Business Ethics: The Significance of Servant Leadership

The role of servant leadership in ethical business development

What is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is a leadership style built on service of others – specifically, those being led. The goal of servant leadership is to lead those who follow one to become better versions of themselves, by helping them identify and capitalise on their unique strengths.

Servant leadership implies that there is a ‘greater cause’ that is being worked towards. This greater cause may have less to do with the pursuit of profit and control, and more to do with a vocation both at an individual level and at an organisational level.

In an Essay titled ‘Essentials of Servant-Leadership,’ R K Greenleaf said,

“The servant-leader is servant first. Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.

For such people, it will be a later choice to serve – after leadership is established. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them are the shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

The power continuum

The outcome of either will is to lead. But the motivation to lead is very different. As Greenleaf points out above, leaders will move within this continuum. At any point in time, they may find themselves at a specific point – and not always the same point as before, or in the future.

The significance of vocation

Michael Jones titled his essay on servant leadership, ‘Servant Leadership and the Imaginative Life’. In it, he discussed the importance of fulfilling one’s vocation.

Jones describes how a drunkard in a hotel challenged him to follow his talent by asking him the following question about his (Jones’) own musical compositions: “Who’s going to play that music if you don’t play it yourself?… This is your gift – don’t waste it.”

The true mean of vocation as it applies to business ethics and practiseJones went on to say that “the root meaning of vocation is vocare, which means voice. Every life is, I believe, a journey into discovering our own voice. We do this through recognizing the restorative power of an expressive or living speech… Rather, we become instruments for the expression of the word, of our own truth, of the atmosphere of our own mind, our own authority and unique viewpoint that reflect our way of seeing the world. We find this atmosphere by placing ourselves in the preserve of beauty, so that the words themselves become the heartfelt expression of praise for the many ways life is acting upon us.”


Servant leadership as taught by the greatest Servant Leader of all

This link between vocation and voice, and the importance of articulating our truth and our authority, is reflected in the Bible. In the book of John I, chapter 1, verses 1-5, John says

“Before the world was created, the Word already existed; he was with God, and he was the same as God. From the very beginning the word was with God. Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him. The Word was the source of life, and this life brought light to mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.”

This scripture can be understood both at the level intended by John with regard to Jesus Christ, as well as at the human level where we as individuals need to be guided by the word that exists within us and is inseparable from us.

Ken Blanchard said the following in his foreword called ‘The Heart of Servant-Leadership’: “and central to Jesus’ philosophy was servant-leadership. I believe Jesus exemplified the fully committed and effective servant leader.”

The links between voice, vocation and the Word are the same as the things that give meaning to life. Having a meaningful life is the challenge, the call. Greatness for all is an achievable goal, but it is personal greatness and not necessarily the greatness that is achieved as a result of competition.

The continuum of vocation

Vocation is not the same as having a sense of responsibility. Vocation is the cornerstone of greatness. Vocation, however, can be found in many places: in a parent; in a gardener; in a police officer; in a stone cutter; and in a ‘tea-lady’. Vocation ensures meaning: vocation ensures that whatever is done is done effortlessly. Vocation is beautiful to watch. It is mastery in motion.

vocation ensures meaning

Where power and vocation intersect

Why is it that different organisations address the issue of ethics differently? My underlying sense is that purpose or vocation have something to do with how ethics manifest in an organisation.

Further, it has become very clear that a leader’s approach to power will guide an organisation in a specific direction. Companies have cultures that, more often than not, reflect the values and drive of their leadership, simply by the way in which that power manifests itself in the execution of business.

It is, therefore, my hypothesis that one of the ways of viewing the many different company ethical cultures that exist, is to create a grid with the power continuum on one axis, and vocation on the other.

The quadrants of servant leadership

The businesses that fall into these different quadrants would view ethical issues very differently.


The need for ethics The role of ethics The resistance to ethics
Quad 1 In this quadrant ethics would form an integral part of all the decisions made on behalf of the organisation. Ethics would be instrumental in defining the business’ purpose and the way it treats all its stakeholders.

Ethics would be part of every board discussion. These are the companies that are ethical not because it is the expedient thing to do but because it is the right thing to do.

They do the right thing not because they pursue a reputation but because it is the only way to be.

