A Recipe for Servant Leadership

The phrase “servant leadership” may sound like one of those nice throwaways they always write into the opening section of employee manuals. But please don’t let any perception of passivity fool you—servant leadership is very strong stuff. If you really live it, servant leadership changes everything.

At Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCoB) in Ann Arbor, MI, our approach to the concept is based on a book written back in 1977 by Robert Greenleaf entitled, simply, Servant Leadership. It’s very much worth reading the whole thing—I’ve gone through it in detail at least 10 or 12 times. Over the years we’ve worked with, adapted, and adjusted various elements of his teachings, translating them from the theoretical into the practical world of day-to-day leadership. What follows is our interpretation of Greenleaf’s approach—the Zingerman’s recipe for effectively implementing servant leadership.

To get you going, here’s a small taste of Greenleaf in action: “[W]e should move towards a new institution that embraces both work and learning—learning in a deep and formal sense and all of the learning influence most people need. This requires a new type of leader, one who can conceptualize such an institution, generate enthusiasm so that many good able people want to be part of it, and provide the strong focus of purpose that builds dynamic strength in many. Great things happen when able leaders create these conditions.” Servant leadership is, quite simply, one of the easiest ways I know to help make our organization more effective and the world a better place in the process. Best of all, it’s free. You can make an enormous impact without investing anything other than your own intellectual and emotional energy.

Serve the Organization

The basic belief of servant leadership is that our job as leaders is—first and foremost—to serve our organization. To paraphrase John Kennedy’s magnificent 1961 inaugural speech, “Ask not what your organization can do for you. Ask what you can do for your organization.” To those who already think that way, this statement might sound obvious, or even inevitable, but in my experience, it’s actually neither. In fact, in most traditional organizations the service flows in the other direction—the rest of the organization exists primarily to serve the needs of its leaders. In a servant-led world, by contrast, we do the opposite—here, we serve the organization. Instead of just being about the boss, servant leadership is about success for all involved.

Servant leadership is all about giving, and it’s all about service. It requires that each of us come to work every day committed to doing what the organization needs done, to serve the entity as a whole even when that means that what we would like as individuals may get short shrift. It means treating those who report to us as we would our customers, not like hired help who are there only to serve our every need. It means that the more we succeed, the more we grow, the more people I get to give service to. And if I serve well, we’ll likely keep growing, and then serving and growing still farther into the future.

It’s safe to say that, although he’s hardly a household name, Greenleaf’s ideas are much better known in the business world than anything ever put forward by Emma Goldman. But hearing them and living them are two totally different things. Paying lip service to servant leadership is easy, but doing it well is another story altogether. For those of us (which would be most) who were raised in a hierarchical world where success is all about earning privilege and power, servant leadership is actually completely counterintuitive.

Tenets of Servant Leadership

Seriously, to live servant leadership effectively is no small thing. It’s not a hobby, and it’s not about sending an annual donation to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in central Indiana. It is an entire reorientation of the way most all of us are “raised” in the work world. When we live it well, servant leadership means that:

  • I, as the leader, come last, not first.
  • We get promoted in order to serve more, not to be served more by others.
  • We respond to staff complaints with the same sort of positive, appreciative response we would give to customers.
  • It’s more important for me as the boss to bring coffee to the new cashier than the other way around.
  • When there’s a conflict between what’s right for us as individuals, and what’s right for the organization, we have an obligation to do what’s good for the group.
  • We hire people in order to help them succeed.
  • We lead the way in creating an appreciative workplace.

Here’s how it works in practice. My major “customers” here at Zingerman’s are the managing partners of the ZCoB businesses, people like Frank Carollo and Amy Emberling, the managing partners at the Bakehouse. In turn, Frank’s and Amy’s primary customers would be the Bakehouse managers. The managers’ major customers would then be the frontline staff. The idea throughout is to keep the (positive) energy flowing out, towards the front-line staff. They, after all, are the ones who are dealing with paying customers and/or making the products we sell. Servant leadership means we have an obligation to make sure their energy is upbeat, available at all times to give the best possible service to customers. The better their energy is, the better our service, the better the outcome will be for the entire organization.

Paradox and Servant Leadership

Having lived it for so many years now, I think that one of the underlying requirements for successfully living servant leadership is the ability to work through paradox—people who have a hard time with it (and many do) won’t, and don’t, do well in this system. If you haven’t looked it up lately, a paradox is “a statement or group of statements that leads to a contradiction or a situation which defies intuition.” And that’s exactly what servant leadership sets out to be. Quite simply, while the theory sounds straightforward, when you start to put it into practice, you’ll find it’s way more difficult to deal with the paradoxical realities it presents than it might seem after just a couple of pleasant-to-read paragraphs.

