Bad News for Bullies
Have you ever worked for a tyrant? If not, count yourself lucky because most people have at one time or another--no less than 4 out of 5 employees, according to a study by Wayne State University. Surveys also find that of all the complaints people have about their work, from low pay to long hours, the biggest single one is that of the bully boss. And if anything, there are signs that the practice of tormenting employees is rising in the "new economy," as companies face stiffer competition and CEOs turn over faster, developing few personal bonds with people around them.
Yet there is a distinctly different form of leadership that has arisen in recent years, represented by Bill Thomas, the cofounder of Eden Alternative and the man portrayed in the accompanying pages of this issue as one of America's emerging leaders, chosen by a national panel. Thomas is a living symbol of what is called the "servant leader."
In the burgeoning literature about how best to lead, Robert K. Greenleaf famously coined that phrase in an essay titled "The Servant as Leader." In the years since, Greenleaf's ideas have drawn a sizable following, and their echoes have appeared in popular leadership books by Stephen Covey, Ken Blanchard, Max DePree, and others.
Greenleaf argues that too many leaders in the past have been driven by a need for power or authority. They have set up hierarchical systems and, for a long while, could achieve results. Today, however, people no longer grant automatic deference to a leader and seek instead less coercive, more creative relationships. "A new moral principle is emerging," writes Greenleaf, in which followers will "respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants."
A leader of leaders. The idea has ancient roots. Current literature on servant leadership points out that Christ taught his disciples that in order to lead, they must "wash one another's feet," that they must learn to serve each other, and that many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. Greenleaf adds that in the early days of the republic, leaders like George Washington signed their letters, "Your most humble and obedient servant."
Pure notions of "servant leadership" have, of course, a utopian ring. No one can make it to the executive suites of a Fortune 500 company or climb the slippery pole of politics who lacks personal drive and is purely selfless. Washington himself started out, as James MacGregor Burns has written, with "fierce ambition." In the modern organizations of today, leaders must also have a streak of toughness, even ruthlessness.
Even so, the idea is taking hold in high-performing organizations that the leader's role has changed. Increasingly, the best leaders are those who don't order but persuade; don't dictate but draw out; don't squeeze but grow the people around them. They push power out of the front office, down into the organization, and become a leader of leaders. Most important, as Peter Drucker insisted, they understand that the people in an organization are its No. 1 asset.
In the 1980s, when most CEOs focused relentlessly on the bottom line, DePree, former chair of Herman Miller Inc., was famous for promoting instead a "covenant" with his employees. Leaders, he wrote in Leadership Is an Art, should give employees "space so that we can both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing, and inclusion." One of the foremost practitioners of servant-style leadership today is the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, who has made sure his employees have health insurance and work in a positive environment. Starbucks, as a result, has a strong brand following and is thriving.
At a time when young professionals are looking for a different set of values in work--studies show they're less interested in power and prestige than in positive relations with colleagues and interesting challenges--the bully may finally see his end. That can hardly come soon enough.
This story appears in the June 19, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.