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The Tao of Servant Leadership

Is “servant leadership” practical in business where everything is supposedly driven by the financials? The answer may surprise you.

When Robert Greenleaf coined the term ‘servant leadership’ more than 30 years ago, he observed mediocrity in organizations, including his own employer AT&T where he spent most of his career. Large organizations lacked dedication to rise above their business goals and serve the higher economic and social purposes. This observation led Greenleaf to argue that before organizations could rise above their mediocrity, leaders in those organizations must be willing to serve others rather than to pursue their personal goals.

Servant leadership is compelling in many ways. First, it is very similar to selfless leadership defined in the Bhagavad Gita—a five-thousand-year old text from the ancient India that I explored in my book ‘Bhagavad Gita on Effective Leadership.’ Krishna, the central character of this text, suggests that selflessness is the ultimate leadership challenge. He further explains in chapter eighteen of the Bhagavad Gita, “There are two types of selflessness: abstinence from selfish acts and detachment from the results of one’s actions.”

Another influence came from Professor Richard Couto of the Antioch University, whom I met at the 2009 Tobias Center Leadership Forum. Soon after learning about my interest in studying the relevance of Eastern philosophies to leadership practices, he shared with me an interesting and intriguing insight on servant leadership. While Greenleaf was inspired by Herman Hesse’s story ‘Journey to the East’ and its central character Leo—who concealed his identity of a leader and presented himself as a servant, Couto probed the story and the characters to find the “quantum” meaning of servant leadership. This analysis was also the subject of the paper Couto presented at the 2005 conference of the International Leadership Association (ILA).

Hesse, who won the Nobel Prize in literature, wrote the story in 1932 when the world was going through several wars, dictatorial rules, and the Great Depression. In his story, Hesse takes a fictional journey to the East to find the ultimate truth. As the narrator of the story, Hesse travels through space and time, mixing real and fictional characters. Couto decrypted Hesse’s mystical journey and uncovered the hidden yet apparent significance of the story.

Hesse’s portrayal of Leo—the selfless servant leader—was a plausible criticism of the dictators at that time, particularly Hitler who became the Chancellor of Germany (also Hesse’s native country) a year after he published his story. Hesse was later expelled out of Germany, which indicated that the German politicians understood his political connotations.

Hesse’s focus on the East was most likely influenced by two specific developments at that time: psychoanalysis and quantum physics. Developed by psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (also Hesse’s psychoanalyst), theories of psychoanalysis have close resemblance to Eastern philosophies. Both psychoanalysis and Eastern philosophies define consciousness as states of sensory and non-sensory awareness. Concepts of the unconscious mind and collective unconsciousness defined by psychoanalysis is also found in Eastern philosophies. Meditation, a common practice in the East, is considered as a practice to explore the non-sensory domains of the mind.

Likewise, Hesse wrote the story at the time when quantum physicists were also starting to find resemblance of their theories in Eastern philosophies. This similarity was in the theory that there is a single source of energy for all matters in this universe and everything is interconnected with each other at the atomic level. Nobel Prize winning physicists like Erwin Schrodinger, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli were some of the early physicists who supported this idea. As of more recently, physicists like Evan Harris Walker, Fritjof Capra (author of ‘The Tao of Physics’), Gary Zukav and Amit Goswami have written extensively on the relevance of Eastern philosophies to physics.

The aggregate motifs of Hesse’s story reveal a deeper meaning, and that is, we are all interconnected with one another in our deepest existence and psyche. When we serve others with this in mind, ‘service’ is more than just helping others. Like what he illustrated with Leo’s character, true service is selfless service. It is placing others above our individual selves by getting detached from results. When leaders practice this type of selfless service, they become true servant leaders.

Much like in quantum physics, it is difficult to delineate between philosophy and practice in servant leadership. Physicists may get away with this dichotomy by simply pointing to any electromagnetic apparatus, such as a digital equipment, and claim that every practice has an underlying philosophy. But philosophy like selfless leadership is very difficult to practice, especially when management paradigms are plagued by individualism and self-centeredness. This is evident from the fact that true servant leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Henry Dunant and Mother Teresa are not easy to find. In most cases, true servant leaders have emerged from social or political activism.

In the business world, it is debatable whether servant leadership is even applicable, as leadership is driven mostly by financial numbers. Albeit, there are handful of leaders who have demonstrated that it is indeed possible do business with service in mind despite financial focus. In spite of the opportunity to earn billions of dollars in personal wealth, CEO of SAS Jim Goodnight turned down the prospect of going public during the Internet boom. He listened to his employees who voted to keep their company private. John Mackey, who founded Whole Foods in 1980, has proven that it is possible to create a meaningful business that is environmentally sustainable and financially profitable at the same time. In 2008, Leonard Abess sold $60 million of personal stake of his company National Bank of Miami and shared it among his employees. In 1995, Aaron Feuerenstein of Malden Mills (now Polartec) kept all of his employees on payroll without work for several months when his fabric mill was destroyed by a large fire.

There is optimism that the business world will see more servant leaders in the near future. The rise of conscious business, such as social enterprises, will oblige many leaders to rise above their personal and business goals and serve higher purpose. Many are already realizing that “green”, “open”, and “social” are not really hypes, but the market is demanding for such products and services. In some ways, the business world itself is evolving to discover what physicists have found in Eastern philosophies, that is, everything is interconnected with each other at the fundamental level.

Pujan Roka (  is the author of  “Karmic, Inc.” and “Bhagavad Gita on Effective Leadership.”


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