The Ancient Future of Servant-Leadership

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

Servant-leadership can be understood as bridging the modern necessity to work and lead within complex organizations and environments with the call for tapping into ancient wisdom that is absent from such settings. The servant-leader’s role is like that of the Peruvian chakaruna — one that bridges the core reality of sacred ecology with that of civil society. Shamans have called upon chakaruna to mediate between what I call the dream of the world (global economic system) and the dream of the earth (embedded ecology). In terms of our world’s vernacular (that is, as educated members of the global system), a chakaruna is a “servant-leader,” one who serves life, but also knows how to leverage the system that he or she works in. The servant-leader has a foot in both worlds in order to bring them into harmony.

An aspiring servant-leader is called to become a kind of neo-shaman within whatever profession she is working in; her desire to serve comes from a primal source. I use this model because shamans are typically chosen, not by the individual’s own career choice, but from a calling that is beyond individual consciousness or rationality. Like the shaman, the servant-leader must also “die” in order to release society’s conditioning before serving her community. Death sometime comes literally, other times figuratively. In my Buddhist mentor’s life it was prison and addiction; my situation was the collapse of my immune system. Like the plotline of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, the future servant-leader’s ordinary world is turned upside down, and then she is called upon to venture into the underworld in order to rebalance the world. First the servant-leader becomes a pilgrim before taking on the role of healer, or put differently, she must heal herself first before directing the energy outward to the general community. As MIT management theorist Otto Scharmer points out, “The Indo-European root of the word ‘lead’ and ‘leadership,’ *leith, means ‘to go forth,’ ‘to cross the threshold,’ or ‘to die.’”

There is another important link with shamanism: it is the default position for servant-leaders to midwife the universal energy of creation, and therefore honor that spirit. Shamans are imbued with great power and responsibility because they have the skills to enter into border worlds of nature and consciousness to retrieve elixirs of power in the service of healing. They must follow the ultimate golden rule: don’t do onto others that you would not want done to yourself, or, what goes around comes around. According to community activist Chris Maser, this requires engaging a reciprocal reality: “Reciprocity is the self-reinforcing feedback loop that either extends sustainability to or withholds it from a community and its landscape.” To serve ego and greed rather than life is the difference between being a healer and a black sorcerer. We wouldn’t apply such harsh terms to the managers of global finance, but in essence, those in the world who wield great power, especially through the mastery of electricity’s great magic and its media system, are subject to the same laws of karma as those practicing petty witchcraft.

Not surprisingly, there is a direct connection between service and spiritual enlightenment. One of the first exercises you do as Buddhist practitioner is to perform generosity. This can manifest in different ways, but when you give something to somebody you begin erasing the boundary between you and the “other.” I recall once gifting an extra guitar that I didn’t need to a stranger, and how I felt a little tear in my eye as the exchange created a true heart connection. The disconnection we normally experience with other people and nature is at the root of all our major problems — environmental, financial, political, etc. If the universe wants you to serve life, than life will respond in kind once you surrender to it. Thus, the core ethic of any servant-leader is the same as a healer: we are to serve life above all other. Naturally, then, servant-leaders ultimately also support the cause of sustainability, which is the opposite of the culture of death that manifests as our current economic system.

It is appropriate that the concept of servant-leadership is actually a bridge between ancient wisdom and modern corporate management. For example, a connection between Buddhism, which derives directly from a radical engagement with nature, and servant-leadership can be found in Herman Hesse, whose story "Journey to the East" inspired Robert Greenleaf to start the servant-leadership movement. The character of Leo, who was the guide and servant of the book’s protagonist, moved Greenleaf to rethink leadership. After the protagonist’s long search for a spiritual teacher, at the end of the story we learn that Leo was actually the leader of the order he was searching for. Not surprisingly, Hesse was inspired by the life of Buddha. His novel, Siddhartha, an allegorical tale of Buddha’s life, depicts another servant as a spiritual master. Vasudeva the humble ferryman is an enlightened teacher who, through his modest presence living by the river in order to guide people across it, inspires Siddhartha to learn a great lesson. In a flash of insight, Siddhartha realizes, "The river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth…in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future…Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man [are] only separated by shadows, not through reality…Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence."

