Servant Leadership and Aging

Three people in the last week have mentioned concepts of servant leadership to me. I don't know a lot about the topic so went off to look at the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. There I found that Robert Greenleaf coined the phrase 'servant leadership' in an essay that he first published in 1970.

The website has some clearly written paragraphs that start to answer the question "What is servant leadership" but then one is pointed to a $9.00 essay to get more information on the topic from Professor Stephen Prosser. He takes up the debate and asks whether servant leadership is a philosophy, or a theory, or a set of values, or a list of characteristics, or a series of practices-or some combination of all of these things? He discusses these questions "in the context of the literature and research on servant leadership in the new essay Servant Leadership: More Philosophy, Less Theory. After reviewing the ways in which people try to describe and explain leadership, he provides six reasons why servant leadership is a philosophy, not a theory, concerning service and the practice of leadership."

I didn't buy the Prosser essay yet, but instead went back to one of the articles someone sent me. It's called "Savoring Life through Servant-Leadership", by Richard Leider and Larry Spears, and is available as a free download.

This paper is a fascinating discussion on the idea of servant leadership and aging. The article quotes Greenleaf on this point "Spirit can be said to be the driving force behind the motive to serve. And the ultimate test for spirit in one's old age is, I believe, can one look back at one's active life and achieve serenity from the knowledge that one has, according to one's lights, served? And can one regard one's present state, no matter how limited by age and health, as one of continuing to serve? Robert K. Greenleaf, Old Age: The Ultimate Test of Spirit: An Essay on Preparation, Chapter 8 in The Power of Servant Leadership, L. Spears, Editor, Berrett-Koehler, 1998

The article reminded me of the blog piece I wrote on social system transformation last month which mentioned the end of ambition as Peter Block wrote about it in the introduction to the book Inviting Everyone: Healing Healthcare through Positive Deviance "At the most human level, these [organizational] reforms are initiated by people at the stage of life where they have given up on ambition. They are often people in midlife, in age or spirit, who reached a point where they are ready to look far outside what they were conditioned and trained in to find meaning for what is to come. "

The essay by Leider and Spears picks up this theme and talks about the 'responsibilities of elderhood' which they take the responsibility of older people to give their gifts (experience, guidance, skills, knowledge) in new ways that serve others rather than just themselves. In a way that they embrace as a critical responsibility of their elderhood.

As discussed the new elder spirit is one of "giving it away." The authors give the examples of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter who by "teaching Sunday school, building low-cost homes for Habitat for Humanity, and working for social justice in fledgling democracies, the Carters have committed themselves to both saving and savoring the world."

This all seems relevant as I think about the organization I am working with. More that 36% of its workforce is eligible to retire in the next three years. If they all do so it is likely that there will be large knowledge gaps as well as large tears in the social fabric of the organization. However, in common with most western organizations we are not yet taking steps that show we care about valuing the insights, experience, and skills of the elders in the workforce. Nor are we encouraging them to make a different style of contribution for the betterment of the organizational community. If we could weave together the threads of 'the end of ambition' and 'servant leadership' we might be able to take the organization into a much healthier future than if we just let the elders go without at least asking if and how they would like to lead albeit in a different way from the more usual 'up or out' leadership model.