant availability and its responsiveness, far more than it expected from its laborers in Greenleaf's day. Lean staffing structures and ceaseless digital connectivity are a potent pairing, explaining why organizations see increasingly more of their people affected by exhaustion, burnout, and anxiety.

Indeed, this is a time that requires a new approach to leadership. So many of those who aspire to leadership today do so because they believe the can improve efficiency, increase speed, and crank up outputs. Mark Zuckerberg's "year of efficiency" has become a widely adopted template for doing less with more. If aspiring leaders are successful in this drive towards acceleration, the market will reward them accordingly. Yet in prioritizing these outcomes they exacerbate the anxiety and freneticism that characterize organizational life.

Servant leadership offers an alternative to the hamster wheel of digital age efficiency. While still driving towards a meaningful vision of a world that could-be, a servant leader consciously charts an unconventional path.

Motivation: The Heart of the Servant Leader

Motivation is the most distinctive attribute of the servant leader. Their motivation appears rather backwards when compared to their peers.

The conventional digital age leader thirsts for productivity gains and increased effectiveness. And let's be clear - there's nothing wrong with efficient, high performing organizations. But in servant leadership, any performance indicator is understood to be an output. When servant leaders achieve such ends, they do so by starting from a commitment to service above all else. The servant leader chooses to serve - to serve first. Being a servant leader in a digital age is about prioritizing a mindset of service to one's team members, stakeholders, members, or community. To paraphrase servant leadership guru Ken Blanchard, any profits reaped by the organization are the applause they receive in exchange for quality service.

The heart of servant leadership is this orientation towards making people and communities more complete, more whole.

To identify a servant leader, ask them about the purpose underlying their work. Ask them about their why. If their answer is presented in the metrics of the marketplace or in the terms of the efficiency expert, than they may be a conventional manager. But if they are driven to make a demonstrably positive impact on their surrounding communities, then they might just be on the path towards servant leadership.

Best test: The Outcome of Servant Leadership

As with the conventions of motivation, the conventional metrics of the marketplace are outputs to the servant leader.

While they are likely to be as or more effective than their conventional peers in generating revenue, profit, and growth, they measure their effectiveness over time with a different yardstick. The growth logic of the marketplace is less immediate than the growth of people. The servant leader repeatedly inquires as to the effect their work has on colleagues, customers, suppliers, and members. If their leadership is to be meaningful, their entire network must benefit.

Greenleaf established a test for would-be servant leaders when he wrote:

"The best test [of a servant-leader], 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?"

Servant leaders can be shrewd negotiators and crafty marketers, powerful executives and commanding authorities. They can be successful capitalists and wealthy investors. Each will employ a unique approach to their exercise of leadership. But what will unite them is a continuous process of reflection into the well-being of their community. The best test of servant leadership is in the betterment of others, for the benefits of servant leadership must be shared.


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