Getting new managers to understand servant leadership is like teaching someone who spent a lifetime playing soccer to learn basketball for the first time—it’s completely counterintuitive, and much of what you did to succeed in one setting will cause you big problems in the other. A guy who spent his whole life learning to keep his hands off the ball, now has to learn to grab hold of it and handle it with grace for a good two hours. In soccer, when you kick the ball you’re doing the right thing. In basketball, if you kick it they stop the game. If you kick the ball on purpose you get a technical foul. Kick it again and you’ll probably get kicked out. Same with servant leadership. What brings success in the old-school business world would probably get you kicked off the team at the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

The Toughest Paradox

Perhaps the toughest servant leadership paradox to tackle is that the higher up you move in the organization, the greater your obligation is to serve. It’s simple, but counterintuitive for anyone who’s been trained in the corporate world. In our servant-led world, the higher you get promoted, the harder you’ll probably have to work and the more you have to give of yourself. The whole system runs completely counter to the traditional American image that “we’re going to get promoted so we can kick back and reap the rewards of the efforts we made earlier in our careers, taking advantage of a large staff who’s there to serve us.” Servant leadership turns that idea upside down; success in the servant sense often makes our work more challenging, not less so.

Another of the servant leadership paradoxes is that we commit to treating staff like customers (not like low-level servants brought in solely to do our bidding). In the straight sense of service, as we define it here at Zingerman’s, that really would mean doing whatever a staff member asks of us. Of course, that’s neither possible nor advisable. Which just makes for more paradox. As servant leaders we’re regularly faced with this dilemma: When should we give service to an individual staff member and when is it time to give service to the group by not doing what that staff member asked? The problem can come up in any number of ways. I can easily imagine an employee asking us to transfer one of his colleagues to a different department because he doesn’t like working with them. Or demanding to have his pay doubled because his house payment went up. While I certainly don’t begrudge either employee asking for what they want, clearly those are requests that we can’t, in good conscience, fulfill. An even tougher situation to handle would be when we find ourselves having to fire a staff member because it’s become the right thing for the organization for them to move on.

One final, related paradox: servant leadership creates a setting where what we want for ourselves may conflict with what is best for the organization as a whole. Sometimes we, as leaders, have to choose to give up what we want for ourselves in the short term in order to provide more for others around us. It’s hard to know where to draw the line—which is a big part of why learning servant leadership is hard to do. The old model calls for lots of straight lines, command and control, and good and bad sides to every decision. But servant leadership lives in the gray and the uncertainty that is everyday life in the real world, dictating all the while that we err every day in favor of the organization rather than ourselves.

A Different Way of Thinking

Even with all the best intentions and a lot of attention to learning, servant leadership is not a skill most people can master in a month. I think it’s a whole different way of thinking. My friend Meg Noori, a poet, writer, editor, and one of the leaders in the work to transcribe and keep alive the Ojibwe language, has demonstrated for me regularly that two languages are not just interchangeable words for exactly the same things. To the contrary, the way living languages are constructed, they actually create different thought patterns, and, from those, different ways of relating to the world and of speaking, writing and working. Similarly, servant leadership is its own business language. It’s not just a nicer way of talking about being in charge or a more polite tactic for taking power. Servant leadership is a wholly different way of relating to the organization and the people in it. And, like Robert Greenleaf, I think it’s a better way.

Book excerpt From Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading Part 2: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Being a Better Leader by Ari Weinzwig. Copyright (c) 2012 Ari Weinzwig.  All rights reserved. Published by Zingerman’s Press.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
  • Ari Weinzweig is co-owner and founding partner of Zingerman?s Delicatessen, an Ann Arbor, Mich., institution established in 1982. He is a frequent guest speaker in business classes at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, and at various food and business conferences in the U.S. and abroad.  

Ari Weinzweig

Ari Weinzweig

Ari Weinzweig is co-owner and founding partner of Zingerman?s Delicatessen, an Ann Arbor, Mich., institution established in 1982. He is a frequent guest speaker in business classes at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, and at various food and business conferences in the U.S. and abroad.  

More from Pragmatic

Related Content

Recommended Content

Trending Content

Training on Your Schedule

Fill out the form today and our sales team will help you schedule your private Pragmatic training today.

Stay Informed

Sign up to stay up-to-date on the latest industry best practices. Get content such as:

    • The Pragmatic – Industry insider magazine
    • The ever-growing webinar series 
    • Our world-class podcast series