Serenity of servant leaders: an Easter reflection | Sunday Observer

Serenity of servant leaders: an Easter reflection

4 April, 2021

Today is Easter Sunday. In the cherished tradition, washing of the feet of the disciples by Jesus Christ was on Holy Thursday, three days earlier. It showed the world not only the humbleness of a great leader, but the serenity of servant leadership. We have shifted from the agony of the Easter bloodshed to the experience of Covid-19 pandemic. In a world where servant leaders are in dire need, let us reflect on servant leaders, with emphasis on the Sri Lankan business community. 


Leadership is not about positions and titles, but about decisions and actions. It is essentially a mindset. We look at the leaders at the top but not the “leaders at the tap”.  Servant leadership is one way of looking at the dynamics of leadership. 

It is perhaps, one of the most ancient forms of leadership, aptly found in all great religious founders.  When you consider the five hundred and fifty Jathaka stories, in more than thirty percent of them, Bodhisathva is portrayed as a leader. In some cases, as one who serves others. In brief, a servant leader is a servant first. The simple motto is service first. 

Chanakya, the famous author of Arthashastra, wrote, in the 4th century B.C as follows:

“The king (leader) shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects (followers). The king (leader) is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.”

There are passages that highlight the servant dimension of leadership, attributed to Lao-Tzu, who is believed to have lived in China sometime between 570 BC and 490 BC.

“The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware ofd. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy. When you are lacking in faith, Others will be unfaithful to you. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it’!”

The fascinating point here is that the servant leader appears as a “leader breeder” in developing his or her followers to serve others.


As in the case of several management concepts, the west “branded” the servant leadership. Robert Greenleaf, a scholar from the USA gets the credit for documenting the features and facets of servant leaders.  Having worked for AT&T for several decades, he realised the limitations of typical administrative leaders. Having contemplated an alternative, the resulting model was the repackaged concept of servant leadership.

Let us look at how he describes the concept further:

“The servant-leader is a servant first. Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is the leader first. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Servant-leaders achieve results for their organisations by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve. Servant-leaders are often seen as humble stewards of their organisation’s physical, financial, and most importantly, human resources. 

Qualities of servant leaders

“Servant leadership is a blend and balance between leader and servant” says Skip Prichard, who runs a centre on Servant Leadership.  You do not lose leadership qualities when becoming a servant leader. According to him, the qualities of a servant leader are: Values diverse opinions; Cultivates a culture of trust; Develops other leaders; Helps people with life issues; Encourages; Sells instead of tells; Thinks you, not me; Thinks long-term; Acts with humility.

There is no doubt that the above list is relevant to Sri Lankan business leaders. Special emphasis should be made on the final one. It reaffirms what Jim Collins, in his seminal book, Good to Great, mentioned about great leaders who have professional will and personal humility. Servant leaders do not get on to other’s shoulders but might carry others on their shoulders. 

Characteristics of servant leaders 

There are many characteristics that can be found in a servant leader. Larry C. Spears, who has served as President and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership since 1990, has extracted several characteristics that are central to the development of a servant leader. 

You cannot serve others without properly listening to them.  A servant leader has the motivation to listen sincerely to his team and support them in decision identification. This applies particularly to pay attention to the unspoken. This means relying on his or her  inner voice and finding out what the body, mind and spirit are communicating.  

Mahathma Gandhi did that with fellow Indians. Managers need to do that with their teams.  CEOs need to do that with their employees. In essence, servant leaders listen with care. As we discussed last week, Sri Lankan business leaders can improve their level of listening to a much higher level.

A servant leader attempts to understand and empathise with others. Workers may be considered not only as employees, but also as people who need respect and appreciation for their personal development. Japanese business leaders have demonstrated this characteristic a lot in their typical approach to work. Here, leadership is seen as a special type of human work, which ultimately generates a competitive advantage.

A great strength of a servant leader is the ability for healing oneself and others. A servant leader tries to help people solve their problems and conflicts in relationships, because he or she wishes to develop the abilities of everyone. This leads to the formation of a business culture, in which the working environment is characterised by dynamic, fun and no fear of failure.

Mother Theresa did this with destitute street children. HR professionals can demonstrate this in their coaching and counseling activities. Every manager can be a healer in such a manner that he or she strengthens interpersonal relationships.

A servant leader does not take advantage of his power and his status by forcing others to comply. He  or she rather tries to convince them.

This element distinguishes servant leadership most clearly from traditional, authoritarian models and can be traced back to the religious views of the inventor Robert Greenleaf. This is one area where Sri Lankan managers can learn. Instead of forcing people to do things, convincing them of the benefits of doing things is what is needed. Servant leadership is seen as an obligation to help and serve others. Openness and persuasion are more important than control.

It reminds me what Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike told the nation. The prime obligation of man is to serve mankind. This offers fresh insights about our traditional leadership hierarchy. Instead of looking up to see how your boss is doing, you should look in front to see whether your customers are delighted or not.  

Serving leaders and subservient laggards

It is still shocking how we encountered the Easter Sunday carnage two years ago. The needed leadership was more demonstrated in religious fronts than in the political fronts. Instead of servant leaders, subservient laggards accusing one another, engaging in the typical blame game was seen. Thanks to the media, both leaders and laggards in the Sri Lankan context have been  amply exposed with their words and deeds. 

Social media, despite their inherent shortcomings, were full of bouquets towards emergence of authentic leadership from religious fronts whilst throwing brickbats at the opportunistic politicians. The sarcasm was seen at its highest with regards to the accusations of inactivity and incompetence. As there is no smoke without fire, it invites for a sincere sole searching by all political leaders at least to learn what true leadership is all about. St. Mother Theresa of Calcutta demonstrated her servant leadership through what she did with destitute street children. We have reached a time where there is a dire need to heal the wounded hearts and minds through close association, caring communication and core counselling where needed.  Religious and laity alike can show their authenticity in rising to the occasion as committed leaders. 

The way  Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith conducted himself during the aftermath of Easter Tragedy is not only a demonstration of leading from the front but also breeding empowered leaders who would silently do the needful.  Sowing love where hatred was rampant and guiding the flock towards peaceful behavior were much evident in the past few days. He lived the Gospel values not only in being a “sheep among the wolves”, but also “wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove”. 

Way forward

“Servant leadership is all about making the goals clear and then rolling your sleeves up and doing whatever it takes to help people win.  In that situation, they don’t work for you; you work for them,” said Ken Blanchard. Among many other forms of leadership, the concept of servant leadership stands tall owing to its universality of practice. It must be blended with the culture and other realities to make it consistently work. It is not only a concept for the religious leaders but for authentic leaders in all walks of life. Easter Sunday is a good day to remind us of its relevance and requirement. In essence, those who serve deserve leadership.