The roots of “servant leadership” management culture date back to Hermann Hesse and a young Hillary Clinton

Not exactly what Hermann Hesse had in mind.
Not exactly what Hermann Hesse had in mind.
Image: Nationaal Archief
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Vasant Narasimhan, the new CEO of Swiss drug company Novartis, has been engaged in what he described as “a big culture change” for the company.

“We moved from an autocratic, top-down organization, built up over really hundreds of years…to what we call an ‘unbossed,’ curious and inspired organization,” he told Quartz. “The unbossed concept being servant leaders, and accountable people. You really unleash the power of your people.”

‘Servant leader’ is a phrase you may have heard before, whether in the context of faith-based organizations, MBA prospectives, or HR presentations.

It is the kind of leader Howard Schultz believes he is, for instance. In an extraordinarily faux-modest 2015 New York Times op-ed, he described his leadership as analogous to Pope Francis’ washing the soiled feet of the incarcerated. This is the kind of leader Schultz might be as president, he wrote, were he not then preoccupied with “serving at Starbucks.” (The piece ends with a trip to Jerusalem’s Western Wall with a distinguished rabbi who believed himself unworthy of visiting the holy site—but telling Schultz to go ahead.)

Another example of a servant leader, according to one of his campaign ads, is South Dakota senator John Thune, who favors such people-first policies as tax breaks for couples with estates above $22 million, banning flag burning and gay marriage, and allowing firearms in checked baggage on Amtrak trains.

What do these people have in common? As servant leaders, their self-described management style puts employees, and their needs, first. The concept comes from Robert Greenleaf, a former executive at AT&T from the 1940s through the 60s, who was himself inspired by a slim, Eastern-mysticism-inflected novella by German writer Hermann Hesse and a speech from 22-year-old Hillary Rodham, who was to become Hillary Clinton.

Despite the click-worthy phrasing, it “is not a shallow, feel-good philosophy,” according to the foundation Greenleaf started. “It calls for radical personal and corporate accountability, deep inner work, and an effort to develop capacities like systems thinking, persuasion, intuition, foresight, and listening with presence.”

That might be the aim, but its pleasing meaninglessness—as bland as mashed potato, and just as easy to sculpt into dreamy, amorphous clouds—has made it ripe for use and misuse. Practically speaking, it’s a philosophy that encourages subordinates to give “upwards feedback” (which is good), rather than “managing up” (which is bad), and for leaders to take notice and act accordingly. (There’s no change to remuneration for either group.)

From Eastern routes to Hillary Rodham Clinton

Six years after retiring from AT&T, Greenleaf published his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader,” which laid out some of these key characteristics. To Greenleaf’s mind, a servant leader is above all a listener; she uses language carefully, and employs intuition and foresight when dealing with employees or subordinates.

Perhaps surprisingly, his essay quotes as an example the 1969 Wellesley College commencement address given a year earlier by the then-comparatively unknown Clinton. Clinton spoke of “human liberation. A liberation enabling each of us to fulfill our capacity so as to be free to create within and around ourselves.”

This commencement speech—the first given by a student in the history of the college—catapulted Clinton into the national spotlight. As the Washington Post reports, the national media had been “closely following campus upheaval that spring.” The more incendiary aspects of her speech “transformed her, virtually overnight, into a national symbol of student activism. Wire services blasted out her remarks, and Life magazine featured a photo of her, dressed in bold striped bell-bottoms.”

Clinton might have been Greenleaf’s present-day example, but the original inspiration came from the recent literary past.

Hesse, despite winning a Nobel prize in 1946, is seldom referred to as much of a literary great. (New Yorker writer Adam Kirsch described him as “usually regarded by highbrows as a writer for adolescents. Liking him is a good sign at age 15, a bad one by age 20.”)

Hesse’s Journey to the East, first published in 1932, is a novella of fewer than 200 pages about a group of travelers who comprise The League, a timeless religious sect. Starting from a fictional German-speaking territory, their journey eastward takes them through Space and Time, the Middle and Golden Ages alike, and—less romantically—through Italy and Switzerland, among other destinations.

Accompanying them is a servant, Leo. You might be able to guess where this is going: Leo is utterly unaffected and has a quality “so pleasing, so unobtrusively winning about him that everyone loved him. He did his work gaily, usually sang or whistled as he went along, was never seen except when needed—in fact, an ideal servant.” Despite these many attributes, however, he is “hardly noticed,” writes Hesse. 

Later, when Leo leaves the group, everything falls into disarray and in-fighting. In a not very shocking twist, it is later revealed that servant Leo is actually the president of The League. His disappearance was a test, and they have all failed.

Hesse was a pacifist and an anticapitalist, with strong anarchist leanings. His colonial roots, as well as a midlife vacation to Sri Lanka and Singapore, instilled in him a fascination with Buddhism and Eastern mysticism. In a way that might today be thought of, at best, as appropriative, this interest would color many of his works, including his most famous, Siddhartha.

A HR director, inspired

In the 1960s, in the heyday of hippie culture, there was renewed interest in Hesse’s work. It was in this context that Greenleaf, a Quaker and human resources director at AT&T, first came to Journey, with its striking message on leadership: “The law of service. He who wishes to live long must serve, but he who wishes to rule does not live long.”

Hesse would almost certainly have been horrified to see his aphorism turned into an edict on the best way to run corporate culture. His thematic focus on “the search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality” did not usually include “with a view to maximizing profit.” But Greenleaf saw in his teachings a way to improve governance of all kinds—corporate, secular, non-profit, faith-based. In each of these, the best leaders were like Leo, servants first and foremost.

In time, Greenleaf began to look more broadly at the concept, beyond its application in board rooms and corporate structures. Subsequent essays, as his website notes, “explored ideas that an entire institution—and a society—could act as servant, and that trustees should act as servants.”

Does servant leadership work? It’s difficult to measure—whether in terms of making companies more efficient, managers better at their job, or organizations of all stripes more pleasant places to be and work. But the concept propelled Greenleaf into the corporate management spotlight, eventually leading him to found the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership (first called the “Center for Applied Ethics”), write several books, and travel the country spreading the good news about service, leadership, and the complicated relationship between the two, until his death in 1990.