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On the minds of CEOs: Servant leadership as a model for our disruptive age

A CEO’s job has never been easy, but it keeps getting more complex. How can you drive growth at your organization in an environment of heightened uncertainty and macroeconomic challenges? How do you keep up with the pace of technological change? How do you manage all the ultra-fast disruptions and distractions of the moment while maintaining momentum toward longer-term future goals?

It was with these challenges in mind that I recently re-read Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East—a tale of self-discovery and quest for enlightenment—and, then, Robert Greenleaf’s essay, "Essentials of Servant Leadership," both of which sparked some musings on my part about principles of servant leadership and their relevance in today’s world.

The two readings are, of course, related. Hesse’s short novel was a direct inspiration for Greenleaf, who founded and evangelized the philosophy of servant leadership over 60 years ago. A servant, in this context, should be seen as a person generously providing service to others—not in a conventional or hierarchical sense. As Greenleaf explained it, the role of a servant leader is to empower individuals within their roles, seeking out opportunities to build relationships based on mutual trust, empathy, and collaboration in order to work collectively toward a shared goal.

Servant leadership is not simply about humility or service for service’s sake. Rather, it is based on the idea that leaders should strive for collective growth and put their team before themselves. This means they must have empathy for their employees' goals and objectives while also considering organizational needs when making decisions or offering advice. Leaders who practice servant leadership take responsibility for their actions and are committed to building relationships with those around them by listening attentively and responding thoughtfully to each person's input or concerns. It also requires having an understanding of one’s own strengths so that these can be used to help others reach their potential as well as realizing when an approach needs adjusting because it is not working out properly.

As a young man, embarking upon my own career journey, these principles resonated with me. As I have progressed on that journey, gathering more responsibility and experience along the way, they have taken on deeper meaning.

I have seen servant leaders in action and can attest to the power of this model. At AlixPartners, we have been lucky to have in our founder, Jay Alix, someone who brings passionate energy to his care for our organization and its people and who established servant leadership as a foundation stone of our culture.

In another example, as CEO of Kroll, Inc., I worked closely with Jules Kroll, the company’s founder. Jules has a singular ability to support people to be the best they can be through his sponsorship, without in any way diminishing his own authority. The powerful multiplier-effect of his leadership has deeply inspired and guided me in how I have tried to develop as a leader over the years.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Arne Sorenson, the late CEO of Marriott International, when I presented him with Chief Executive Magazine’s CEO of the Year award in 2019. Throughout his tenure as CEO, whether he was fighting to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on his company or his own battle with cancer, Arne demonstrated empathy, authenticity, and lived values with a deep connection to his employees. I know that he is missed.

On the flip side, I have also seen how a more authoritative, top-down leadership style can fail, with disastrous consequences for the organization in question. “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap comes to mind.

While there may have been a time when a CEO knew everything necessary to simply issue directives for their lieutenants to follow, that time is now past. Technology is advancing at a pace unprecedented in human history, rapidly reshaping how we work and live. Workplace dynamics are shifting alongside how and where value is being created. This complexity is too much for any one person to manage on their own.

CEOs need different approaches to effectively lead organizations through the years ahead. True power and authority grow from bringing people together and by making team members equal players in achieving a shared vision for the future. The principles within the servant leadership model offer some clues as to how we can do just that.

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