Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review of "The Servant" by James C. Hunter - A Parable of Servant Leadership

"The Servant - A Simple Story About The True Essence of Leadership" has stood the test of time, and many years after its initial publication still speaks to the essence of servant leadership.  James C. Hunter creates a scenario in which a successful but angry and discontented business executive bows to pressure from home and the office to attend a monastic retreat in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.

In addition to the requisite five worship services each day and time for reading and personal reflection, each day's schedule includes two sessions led by one of the monks, Brother Simeon. This is no ordinary monk, but a retired former top executive from the business world who after the death of his wife has entered the monastery.  He brings to his teaching and facilitation the unique perspective of looking at the challenges of leadership through both a business lens and a spiritual lens.

John, the narrator, is one of six individuals who will spend the week together, learning from Simeon and from one another.  They include a Baptist preacher, a gruff and recalcitrant Army sergeant, a high school principal, and a basketball coach.  The diversity among their backgrounds and perspectives offers up rich opportunities for conflict and Socratic dialogue.  Through the formal teaching sessions and the private moments that John shares with Simeon each morning at 5:00, principles of servant leadership emerge.  One early principle emerges is the difference between management and leadership:

"Management is not something you do to other people.  You manage your inventory, your checkbook, your resources.  You can even manage yourself.  But you do not manage other human beings.  You manage things, you lead people." (Page 26)

When members of the sextet were asked to list the traits of persons who had led them with authority and influence versus those who led with power alone, these ten traits emerged:

  • Honest, trustworthy
  • Good role model
  • Caring
  • Committed
  • Good listener
  • Held people accountable
  • Treated people with respect
  • Gave people encouragement
  • Positive, enthusiastic attitude
  • Appreciated people

(Pages 37-38)

It turns out that these ten traits provide an excellent backbone for a working definition of a servant leader.  What follows is a back and forth discussion, prompted by the sergeant, about getting things done in the real world - accomplishing tasks.  Simeon sums up his own balanced view: "The key then to leadership is accomplishing the tasks at hand while building relationships." (page 41)

As the week progresses and the group gets to know and trust one another more deeply, the quality of the discussion also descends to deeper levels.  At this point, Simeon introduces the concept of love into the leadership equation.  He clarifies that by "love" he does not mean an emotion of affection, but a commitment to act in loving ways towards those that one is leading - even if the leader may not feel particularly loving at that moment.  It becomes clear that one important element in acting out of love is to pay attention to people and put into action the determination to treat others with respect and dignity - basically to operate by the Golden Rule.

"One of the primary works of love is paying attention to people." (Page 107)

One final statement about leadership struck me, presented as Simeon was offering parting words to his six disciples just before their week together was to end: "Leadership is not about personality, possessions, or charisma, but all about who you are as a person.  I used to believe that leadership was about style but now I know that leadership is about substance, namely character." (Page 167)

This book is a helpful reminder for seasoned leaders and an excellent primer for leaders in development.



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