Siddhartha’s moment of clarity is a necessary component of the servant-leaders’ world vision. Corporate leadership consultant Joseph Jaworski argues that servant-leaders first need to shift their model of the world from mechanistic thinking to one that engages “a universe that is open, dynamic, interconnected, and full of living qualities.” Next, he argues, we have to change our relationship with relationship — “the organizing principle of the universe”– in which we experience “intermediate states in a network of interactions.” Once committed to these principles, and a cause that serves them, then the right resources come together in a magical way that Jaworski calls “synchronicity.” This is not without its risks. Jaworski stresses that this ultimately requires cultivating a state of being, not one of doing. When ones ego or other emotional traps intervene into the process, the “flow” can alter course or cease altogether.

Such “flow” states are not easily grasped or communicated until experienced. Which makes learning and teaching servant-leadership a somewhat treacherous task, because on the one hand you want to develop a kind of space where amazing things can happen, but at the same time not be attached to peak experiences that characterize states of “grace.” Just as some meditations seem like “bad” ones, and others feel really peaceful, there is no distinction between the two on a fundamental level because in each encounter the sitter is experiencing the true nature of her mind. However, when under deadline and pushed by time constraints to complete projects with a product, it can be a strain to force “magic” to happen. Accordingly, Maser proposes, “If one, as a leader, is truly detached from the outcome, one will find equanimity to be one’s touchstone. Equanimity, the outworking of detachment, is reflected in the calm, even-tempered, and serene personality of one who is simply open to accepting what is.”

The Journey

I’m tempted to paraphrase an overused cliché — servant-leaders are made, not born — but there’s truth to the statement. In Buddhism it’s no secret that nothing changes without sitting on the cushion. In Buddhism one remakes her consciousness through practicing dharma, an architectural model for change, but it is something one learns through effort, testing and experience. Effective leadership comes from self-knowledge, an awareness that can come about from a variety of toolsets, with “mindfulness” being a middle way for leaders of all kinds. In Primal Leadership, Goleman, Boyatzism and McKee point out, “Great leaders, the research shows, are made as they gradually acquire, in the course of their lives and careers, the competencies that make them so effective. The competencies can be learned by any leader, at any point.” The authors stress that such skills can be mastered through understanding cognition. One must know thyself, in particular how the mind functions during various states, be they stressful or pleasurable.

Self-knowledge often requires walking through the valley of death in order to plunge the depths of the psyche. In this regard, I can only speak from experience. It took a crisis to probe deeper into the inner workings of my own consciousness and soul. When my immune system collapsed ten years ago this summer (1999), I was working hard as newspaper journalist but was also a bit lost in terms of my direction and ultimate life purpose. I’ve always loved to write, but newspaper writing is more like factory work than the excitement that was initially attractive about journalism. In the summer of 1998 I’d been on a power journey to Peru, which brought me into contact with some heavy Q’ero shamans, some of whom were more akin to sorcerers than healers. While in Peru I learned about Inka cosmology and the prophesy of the pachacuti (world turned upside down; the 500 year period since the European invasion), and a more recent phase of “re-remembering ourselves.” I believe I was in the midst of the re-remembrance process when my health broke down the following summer. I also feel that something happened on that trip to initiate my odyssey of illness.

Having been a normal, healthy 33-year-old who had never broken a bone, the onslaught of asthma and extreme allergies debilitated me for the first time in my life. People had joked that it was my Jesus year (the year he died), but I wasn’t laughing. In and out of hospitals without a clue as to why I was so ill, I ceased working and embarked upon a smorgasbord of healing strategies, all the while going deeper into debt. At a certain point my health stabilized somewhat, mainly through the help of pharmaceuticals, but to this day the central symptoms of sinusitis and asthma have not gone away. But at least healthy enough to hike, I embarked upon a walkabout — the pilgrim trail — by trekking 600 miles across Spain on the Camino de Santiago in year 2000. My goal was to go on a healing journey in which I would come out healthy and complete. What the experience taught me, though, is that it’s better not to have goals.

