Servant Leadership and Corporate Social Responsibility

Servant Leadership Acts in the Tensions of Parallel Demands

In his series of essays on Servant Leadership Robert Greenleaf clearly states the thesis he wished to support in expanding the idea of servant leadership,

If a better society is to be built, one more just and caring and providing opportunity for people to grow, the most open course, the most effective and economical way, while supportive of the social order, is to raise the performance as servant of as many institutions as possible by new voluntary regenerative forces initiated within them by committed individuals – servants.[1]

Greenleaf clearly discounts two popular assumptions of his day: (1) that it is impossible to negotiate a balance between economy and society and (2) that moral reasoning (the basis of ethical decision making) has no place in economic and business policy decision-making.

Are economic factors simple objective truths divested of moral/social concerns?  If the interests of both workers and shareholders are directly dependent on the success of the corporation then such a dichotomy is untenable not only in light of issues of legal compliance but also in the larger ethical issues the determine how grey areas of legality and social responsibility are addressed.  A greater responsibility among leaders (representatives of capital) exists to make sure that the social/political aspects of worker interests are sufficiently addressed in the process of wealth creation for the corporation.

This is not a demand that business leaders be limited by the emotionally immature.  If the interests of labor and capital are  de facto included in the success of the corporation’s ability to successfully navigate an independent economic reality then it is imperative that the corporation engage in wealth-creation, innovation and opportunity with the utmost flexibility in light of the changing economic environment with the hope that the benefits will always exceed the costs exacted socially.  To accept the idea of independent economic realities does not mean one must shun engagement with the social costs inherent in the quest for flexibility.  In fact to shun the social costs ultimately undermine the capacity of flexibility needed to maintain a thriving organization.  Greenleaf asked:

In an imperfect world, some will continue to be hurt…But, as my concern for servanthood has evolved, the…more prominent…my…self-questioning…. Could I have been more aware, more patient, more gentle, more forgiving, more skillful?[2]

The concept of servant leadership places the leader squarely in two parallel concerns (1) development and deployment of the corporation’s wealth generating ability and (2) training and enhancement of the talent needed to respond to new market demands. The concept of servant leadership follows the assumption that corporate flexibility necessitated by independent economic factors demands an equally flexible workforce.  Labor must also exercise flexibility characterized by an attitude that accepts the inevitability of the market economy and thus remains mobile, multi-skilled, and always learning.  Job security is not framed as a consistent source of employment but the consistent ability to adapt to new workforce demands on skills and attitudes driven by new economic realities.

The idea of flexibility not only alters the corporation’s stance to the present it alters the workers stance in the present as well and significantly enlarges the needed skill sets among leaders.  Flexibility demands more than that the corporation’s structure and approaches are free from the rigidity of institutionalism.  Responding to market changes demands the agility to configure or reconfigure itself in its marketing strategies, products, production systems, capital investments and talent composition.  Leaders must therefore be capable of accurately reading the overlapping logistics of re-configuring corporate structures and systems and the deployment of labor based on skills, attitudes and ability to learn.  Leaders must then not only possess the skills to read and understand market trends but also read and understand the needs and skills of those around them to persuade their best performance around corporate objectives.

Servant Leadership Exercises Emotional Intelligence

Manager’s and other leaders cannot afford to either possesses a high concern for people and low awareness of business goals or a low concern for people and a high awareness of business goals. On the one hand the leader is nothing more than a pal and on the other the leader appears as a brutal dictator.

Either case is morale crushing.  If the manager/leader does not possess the competencies they need to effectively read the market and find a competitive course of action they will lose the trust of their labor.  On the other hand behaviors that fail to register either an awareness of one’s emotion or its impact on others are characteristic of a lack of emotional intelligence. Assuming for the sake of space that Servant leaders own the right business acumen and industry knowledge then emotional intelligence rises to the forefront as the skill needed to successfully lead a flexible workforce.

