The Servant Leader and the Social Enterprise

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By I Done This Support

Dan Pink, #1 New York Times bestselling author on the changing world of work, told us that the most radical change happening in enterprise organization is that “[t]oday, talented people need organizations less than organizations need talented people.” The effect of that is to upend the traditional corporate hierarchy and put individual employees at the top.  As Robert Greenleaf wrote in 1970 in his influential essay, The Servant as Leader, the winners will be those companies whose “first order of business is to build a group of people who, under the influence of the institution, grow taller and become healthier, stronger, more autonomous” — in other words, those that put people first.

Greenleaf argues that the only person to lead a people-first organization is a servant, because a servant’s natural inclination is service to others — not coercion — for the purpose of others’ growth, health, wisdom, freedom, autonomy, and benefit, and for that reason, in the future, “the only truly viable institutions will be those that are predominantly servant-led.”  That makes the value proposition of the social enterprise stark and dead simple, and, no surprise here, it isn’t covered by buzzwords like “collaboration” or “social”: adapt to the social enterprise or face complete obsolescence.

Social enterprise software’s obligation is to deliver processes and culture oriented around people first, defined by the amplification and incentivization of service to others.  I remember talking with Andrew Gilbert at Yammer, and he told me that one of the biggest determinants of uptake in a company was whether management participated in using Yammer and led by example.  The bottom-up distribution and adoption model relies on internal champions to build community within a company’s network, and community building is made up of acts of service.  It doesn’t result from demands for participation or IT’s imposition.  That means that everyone needs to get down and dirty and adopt a servant leader’s mentality, and software’s job is to amplify those behaviors.  What’s at stake isn’t just adoption of some piece of software within a company, it’s the wholesale transformation of a company’s culture.

In The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer write about the “crisis of disengagement” at work, a $300 billion per year problem of lost productivity.  I’m reminded of what Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. wrote to young lawyers setting out for a career in law in his seminal essay, The Path of the Law, emphasizing the curiosity and drive for fulfillment, purpose, and truth that compel individuals to participate in the knowledge economy.

[A]s Hegel says, “It is in the end not the appetite, but the opinion, which has to be satisfied.” To an imagination of any scope the most far-reaching form of power is not money, it is the command of ideas. If you want great examples, read Mr. Leslie Stephen’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, and see how a hundred years after his death the abstract speculations of Descartes had become a practical force controlling the conduct of men. Read the works of the great German jurists, and see how much more the world is governed today by Kant than by Bonaparte. We cannot all be Descartes or Kant, but we all want happiness. And happiness, I am sure from having known many successful men, cannot be won simply by being counsel for great corporations and having an income of fifty thousand dollars. An intellect great enough to win the prize needs other food besides success. The remoter and more general aspects of the law are those which give it universal interest. It is through them that you not only become a great master in your calling, but connect your subject with the universe and catch an echo of the infinite, a glimpse of its unfathomable process, a hint of the universal law.

100 years later, Amabile and Kramer’s work uncovers that the #1 motivator for employees at work is daily progress towards a meaningful goal.  More interesting, perhaps, is their discovery that a setback, however minor, can have a greater negative impact on inner work life than progress can have in the positive direction.  A manager’s job then is merely to lead with a compelling vision and provide service by removing blocks that cause setbacks and impediments to progress, and then stay out of the way. This model of leadership and management can be poignant for those who’ve sought pleasure in work but have been stifled by a manager who serves himself first.

The place where the servant leader and the social enterprise meet is a place where an individual’s professional aspirations and drive are enabled at scale and the organization succeeds because the employees’ visions align.  Servant leadership is a culture that spreads and nourishes an organization by leveraging networks and structured engagement. Greenleaf lays out a test for answering the question, “How does one know the servant?” that might equally apply to technology as it does to persons: is it “strong, able, dedicated, dominating, authority-ridden, manipulative, exploitative — the net effect of whose influence diminished other people”, or does it “build up people and [make them] stronger, and healthier?”


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