It would take a book to describe all the amazingly magical and bizarre synchronicities that took place on the camino (when I say bizarre, I mean unbelievably impossible experiences). But in a nutshell what I gained from the experience was that I cannot control my reality, I can only surf it. There were many situations in which I had to abandon my plans, and once I surrendered — that is, let go of my expectations — something magical always took place. It was an unusually condensed lesson in alchemy and magic, like the instant when I realized that I no longer walked the road, it was walking me. There was also an unforgettable moment that occured during a rather nonchalant moment near the end of the trip. After a long morning of trekking through the Galician woodlands, while hunched under a tree I noticed a cock and hen scratching near my feet. I was instantly in tune with their discussion, finding myself enthralled with their bickering, which was like an old married couple arguing back and forth. Their language was no longer foreign to me, but very real and concise in a way I never had experienced with animals before. I don’t recall how much time I spent with the two birds that afternoon, but it must have been several hours.

The resounding message from that pilgrimage is that it’s OK to release any desired outcome, because something better usually happens if you do let go. The other is that when you cross the threshold into the deeper state of resonance, it unfolds very naturally, as was the case when I encountered the rooster and hen. I wouldn’t realize until later the importance of these lessons for teaching, but the idea to enter into education did happen when I had passed the threshold, that is, when the road was walking me. During a long, hot afternoon on an ancient Roman highway in Castilla where the sky is the only landscape, a hidden voice emerged, commanding me to teach. A deeply felt the need to share with teenagers the knowledge I had gained from my experience in a countercultural movement and in the media, because when I was young it was important for my development that I had “hip” mentors. The world needs more hip mentors.

I didn’t have teaching experience, but the camino gave me confidence to commit to my goal and to let it happen. However, when I returned from Spain and was toying with my options to start teaching, I became discouraged quite quickly because all the state certification programs and testing procedures went against my beliefs. But then synchronicity struck. I got a call from a friend working at a Native American boarding shcool who wanted to know if I could come in for an interview to begin working with the gifted and talented kids in their program. After a meeting with the department, I was soon in the program working with kids. From that point on not only did I enter into a crash course in teaching to high school-aged students, but the experience also initiated my journey into Native America as a media educator and consultant, a voyage full of synchronicity.

“Don’t Follow Leaders, Watch the Parking Meters”—Bob Dylan

One aspect of the servant-leadership equation should be the notion of Gandhi’s concept of swaraj, which entails self-rule, self-governance, self-organization. This ties servant-leadership to social justice and deep democracy, both aspects of Buddhism and punk that have contributed to my perspective. Buddha inspires me because he was the first historically known do-it-yourself educator of servant-leadership. According to the founder of Dharma Punx (a punk Buddhist community), Noah Levine said "Sid" (Siddhartha Gautama AKA Buddha) was history's earliest rebel by advocating for social change through his philosophy of empowerment, both individually and within the spiritual community. Buddha went against the prevailing attitude of his time by eschewing the caste system and inviting women, criminals and the poor into the teachings. Like punk, Buddha developed a user interface that is personal and open source. Akin to the proverbial Sniffin' Glue punk dictum — "Here's a chord, here’s another, now go start a band!" — Buddha said, here’s the Dharma, now go get enlightened. Such sage advice can be applied to servant-leadership as well.

It goes without saying that Buddha and punks alike rejected the idea of leadership in the conventional sense of the word. Admittedly, it wasn’t until I read Scharmer’s Theory U that I understood that teaching is a kind of leadership. Looking back at my past experiences as an educator I now understand that I was indeed acting as a servant-leader, even though I initially thought of myself as merely supervising service learning projects. Nonetheless, thinking of myself as a leader goes against the grain of my normal understanding of the term, which is couched in the context of corporations, governments and political institutions, all environments that I’m normally skeptical of. As an old punk, the idea of “leadership” has always smacked of hierarchy, and it has been my instinct to reject the idea outright. In terms of Christopher Cowan and Don Beck’s spiral dynamics, that would make me part of the “green meme,” someone who, though committed to higher consciousness and social change, is unable to accept a latent, hierarchal structure in the universe. When it comes to the classroom, I do feel that hierarchies can be counterproductive unless contextualized by the right attitude, humility and service. The glue that ties servant-leadership to punk, Buddhism and teaching is generosity. In each case, to be a successful leader, one must serve first. In my former Dharma Punx sangha (community) in New York, one of the first practices we learned was kindness through charity. The reason is because it breaks down the barrier between individuals, and begins to open up the heart center to a larger sense of connection. Though management books like Primal Leadership don’t address this per se (in other words they dance around the concept of love), I do feel that the “open loop” of cognition discussed in Primal Leadership is an innate capacity that allows us to resonate emotionally and thereby harmonize group action. When our feelings resonate with others, with our felt center in the heart (and belly), this becomes the core for building community.

