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Organization Strategy | Servant Leadership

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There’s power, and then there’s power. A man holds a gun to your head, and you do what he says. That’s power.

But there’s another type of power. Great leaders possess it, whether they head a nation, an industry, or a family. It is based upon relationships, respect and trust. But you have to earn this power, and the concept termed “servant leadership” can point the way.

Models of power

Each of us is a student of the theories of power. Most of us began our journeys of understanding when we hit the “terrible twos” and began to test boundaries and exert our wills. In these early days, we experienced the first two types of power: coercive power (the ability of someone to get us to do something under threat of punishment) and reward power (the ability of someone to get us to do something by offering a reward for the behavior — or threatening to withhold a reward for negative behavior). As we ventured into elementary school, we learned about the third type of power: positional power (power by virtue of title or position). Most of us realized that if we were to successfully compete in school, we needed to respect the positional power of teachers and principals.

As we matured, we began to see two other types of power: expert power (the power that transcends a position and comes from superior knowledge and skills) and referent power (the power that comes from being so highly respected that the leader can influence the actions of others). Referent power is built upon the relationships the leader has forged with his or her followers and is rooted in trust that the leader has a deep concern for the group’s welfare. It is bonded by respect, responsibility and concern for others.

For those who aspire to lead others, whether in a business, family, social or spiritual setting, referent power is the path to success. How, then, is this attained?

The path to influence

The answer, which has stood the test of time and has been practiced by the most influential people in history, is to give freely of yourself – your love, your respect, your care, your commitment and your time. In a nutshell, the key is to serve others by treating them as you want to be treated.

This philosophy of influencing others through personal service has come to be known as servant leadership. Consider the images below from James C. Hunter’s “The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership,” which compare and contrast a “top-down power through fear” model on the left with the servant leadership model on the right.

Hunter compares the top-down model to a military command. Orders, issued by the general, are followed under the threat of retribution. The customer is considered an opponent. The servant leader model turns this top-down paradigm on its head. Command and control are no longer the watch words. Needs of the customer and the employees are filtered to the CEO, who can lead rather than rule.


Hunter also describes the traits of persons who lead through authority and leadership.

This leader is:This leader:
• Honest and trustworthy• Holds people accountable
• A good role model• Treats people with respect
• Caring• Gives people encouragement
• Committed• Has a positive, enthusiastic attitude
• A good listener• Appreciates people

Hunter writes that “leadership is not about personality, possessions, or charisma, but all about how you are as a person … A great companion book called “The Go-Giver: A Little Story About a Powerful Business Idea,” by Bob Burg and John David Mann, includes the authors’ Five Laws of Stratospheric Success. These authors, like Hunter, define success in terms of character.

  1. The Law of Value – Your true worth is determined by how much more you give in value than you take in payment.
  2. The Law of Compensation – Your income is determined by how many people you serve and how well you serve them.
  3. The Law of Influence – Your influence is determined by how abundantly you place other people’s interests first.
  4. The Law of Authenticity – The most valuable gift you have to offer is yourself.
  5. The Law of Receptivity – The key to effective giving is to stay open to receiving.

Ready to start the journey?

Becoming a servant leader isn’t easy. The journey will take patience, perseverance and fortitude. But it will be the most rewarding journey you will ever take.

Servant leadership requires a commitment to recognizing that it’s your actions, not your talk, that will make the difference. The first order of business is to establish relationships of trust. To help maintain this vision, we could ask ourselves every day, “Did I behave in a loving and patient way? Did I acknowledge and reflect on the responsibilities that come with having other people entrusted to my care? Did I look for ways to serve their needs?”

You are on your way.


Burg, Bob and Mann, John David. “The Go-Giver: A Little Story About a Powerful Business Idea.” New York: Penguin Group (USA), 2007.

Hunter, James C. “The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership.” New York: Prima Publishing, 2002. [paperback version]