Servant Leadership: The Answer to Leading From Behind

From corporate scandals to our economic crisis, poor leadership has created obstacles for us all. Therefore, how we get out of this mess will take a different type of leadership.

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Leading From Behind with Servant Leadership
Leading From Behind with Servant Leadership

Whether you are the CEO of a Wall Street darling, managing a 3rd generation main street business or reforming social injustices, one thing is certain – we all feel behind today. From corporate scandals to our economic crisis, poor leadership has created obstacles for us all. Therefore, how we get out of this mess will take a different type of leadership. We need leaders that inspire us. Leaders motivated by something greater than themselves. Leaders focused on sustainable success over hollow, short-term gains. What we need is Servant Leadership. With servant leaders leveraging technology and a focus on the right results, yes we can, lead from behind.

Leading from behind starts with the right character, vision and selflessness to inspire; traits that servant leaders Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa exemplified. These individuals all led from behind, knew there was a better way and forged the path to success through service to those they led. However, servant-leadership is effective in any field, not just social reform. Consider, for example, servant leaders in business like Herb Kelleher, Sam Walton and Max DePree.

Kelleher created and led Southwest airlines to be among the most successful companies, bucking one of the most devastating trends in its industry. Fortune Magazine even referred to Kelleher as perhaps the best CEO in America. This servant leader emphasized that people take themselves lightly, but their jobs seriously. As an example of service to those he led, Kelleher was known to spend holidays loading baggage with ground crews.

Like Kelleher, Sam Walton knew the key to success was serving the people that served the organization. Walton was famous for saying, “The folks on the front lines – the ones who actually talk to the customer – are the only ones who really know what’s going on out there. ” Walton also taught that customers were the real boss, not the stockholders.

Both Kelleher and Walton’s beliefs aligned with Max DePree, former CEO and Chairman of Herman Miller, one of America’s foremost furniture manufactures. DePree wrote “Leadership is an Art” and “Leadership Jazz”. Both books received praise from President Clinton and other famous leaders. DePree stated, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant. ”

Many more examples of servant leaders in business exist, like Howard Behar of Starbucks fame or Ken Melrose from the turnaround of Toro Company. There are also other companies that found success through servant leadership, companies like Medtronic, Service Master and Marriott International. Furthermore, leadership experts in academia frequently proclaim the need for servant leadership, like Jim Collins’ did in his book Good To Great.

Those who follow the path of servant leadership will have something in their favor – technology. Advances in social technologies are shifting the balance of power to the masses, thus increasing the demand for effective servant leadership and empowering those who leverage it. One recent example was the success of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. This “community organizer” used servant leadership, empowered by effective social technologies, to help win his election. Numbers like 6.5 million online donations, 13 million email addresses, 35,000 volunteer groups, his own social networking site, 70 million online fundraisers and over 400,000 blog posts all played an undeniable factor in the election . Servant leaders today will leverage social technology tools for the success of their organizations.

When we take this opportunity to perform as servant leaders, we will ensure the future success of our organizations and our communities. How then, will leaders recognize success at leading from behind? I believe Robert K. Greenleaf the father of modern servant-leadership put it best when he said:

“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?”

When answering affirmatively to these questions, the effective leader will recognize they are no longer leading from behind the curve, but ahead of it.

NOTE: The above post was originally written in February for “The Bill George Challenge” on ExecuNet ( The challenge was to describe a leadership style that would adapt to a more particapatory managament practice, listing role models you would reference and how you would measure results. The challenge was placed in the framework of President Obama’s call to action for everyone to take responsibility and participate in solving the challenges we face.


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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