• Conflict Resolution

Angela Sontheimer: Servant Leadership

By Angela Sontheimer
Managing Director
Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg

Poem 66

“All streams flow to the sea
Because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.

“If you want to govern the people,
You must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
You must learn how to follow them.

“The Master is above the people,
And no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
And no one feels manipulated.
The whole world is grateful to her.

“Because she competes with no one,
No one can compete with her.”

Although written more than 500 years ago, this poem by Lao-Tzu from the Tao Te Ching reveals a unique way of looking at leadership: That of the leader as a servant, or one who gives back to his or her followers.

Lao-Tzu’s words can help us see that rather than leadership being something that the leader does to or for his or her followers from a position of power, a true leader acts with humility and works to serve his or her followers. Lao-Tzu seems to be saying that only after leaders free themselves from competition for power can they most effectively ensure the success and growth of their followers.

They must be servants first and foremost.

What is servant leadership?

This paradoxical concept is one that we often talk about here at the Lincoln Leadership Institute.

Wikipedia defines servant leadership as a philosophy that “emphasizes the leader’s role as steward of the resources (human, financial, and otherwise) provided by the organization.” It encourages leaders to serve others while staying focused on achieving results in line with the organization’s values and integrity.

First introduced into modern leadership research by Robert Greenleaf in 1970, his seminal article is called “The Servant as Leader.” Click here for more details on his theories, the history of their development, and applications to current organizations.

Greenleaf’s four basic principles can be summarized as:

1) put service before self-interest
2) listen first to affirm others
3) inspire by being trustworthy
4) nourish others and help them become whole.

So maybe as leaders we don’t need to assert power. We don’t need to direct and control to get the best out of our people.

Consider instead that a leader must subjugate his or her own desires and interests in order to become the servant of one’s followers. We need to give back in order to get more.

Ask yourself: Are you a servant to your followers?


About Angela Sontheimer

Angela is managing director of Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg, where she is responsible for overseeing operations, marketing, and curriculum design. She is a graduate of Gettysburg College and holds a master’s degree in leadership and liberal studies from Duquesne University.