In the case of punk, our philosophy of do-it-yourself was a kind of community ethic. It meant that we would all share with each other the skills needed to express ourselves, be it making zines, promoting shows, or starting record labels. In other words, we had a tacit agreement to serve each other. In terms of relating this to leadership, Maser quotes the Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, who said, “As we evolve, we’re able to transform the situation and the people around us by helping them to fulfill their purpose. Our purpose is to enlist the purpose of other people. That is really the secret of leadership.” In Greenleaf’s terms, “The best test, and most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons?” Likewise, you can find a similar philosophy in a get rich quick book called Secrets of the Millionaire Mind. In it T. Harv Eker says the most important ingredient for prosperity (aside from applying yourself) is that you design your business around the idea of helping others solve some kind of problem. This is not the normal kind of ethical guideline you read in a business book; in fact, having taught media ethics, most ethics textbooks deal with how you should react to certain situations, not how to create a space of potential in which others can benefit, grow and fulfill their promise. But this, indeed, appears to be a common thread in the writings about servant-leadership.

Whereas Maser and Scharmer directly address leadership for the benefit of sustainable action, unfortunately management books like Primal Leadership or The Difference do not address ethics. In Buddhism, ethics and mindfulness go hand in hand. The Five Precepts is largely a guideline of morality because the path to enlightenment means one must surrender to the flow of life without being clouded by mental and physical toxins generated by immoral behavior. (The simplest example is that if you repeatedly lie, you cease to discern the truth.) The critical question a servant-leader should ask before engaging in any task is, does this action serve life? This query concurs with Maser’s Prime Directive: “Planetary citizens are to live in humility and harmony on Earth while simultaneously minimizing interference with any of Nature’s evolutionary processes.” However, the call to serve others must be done authentically, Maser argues, because the leader must also be true to herself: “What do I personally have to offer those who are struggling to find their way? Am I living my life honestly, freely, and boldly as I am urging others to do?” In Gandhi’s oft-repeated phrasing, “You must become the change you seek to create.”

Guiding the boat

At the end Hesse’s book, Siddhartha, too, becomes a river guide, which best demonstrates the model of the servant-leader. Like the subject of Campbell’s hero’s journey, Siddhartha was a wounded healer who went on a voyage of discovery to reclaim inner power, and then returned home a stronger, more capable citizen of his world. The key, MIT leadership guru Peter Senge notes in the introduction to Synchronicity, is that the “domain of leadership is grounded in a state of being, not doing.” This brings us back to the connection between shamanism and servant-leadership. Scharmer suggests that entering into the “U” process (his model for creating organizational change) is to enter into a living field. This is the art of the shaman. It may be that if we acquire the skills of the servant-leader in our bid to serve life, we can tap into that greater field of unfolding that is glimmering on the edges of our mechanistic reality. As servant-leaders, our task is to be guides and bridges to that greater, sustainable world that lays ahead on the horizon.

Books mentioned in this essay:

Eker, T. H. (2005). Secrets of the millionaire mind: Mastering the inner game of wealth. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Greenleaf, R. K. (2002). Essentials of servant-leadership. In L. C. Spears, & M. Lawrence (Eds.), Focus on leadership servant-leadership for the twenty-first century (pp. 19-33). New York: J. Wiley & Sons.

Halifax, J. (1980; 1979). Shamanic voices: A survey of visionary narratives. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England ; New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books.

Hesse, H. (1951). Siddhartha. New York: New Directions.

Jaworski, J., & Flowers, B. S. (1996). Synchronicity: The inner path of leadership. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Levine, N. (2007). Against the stream: A buddhism manual for spiritual revolutionaries. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Maser, C. (1999). Vision and leadership in sustainable development. Boca Raton, Fla.: Lewis Publishers.

Page, S. E. (2007). The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Scharmer, C. O. (2007). Theory U: Leading from the emerging future. Cambridge, MA: Society for Organizational Learning.

Senge, P. M. (2008). The necessary revolution: How individuals and organizations are working together to create a sustainable world . New York: Doubleday.

Wilber, K. (2000). A theory of everything: An integral vision for business, politics, science, and spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.


Image by dieselbug2007, used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!