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to perceive and constructively act on both one's own emotions and the feelings of others. Emotional intelligence creates a synergy between self-awareness, self management, social awareness and relationship management. (See Table 3)

Emotional intelligence gives managers and leaders a competitive edge. Studies conducted at Bell Labs found that the most valued and productive engineers were those with the traits of emotional intelligence – not the highest IQ. Possessing great intellectual abilities or grasp of a job’s core skills may make an individual a successful line employee (although the case can probably be made that without emotional intelligence an individual won’t be an exceptional performer) but skill without emotional intelligence leads to predictable failures among managers and leaders.

Emotional intelligence is a concept that measures empathy and other qualities of the heart. Lack of these qualities or abilities explains why managers who attempt to lead without an awareness of the impact of their emotion on others create a shamble of their work relationships and frequently become disastrous pilots of their personal lives.

Analyses of the behavioral traits that accompany highly capable people lacking these emotional competencies portray the stereotypical dictator: critical and condescending, inhibited and uncomfortable with relationships and emotionally bland or explosive. By contrast, individuals with the traits that mark emotional intelligence are poised and outgoing, committed to people and causes, sympathetic and caring, with a rich but proper emotional life -- they're comfortable with themselves, others, and the social universe they live in.[3]

This insight into the mechanics of emotional intelligence provides a lesson for leaders. Those with high emotional intelligence learn from their previous encounters with people and are alert to the nuances of emotion in relationships.[4] How others feel is important to them.

The concept of emotional intelligence has found a number of different applications outside of the psychological research and therapy arenas. Professional, educational, and community institutions have integrated different aspects of the emotional intelligence philosophy into their organizations to promote more productive working relationships, better outcomes, and enhanced personal satisfaction.

Table 1: Components of Emotional Intelligence

In the workplace and in other organizational settings, "people skills," another buzzword for emotional intelligence has long been recognized as a valued attribute in employees. The popularity of the concept in business is easily explained-when employees, managers, and clients have mutually rewarding personal relationships, productivity increases and profits follow. Conversely, where the emotional intelligence of key production managers is low productivity decreases and morale seems to crash.  Without emotional intelligence the harder production managers push to gain performance the less respect and trust they retain and the poorer the results they generate.

The Servant Leadership Challenge

The challenge faced by servant leaders is tochoose what part of the inner self to respond in light of the organization’s purpose when assessing:

  • Issues
  • Expectations
  • Situation
  • Opportunities
  • Risks
  • Skill Requirements

The inner self (illustrated and defined in Table 1) cannot remain isolated from a leader’s daily management tasks. Simply put, to be effective a manager/leader or to excel as a servant leader must bring all of themselves to the task of managing performance. If a manager’s self-awareness and self-discipline remains undeveloped they fail to understand the impact of their emotion on others and risk professional ruin by exhibiting self-defeating behavior by failing to mobilize the kind of flexible workforce needed to capitalize on new opportunities or changing market situations.

In the larger picture the concept of servant leadership refuses to dismiss the issue of how to achieve a balance between economic and other social values.  It recognizes the inherent danger of assuming a values free or solely technical approach to market changes e.g., the toxic nature of unmitigated greed, disregard for the environment or disconnection from the social consequences of a “profit only” stance.  However, to date the concept of servant leadership has not tendered a viable solution to these tensions.  It has addressed the nature of the conversation by insisting that economic and social values remain in dynamic tension and thereby provides one of the best approaches to creating a healthy corporate culture.   In other words the practice of servant leadership offers those organizations that embrace it a wider platform of legitimacy among both their employees and the communities in which they work.


[1] Robert K. Greenleaf. The Power of Servant Leadership, ed., Larry C. Spears (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1998), 32.

[2] Ibid 45

[3] These traits are also identified by D.A. Benton as the core traits of an effective CEO (see How to Think Like a CEO. New York, NY: Time Warner Books, 1996). If your career goals include moving up in the company you are with or moving forward in your career the development of emotional intelligence is essential.

[4] In the non-profit world the mix of character and leadership is imperative to success. In church or para-church leadership the tie between emotional intelligence and strong leadership has an explicit foundation (Galatians 5:22; Ephesians 4). Yet, the same complaints about executive leaders (senior pastors, denominational executives, mission executives) persist as those leveled at business leaders – they often disregard people. In light of this, the concept of emotional intelligence could serve as an integration point between the spiritual realities that drive the church or para-church organization and the daily out working of leadership and managing tasks.