What does it mean to be a servant leader?

In a world where interruption, abruptness and “me first” rules, is it really any wonder we are economically struggling? How can we deepen trust and increase listening to build cohesive teams in this kind of disconnected environment?

2nd shift at work in my father’s foundry, Alpha-Cast.

Long ago I watched my father purchase a bankrupt diesel engine foundry business and transform it into a roaring success through his practice of servant leadership.

My father, Theodore Argiris, a Harvard graduate, and before entering the foundry business a prominent criminal attorney in Chicago, pictured here with his hard hat on in the lunchroom with some of his employees. Many days after school, when I would stop by the foundry, I would find him in the lunchroom. We would have something to drink together and I would participate in conversations with him and his employees. I was able to observe how my dad involved them in key decision making and built shared understanding, empathy and as a result, trusted peer relationships with them.

Servant leadership is a philosophy and practice of leadership, coined and defined by Robert K. Greenleaf. Servant-leaders are often seen as humble stewards of their organization’s resources: human, financial and physical.

As a young woman, I learned a great deal watching how my father built relationships with his employees through developing shared language and asking for their input with key decision making.

Larry C. Spears, who has served as President and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership since 1990, has extracted a set of 10 characteristics that are central to the development of a servant leader:

  • Listening: Traditionally, and also in servant leadership, managers are required to have communication skills as well as the competence to make decisions. A servant leader has the motivation to listen actively to subordinates and support them in decision identification. The servant leader particularly needs to pay attention to what remains unspoken in the management setting. This means relying on her inner voice in order to find out what the body, mind and spirit are communicating.
  • Empathy: A servant leader attempts to understand and empathize with others. Workers may be considered not only as employees, but also as people who need respect and appreciation for their personal development. As a result, leadership is seen as a special type of human work, which ultimately generates a competitive advantage.
  • Healing: A great strength of a Servant Leader is the ability for healing one’s self and others. A servant leader tries to help people solve their problems and conflicts in relationships, because she wants to encourage and support the personal development of each individual.This leads to the formation of a business culture, in which the working environment is dynamic, fun and free of the fear of failure.
  • Awareness: A servant leader needs to gain general awareness and especially self-awareness. She has the ability to view situations from a more integrated, holistic position. As a result, she gets a better understanding about ethics and values.
  • Persuasion: A Servant Leader does not take advantage of her power and status by coercing compliance; she rather tries to convince those she manages. This element distinguishes servant leadership most clearly from traditional, authoritarian models and can be traced back to the religious views of Robert Greenleaf.
  • Conceptualization: A servant leader thinks beyond day-to-day realities. That means she has the ability to see beyond the limits of the operating business and also focuses on long term operating goals. A Leader constructs a personal vision that only she can develop by reflecting on the meaning of life. As a result, she derives specific goals and implementation strategies.
  • Foresight: Foresight is the ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation. It enables the servant leader to learn about the past and to achieve a better understanding about the current reality. It also enables the servant leader to identify consequences about the future. This characteristic is closely related to conceptualization.
  • Stewardship: CEOs, staffs and trustees have the task to hold their institution in trust for the greater good of society. In conclusion, servant leadership is seen as an obligation to help and serve others. Openness and persuasion are more important than control.
  • Commitment to the growth of people: A servant leader is convinced that people have an intrinsic value beyond their contributions as workers. Therefore, she should nurture the personal, professional and spiritual growth of employees. For example, she spends money for the personal and professional development of the people who make up her organization. The servant leader will also encourage the ideas of everyone and involve workers in decision making.
  • Building community: A servant leader identifies means to build a strong community within her organization and to develop a true community among businesses and institutions alike.

    At the foundry, employee’s had a great “can do” attitude because they felt like a cohesive community that each individually was understood. Communication flowed, problems were solved and progress was made.


Comments 12

  1. Beautiful Lisa…Servant Leadership must be the key to running households all the way to the White House. The world needs this more then ever in the world we live. I am encouraged that a shift is happening…thanks for sharing this. What an incredible model you had in your father. Kathleen

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  5. Lisa,

    Your father gave me my first accounting opportunity. He was always good to me at a time and in an industry when it had to be very difficult to always be so. I will forever be grateful to him.

    Dave Williams
    Class of 81′ 

  6. If I want to be a great Servant Leader, it all starts with listening skills. Your Father has given you the best example in active listening. And, in turn, you share and demonstrate this invaluable skill with the IAEOU members time and time again. Active listening like Servant Leadership are skills to be developed.

  7. I worked for your father’s foundry for 12 years. It was a hard place to work. I got hired on the same day as 5 other young men. By the end of the first day, I was the only one left. Within a few months I moved pretty high in seniority.
    Needless to say, I worked on the physical end. I worked with the molten iron, with the sand molds and cores, I worked on the shake out and the sand muller. It was hard work and pay was low.
    Ted, your father, addressed the assembled employees often and would tell us how poor the foundry was. Raises were few and far between. He often told the union why he had to keep wages low to keep the foundry open and how much he loved the employees.
    The whole thing was shut down when the bankruptcy judge found out that Ted was shoving money into his pocket by juggling the books.
    His philosophies were great such as “Territorial Propinquity”. In the end though, he proved himself to be just another dishonest man.
    John Sargent
    Alpha-Cast 1972-1984

  8. John,
    Not everyone has to like a servant leader. And indeed that was my father.

    I assume you were in the union- the teamsters, I recall, was it? What role, if any did you play in it? It was the union that brought Alpha Cast down in the end. And when a business dies, for what is never one reason, but a million different reasons that eventually tip it over, he did what any bankrupt business owner does- take what resources they can when the ship is sinking and move on. At least he was able to provide income to support hundreds of families for what 20+ years?

    John, what have you done to support the lives of this many?

    If you had, you would have more empathy and understanding for my father.

    And yes, as I see it, my father made 2 fatal mistakes; both in my opinion, because the foundry was booming for too many years. I remember wage increased, bonus checks being printed on the old mainframe, birthday parties and celebrations for little reason, the building of a chapel and party room for the sole benefit of the employees inside the foundry itself.

    And yes, you worked to the end and saw some of the good as well as the really tough times.

    Things were great for a long time and my dad became over confident that things would never change. And they did. But the mistakes my father made where 2 fold: #1 not finding a way to get rid of the union that was doing the opposite- sucking Alpha Cast financially dry. It was fine for them to ask for hefty increased when times were good and entirely different matter when they were not and they refused to understand and find a compromise. In the end it was the union that closed Alpha Cast- not my dad. I remember those conversations at home well.

    And #2, my father did not invest in finding more than 6- albeit really large- customers; Ford, J I Case, Allis Chalmers, International Harvester, Caterpillar and John Deere. It made the business very vulnerable when the foundry business in the US started drying up and was outsourced internationally. My father’s ego got in the way and he thought his would be the last one in the US standing. As a young girl, I tried to get him to think outside of the box as to what else Alpha could make and he was not open to my suggestions or ideas unfortunately. Had he been, the story might have ended differently because my father was a very creative thinker and as a result very capable of solving difficult challenging problems. But when you lose 2 out of 6 customers things get really tough quick. Lesson learned: you need A LOT of customers to ensure this can never happen.

    John, while I am sorry for your comment on this page, not because I care about its negativity, but more that I still wish I could have helped my father because he so believed and worked for his people. He was so proud of the people who worked there and so wanted them to flourish and succeed. If you really knew my father, this is the man you would have seen and known.

    Sending you nothing but positivity with nothing but hope for your happiness and well being.

    lisa canning

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