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What Servant Leadership Is Really About

Servant-leadership is a buzzword today, but it has been around for centuries. Thanks to the work of Robert Greenleaf and his Center for Servant Leadership, schools and organizations worldwide have bought into the notion that leadership is first about service—not about power. I completely agree. But while its popularity is on the rise, its practice remains challenging for some students.

Depending on the model our young adults have witnessed, too many insist on viewing leadership as a means to gain power and authority; to gain control over the budget and to tell people what to do. It sounds impressive. So, while we often discuss servant-leadership, we still see too few models of it.

It is as old as the Hebrew Scriptures and about as rare as them as well.

What It’s Really All About

I have taught college and high school students for years that the fastest way to gain influence with others is through two means:

  • Solving problems
  • Serving people

When we learn to find solutions to the problems people endure and find ways to serve those people in the process, we’re naturally seen as leaders—title or no title.

In 2014, Simon Sinek wrote a book called, Leaders Eat Last. Throughout the book, he talks about why some teams naturally pull together, even in difficult times and why some never do. It usually depends on how the leader executes his or her leadership.

  • Is it about motivation or manipulation?
  • Is it about serving the team or ruling the team?
  • Is it about the leader or a cause much bigger than the leader?

Good questions we must help students answer.

How Our Brains Work

Sinek ventures beyond the “touchy feely” part of this subject and examines how our brains work. He tells us that endorphins and dopamine are “selfish chemicals.” They are released so we can persist in the work that must be accomplished. According to Sinek, “Endorphins mask physical pain with pleasure. They can produce the euphoria of the runner’s high or—as in the Paleolithic era (Old Stone Age)—give us the strength to track prey for miles and miles so we have enough to eat. Dopamine is behind the warm flush of satisfaction we feel when we complete a project or reach an important goal en route to an even larger goal. The feeling of satisfaction we get when we cross something off our to-do list is dopamine-fueled, and the release of dopamine increases as we take on larger challenges.”

“The bigger the goal, the more effort it requires, the more dopamine we get,” Sinek says. “This is why it feels really good to work hard to accomplish something difficult. Something quick and easy may only give us a little hit, if anything at all. There is no biological incentive to do nothing.”

Makes sense, right? It is easy for our leadership to be driven by endorphins and dopamine jolts—especially for an adolescent or young adult.

Sinek goes on to write about other chemicals at work.

“Serotonin and oxytocin are the ‘selfless’ chemicals. Serotonin is the molecular manifestation of the feeling of pride—we get it when we perceive others like or respect us. On a deep level, we need to feel that we and our work are valued by others, particularly those in our group. This compound reinforces the bond between parent and child, teacher and student, coach and player, boss and employee, leader and follower. At the same time, oxytocin is working to promote empathy and trust, allowing those bonds to deepen—unlike the instant-gratification rush delivered by dopamine, oxytocin has long-term effects that become amplified the more we bond with someone. As we learn to trust them and earn their trust in return, the more the oxytocin flows. This is the chemical manifestation of love.”

This is at the heart of servant-leadership. Leaders love their people.

“It’s responsible for all the warm and fuzzies,” Sinek says. “When we’re in the company of friends, family members and close colleagues, a flush of oxytocin propels acts of generosity that strengthen the connections.”

Questions to Ask Your Student Leaders

So, because these chemicals are released when we lead and achieve, it’s important to get started on the right footing. Why not discuss these questions with your students?

  1. Be honest—do you enjoy leading because of how it makes you feel?
  1. What motivates you most when you lead: getting results, being with friends, or collaborating on a task?
  1. When you interact with people, do you sense they quickly trust you or not?
  1. Do you feel empathy or anger when team members fail or make mistakes?
  1. Would you say you love the people you lead and enjoy serving—even when others gain the credit or the limelight?

“Not everybody can be famous. But everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato or Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rabindranath Tagore said, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” 


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