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Leaders – are they heroes or servants?


A leader is best when people barely know he/she exists; when the work is done, the aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

In my despair, it’s easy to long for a hero to step up and save us. With red boots and a tiara in her hair? For sure!

But what about the everyday leaders – “the leaders in every chair” (Wheatley) and those we choose to follow and aspire to be like? What are the characteristics and qualities that I look for in inspiring leaders in society, in organisations and in everyday life?

Someone with integrity, who values people and who wants to create the best for them. Someone who listens, who works actively to create a shared vision of what’s possible and facilitates others to make it happen, enabling everyone to contribute to the best of their ability. Seeing the bigger picture and challenging inequality and poor performance constructively and effectively. Someone who can set aside their own ego in service to others and to the task in hand.

Writing about leading from a mind-set of abundance, authenticity and presence, Giles Hutchins (2017) says:

The path that our cultural upbringing sees as safe, which is usually the one that benefits our ego through status and material security, is different than the one that enhances our ability to be of service to the world.

He advocates looking beyond personal gain into how we might serve, “beyond our small-self-view. This service does not need to be open-ended, but related to our purpose in life, our desire to contribute to and serve life in some purposeful way.”

Characteristics of Servant Leadership

In my own life and work, what I am looking for is someone I can trust and who trusts me… to do my work using all my initiative, experience and imagination. Because trust for me is at the heart of good leadership – trust of self as a leader and most importantly, the trust of others and of those we are leading.

This is at the core of servant leadership – a description of leadership which places the needs of the workplace or community over the ego; trust of self and others over personal gratification, recognising that power comes from the people you lead.

A powerful story at the heart of servant leadership comes from Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East in which a group of pilgrims lose their way when their servant Leo, who has guided them and meant so much to them, disappears. Years later one of the group meets Leo again and discovers that far from being the menial servant they had all perceived, he was the leader of their order. A compelling story and reminder of Robert Greenleaf’s view that “authentic leadership emerges from those whose principal motivation is an aspiration to help and to develop others” (2008, p27). The main emphases of servant leadership are:

  • Increased service to others
  • A holistic approach to work
  • The building of a sense of community in the workplace
  • A wider sharing of power in decision-making.

All of these chime with our research in Oasis into developing principles for the workplace of tomorrow when people and planet really matter.

I recently talked with Terri McNerney, a 21st-century servant leader and trustee at the Greenleaf Centre UK. According to Terri, the best test of a servant leader is whether the people you lead are growing in experience and skills as the work develops.

What does it take to be a servant leader?

So what does it take to be a servant leader? Some people find it an uncomfortable description but recognise the value of the ten characteristics identified by Larry Spears (2008, p28) including: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualisation, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building a community of trust. And we are familiar with the power and challenge of ‘five ways of being’ that James Autney (2008, p33) describes as moving us towards a more meaningful expression of servant leadership in every setting. These are to be authentic, to be vulnerable, to be accepting, to be present and to be useful.

If I think about servant leadership in action, I am reminded of the framework of ‘tracking’ and ‘fanning’ offered by Gervase Bushe. He talks about leaders fanning the flames of a compelling, shared vision as it is implemented. Having achieved collective agreement and commitment, workers throughout the organisation have authority to act without asking for permission. Leaders, rather than planning and controlling, look for:

“any and all acts that move the organization in the desired direction and find ways to support and amplify those efforts. I call this tracking (looking for where what you want more of already exists) and fanning (adding oxygen to a small fire to create a blaze)” (Bushe, 2007).

I’ve seen this in action in Northamptonshire County Council in the revival of the Transitions Service for Young People with Learning Disabilities. Following a whole system approach which included young people with disabilities, the Transitions Team took over the reins of implementing the shared ‘One World’ vision, supported and facilitated by Carolyn Kus, their senior director. She gave them free rein, tracking and fanning by checking in regularly, staying awake to opportunities, stepping in to help remove roadblocks when requested by the team and watching as they fulfilled her high expectations of them. The Transitions Team achieved great things and were proud to showcase their work and that of the young people who continued to contribute to the emerging service. Together they harnessed the trust, expertise and enthusiasm of those who understood the vision and knew what was needed.

This is just one example of what’s possible when leaders focus on the growth and development of the people they lead and trust them to act, with support. We don’t need heroic leaders or superheroes. It’s not about being subservient either – but operating from vision, trust and resilience.

I’ve known great leaders with these characteristics and ways of being and I know that for them, they, and their leadership, are a work in progress. This passion for leading through, for and with others, agreeing high standards and then equipping and trusting others to meet them, takes courage, agility and a willingness to welcome failure and all its lessons. It takes a level of self-security and assurance to trust others and welcome what comes.

I’m not expecting our political leaders to get this but the more we can aspire to this and include it in our education at all ages, the more hopeful I will feel for this country and the world’s future.


Lewis, R. and Noble, J. (eds.) (2008) Servant-Leadership: Bringing the spirit of work to work, Cirencester: Management Books 2000 Ltd.

Bushe, G.R. (2009) Clear Leadership (rev. ed.) Boston: Davies‐Black.

Bushe, G.R. (2007) Appreciative Inquiry is not (just) about the positive. Organization Development Practitioner, 39:4, 30‐35.

Hermann Hesse, Journey to the East, (1956), English Edition

Giles Hutchins, (2017) Meditations on a Mind-set Shift from Scarcity to Abundance

Margaret Wheatley (www.margaretwheatley.com)

The Oasis Real Leaders programme launches in 2018. If you are interested in exploring your leadership questions in your own context, developing yourself as a leader or developing leaders in your organisation, please take a look at the prospectus, email us or call us on 01937 541700 for a conversation about how we can help.