Ethics would be an integral way of how work is done. In this organisation ethical behaviour would be a byproduct of how they would do business anyway. There is very little resistance to ethics in this type of environment. Businesses are clear as to what they want to achieve, how they achieve it is just as important if not more so.
Quad 2 Ethics is not intuitive. Here the passion of the vocation might create an expedient outlook on how it is done. The danger is that in this type of organisation all the employees embrace this culture of expedience. Also people who are passionate about a vocation may not want to have anything stand in their way. These types of organisation will require a great deal of groundwork before ethics can be successfully integrated into their mainstream processes. The role of ethics in this type of organisation is an ongoing monitoring process to ensure that staff and suppliers are not being exploited. Invariably shareholders and the executive team would be the focus of most of the board decisions. Resistance to ethics could be significant. Specifically for organisations that have predominantly logic operators such as engineers, auditors, contractors, builders etc. By their very nature they would not be predisposed to something like ethics. The other danger in this quadrant is that ethics may be used in an expedient manner such as to carry favour with the market.
Quad 3 By their nature these organisations would embrace ethics. I cannot think of any that fit into this quadrant except maybe NGO that do not have a clear mission. Ethics would be part of everything they do, probably to the point where not much is done. The role is ongoing. Very little resistance to ethics. Possibly have a high resistance to courage and reality and much too much vision.
Quad 4 These are my least favourite organisations for no other reason that they are driven by a need for power and profits. There is not even a clear vocation.  Brands like Virgin may be expedient about everything and economical with the truth in every sphere. Further these are the brands that move into and out of markets with no concern for the people who serviced them while they were in that market. The need for ethics would be significant to help these organisations discern a fair and equitable way of doing business. On going role of ethics would be very difficult since these organisations are fleet-footed and would do what it takes to make money and carry favour. Resistance to ethics in every conceivable way.

Quadrant 1 is the new paradigm. This is the type of business that Greenleaf is concerned with. These are the organisations that want to serve both the stakeholders and the market. This is possibly the reason why they are profitable as they are. They are profitable because they consider the whole system.

Where organisational consciousness meets vocation and power

In a book by Richard Barrett called ‘Liberating the Corporate Soul: Building a Visionary Organisation,’ an extension to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is presented. The table below defines the attributes of each state of consciousness and then quantifies out of 10 the importance of the state of consciousness to the quadrant. The motivation for the integration of so many models is to explore the overlaps between approaches to ethics in business, its role, implementation, perceived need, and the resistance to ethics.

The scoring is not based on any primary research but an opinion of what the scores might be. It would be a valuable insight into corporate South Africa if the primary research had been undertaken.


Level Description Focus Values Limiting Values Q. 1 Q. 2 Q. 3 Q. 4
7 Service: Ethics and Social Responsibility Highest order of internal and external connectedness Inside organisation: values, Vision, forgiveness and compassion. Externally: Human rights, ethics and investment in future generations 10 0 10 0
6 Making a Difference: employee fulfilment, Customer? Supplier collaboration. Deepening and strengthening of relationships and employee fulfilment Inside organisation: Leadership development, mentoring, coaching, employee fulfilment. Externally: customer collaborations, partnering, community involvement 10 4 8 2
5 Internal Cohesion Building internal cohesion and a sense of community spirit inside the organisation Trust, integrity, honesty, shared values, co-operation, fairness. Results in: enjoyment, enthusiasm, passion, dedication and creativity. 8 4 8 4
4 Transformation: Learning and innovation leading to continuous renewal. Continuous renewal and the development of new products and services Values to overcome limiting values of levels 1 – 3: accountability, employee participation, continuous improvement, innovation, teamwork, personal development, information sharing. 8 10 4 6
3 Self-Esteem: Productivity, Efficiency, quality Best business practices, systems and processes that improve work methods and delivery of products and services Productivity, efficiency, professional growth, skills development and quality. Results from systems problems or loss of control: long hours, arrogance, bureaucracy, complacency. 6 10 4 6
2 Relationships: Customer satisfaction Quality of interpersonal relationships between employees and customers/ suppliers Open communication, conflict resolution, customer satisfaction and respect. Fear of loss of control and personal regard: manipulation, blaming and internal competition. 6 10 4 8
1 Survival: Profit and growth Financial matters and organisational growth. Profit, shareholding value, employee health and safety Fear for survival: control, short-term focus, caution, exploitation. 6 6 2 10

The seven levels of organisational consciousness reflect what is important to organisations as they go through different states of consciousness. As an indication of how these states of consciousness might be reflected in the different quadrants in the table above.

In line with Peter Koestenbaum’s leadership diamond, the more evolved the leader, the greater the integration of the four characteristics of the leadership model.

The score assigned for each level of consciousness is an indication of the importance of that level to a given quadrant.

The system

An organisation is about the leadership, about the vocation of the employees, and about the ability of the leader to extract and facilitate as much greatness as possible out of all the resources that make up the organisation. Steve Covey defined the roles of leadership in an essay called ‘Servant-Leadership and Community Leadership in the 21st Century.’

