Lead from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Posted on August 6, 2015 by

Your decision to lead from the bottom up is the decision to be a servant leader.

Servant Leadership Theory

The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.” Though the idea of leading through service has been around for centuries and is found in many ancient religions and cultures, Greenleaf modernized the notion. In his essay he states:

“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 … 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?”

In the article, “Servant Leadership a Solution to World’s Social Problems” by Michelle Strutzenberger of Axiom News (an online news organization), Greenleaf Center CEO Kent Keith expounds the merits of servant leadership.

“‘I see a great need for servant leadership all over the world, at all levels’ … The power of servant leadership is its focus … Rather than power, wealth, and fame as their No. 1 drivers, servant leaders set their faces towards ‘making a difference.’”

Keith goes on to say that “‘Servant leaders effect change by identifying and meeting the needs of others … They pay attention to what their colleagues need, so they can help them perform at the highest possible levels. And they pay attention to the needs of those they serve, so they can provide the programs, products, and services that people need most. By focusing on others, servant leaders are more relevant and more effective in meeting the needs of individuals and communities than leaders who focus primarily on themselves.’”

Servant leadership is ethical, practical, and meaningful, Keith says. The combination of these factors creates the power and efficacy of being a servant-first leader. “On the practical level, servant leaders are self-aware, they listen to people, and they develop people. They are close to their colleagues, and close to the marketplace.

‘By listening and growing people, the leader succeeds, his or her colleagues succeed, and those they serve succeed,’ Keith says.”

Servant leadership encompasses an important break-with mentality for leaders. Instead of leading from above, you lead from below. Or more accurately, you lead from alongside. It’s a push rather than a pull mentality. You are there supporting, serving, and helping your people to grow by serving them, removing barriers, and championing their efforts. That doesn’t mean you relegate your responsibility to set direction, establish strategy, and make the tough decisions. You still must do those things. As Ken Blanchard said in “Servant Leadership” The Management Forum volume 4, number 3, “Servant-leadership is all about making the goals clear and then rolling your sleeves up and doing whatever it takes to help people win. In that situation, they don’t work for you, you work for them.”

As Greenleaf said, first you begin with a mindset—“the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” Then you lead by setting direction and establishing clear goals. But it doesn’t stop there. In fact, that’s just the beginning. As author E.M. Kelly said, “Remember the difference between a boss and a leader; a boss says ‘Go!’ A leader says ‘Let’s go!’” So finally you get down on your stomach and army crawl through the brush in the rain with your team and do the job. For you and your team, it may be winning a key client, launching a new marketing campaign, or finding sponsors for a nonprofit event. With a servant leadership mindset, your leadership responsibilities are the same, your execution is entirely different.


In the desert, travelers experience an optical phenomenon called a mirage in which light rays are bent to produce a displaced image of distant objects or the sky. The effect often looks like a small lake or pond. You’ve probably experienced the same thing to a degree if you’ve ever been on a highway in very hot temperatures. The asphalt in the distance seems to shimmer and appear wet, yet when you reach that spot in the road in reality the asphalt is dry.

Servant leadership produces a type of mental phenomenon similar to a mirage. The C-suite executives in many organizations see servant leadership as a lose-win situation. The leader seems to be a “doormat”—someone who allows themselves to be taken advantage of by others. Or the leader seems weak. That is the mirage. But experience suggests that when you work from the mindset of serving first, you see the situation for what it really is—a win-win. Not a position of weakness, but a position of strength.

James Kouzes and Barry Posner in Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, said, “Leaders we admire do not place themselves at the center; they place others there. They do not seek the attention of people; they give it to others. They do not focus on satisfying their own aims and desires; they look for ways to respond to the needs and interests of their constituents. They are not self-centered; they concentrate on the constituent … Leaders serve a purpose and the people who have made it possible for them to lead … In serving a purpose, leaders strengthen credibility by demonstrating that they are not in it for themselves; instead, they have the interests of the institution, department, or team and its constituents at heart. Being a servant may not be what many leaders had in mind when they choose to take responsibility for the vision and direction of their organization or team, but serving others is the most glorious and rewarding of all leadership tasks.”

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