Servant Leadership

Preparing the group presentation Servant Leadership has been great for allowing me to delve into this concept, one I had heard bandied about but had never really looked into. It has reinforced my belief that traditional western leadership paradigms are not appropriate or useful for promoting an ethic of responsibility and care for others. It has added to my bucket of hopefulness that societies and cultures can peacefully co-exist and thrive if the right conditions prevail.

The main point that my group wanted to present was the resonances between indigenous and western concepts and the practice of “servant leadership”. And I think we did a good job as we were asked a really great question: if this is so closely related to what already exists in Te Ao Maori, would we (not the group per see) be better of just using that paradigm? We agreed. In the New Zealand context Kaitiatikitanga is most appropriate to honour and reflect indigenous Maori as tangata whenua. Te Ao Maori concepts and practices should take precedence, furthermore I think that they extend western expression of servant leadership in beneficial ways. The spiritual dimension promotes environmental sustainability and the world needs to do everything we can to pursue beliefs in this direction.

At the risk of cultural appropriation, non-indigenous people will benefit from respecting and developing kinship with the earth. The power of this relationship will be the basis for the future survival of our species.  As western societies are reaching points of crisis and degradation indigenous frameworks and methodologies are ascending and finding saturation at the global level. 

However, I am wary of subscribing to a hierarchy of legitimacy that (albeit unintentionally) accords a higher status or rank order to indigenous models over any other genuine attempts to make the world a better place. This strips other cultures of their own explorations and expressions of servant leadership, and I don’t think that is in anyone’s interest. Robert Greenleaf had an influence over a particular audience and his korero and writings were obviously powerful in his contexts, as they have been taking forward for many decades afterward.

It is unfortunate that Robert Greenleaf is positioned by some as a ‘founding father’ of servant leadership, particularly as his own writings state clearly that he was drawing on different philosophies and cultures that were not new. He showed himself as an authentic leader by owning that these ideas had only just entered his consciousness after retiring from his corporate career. But the point is that he took them from his consciousness and sought to influence others in his society and spheres of influence.I think he was a pioneer in his own cultural context in terms of giving visibility to issues of ethics, care and community in management discourses.

And the way he did that has a lot to tell western people about how they need to position themselves in relation to indigenous people. He was known to say that

‘it may be that the best that some of today’s privileged can do is to stand aside and serve by helping when asked and instructed” but he was aware that “not many of today’s privileged may elect this course. But among them who see themselves as servants first may want to consider it as a possible best course for them”.

As stated above, I believe that Maori models and concepts are appropriate and best for the New Zealand context. As a native-born US’er though I was pleased to have an example of a western thinker’s exploration and expression of servant leadership. One dead white guy who I think made a difference.  He .was transgressing boundaries in his society (that sadly still exist over 40 years after his initial writings were published). 

Unfortunately, very many Westerners* have become increasingly disconnected from themselves to the point where many do not understand that they too have a culture. I am proud of the values I inherited from my Mom’s southern US ethnic german/hybrid hillbilly proud poor ‘hospitality culture’ which taught me to learn to put others before myself, look out for the underdog, stay humble, think before opening my mouth, and add another cup of broth to the soup to feed those in need. The qualities of servant leadership are well expressed in indigenous leadership models (i.e. kaitiakitanga) but I don’t think we have to or should minimise what these look like for other cultures. The strength of non-indigenous people’s ability to genuinely ally indigenous people will lie in their ability to themselves feel a deep and meaningful connection to all that is good about their cultures. 

*I’m not really that fond of using this term as it homegenises very many distinct cultures and peoples that are subsumed by “Western” and erases people and groups who have not lost that connection to their cultures and their native lands.