“The four roles of leadership:

  • The first role is simply to be an example, a model: one whose life has credibility with others, has integrity, diligence, humility, the spirit of servant-leadership, of contribution.”

    (This clearly defines the attributes of a servant-leader from a values and behaviour point of view. Covey is not referring here to those leaders that are on the ‘will to power’ journey. This is about those leaders that are on the ‘will to serve’ journey.) 
  • The second role of leadership is path finding. That’s the vision role – the role of deciding what your mission is and what your values are; what you’re trying to accomplish… for true path finding, you must always study what the needs of people are. You must try to discern what the value systems are and how you can come up with a strategic plan within those values to meet those needs.”

    (In this process the leader and the team define their individual and combined purpose/ vocation. The values of the team and the individuals bring greater clarity and discernment to the purpose/ vocation. This process thereby gives an ethical context to how the business will carry out its contribution to the economy. These first two roles have clearly defined the process by which organisations define their position in quadrant 1. They are clear with what they wish to achieve, and they are clear that they want to achieve it under the direction of a leader that is a servant first and leads to facilitate the full potential of each of the people who work within the organisation.) 
  • The third role of leadership is alignment. Once you have chosen the words that define what your vision, your mission, your values are, then you have to make sure that all of the structures and systems inside the organisation reflect that… that’s why that alignment role is so vital. You can’t come up with competitive compensation systems and still say you value cooperation. You can’t say you value the long-term when you’re totally governed by short-term data… You can’t say you value diversity when really deep in the bowels of the recognition systems are prejudices about different kinds of groups of people. But you can get commitment and involvement by many people if your value system is truly exemplified by your organisation’s structure and policies and if your values are based on natural laws or principles that are universal and self-evident then you institutionalise that moral authority. You’re no longer dependent on the moral authority of a particular individual.” 

    (This quote articulates the systems model which has been attached to Appendix 1 of this document. There is no place in business for a lack of alignment. The frustration that many individuals find themselves in, is the lack of alignment within organisations. It is not that there is disagreement with the stated values of the organisation but rather that there is no reality between the stated values and their implementation. It is the lack of alignment/ congruence that creates the unhappiness.) 

  • The fourth role of leadership is empowerment – empowering people. The fourth role is essentially the fruit of the first three. When you have a common vision and value system, and you have put into place the structures and systems reinforcing that vision, when you have institutionalized that kind or moral authority – it is like lifeblood feeding the culture, the feelings of people, the norms, the more – feeding it constantly now, you’re really out of people’s way.You don’t have to be focused on morals. You don’t have to be focused on procedures; you have a few, but relatively few. You can focus instead on vision and values and release the enormous human creativity, the human ingenuity, the resourcefulness, the intelligence of people to the accomplishment of those purposes. Everything connects together: the quality of the relationships, the common purpose and values. You find that people will organise themselves. They’ll manage themselves. People are drawn to doing their own best thing and accomplishing that worthy purpose, that vision. That’s empowerment!”


    (The only way that companies can thrive and sustain themselves in the long-term is in quadrant 1, because the world that we live in requires a different kind of intelligence (more of that later) then the one that we had before. We are moving into an economic age where it is almost impossible to plan too far ahead, the only effective thing to do is to create a capability in the organisation that is self-regulating, where the vision is clearly understood and where subsidiarity is practiced. Only those organisations that have effectively devolved responsibility in this way will they be able to react timeously to opportunities and threats in the market).

We all need to live, love, learn, and leave a legacy - Steve CoveyFurther, Steve Covey suggests that there are four needs in all people;

  • We must survive in our body: we must live.
  • We must relate to others: we must love.
  • We must grow and develop, use our talents: we must learn. And, finally,
  • We must have value, make a difference: we must leave a legacy.

It is possible that we have underscored the importance of the last two needs in how we have developed businesses. Certainly, there has been the attitude at some stage that people are lazy, and therefore business practices were created that took that human attribute as a given.

If, however, businesses acknowledge that every person needs – at some level – to fulfil on those four needs, then something quite different may start to happen.

Covey describes this as follows:

“Where these needs overlap, you find that internal motivation, the fire within. If you do not have an outward focus to leave a legacy, the fire will go out in other areas. But when you are making a living, building a family, having good relationships, constantly growing and learning all with the intent to contribute, to serve, the fire goes on.”

Servant leadership is the spark that ignites that fire, the breath that fans its flames.

Do you agree? Let me know what you think about servant leadership and how it impacts business ethics. I’d love to hear from you.



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