Servant Leadership Workplace-Born Made

Are Servant-Leaders Born or Made?

Is servant leadership a matter of nature or nurture?

Or both?

Or neither?

Good arguments exist on all sides of these questions.

Robert K. Greenleaf, who coined the term “servant leadership” in his important 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader, repeatedly says that servant leaders are “natural” servants who make conscious choices to lead – in other words, that servant leadership is a matter of nature.

If Greenleaf were right, then it might seem that our servant-leader dies are cast at birth; we either got the right stuff, innately, or we don’t.

But not so fast.

Perhaps the human nature of any particular individual can change.

Indeed, I believe that human nature can be formed.


Through the conscious cultivation of servant-leader habits.

I agree with Aristotle:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Psychologist and philosopher, William James, expands on Aristotle’s point with his usual eloquence:

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”

Indeed, James suggests that our habits become a “second nature” that can supplant the original nature with which we are born:

“Habit is thus a second nature, or rather, as the Duke of Wellington said, it is ‘ten times nature’ – at any rate as regards its importance in adult life; for the acquired habits of our training have by that time inhibited or strangled most of the natural impulsive tendencies which were originally there.”

Supermarket magnate Frank Outlaw (late president of BI-LO stores) recognizes the relationship between habit and nature in this rather clever way:

“Watch your thoughts, they become words;

watch your words, they become actions;

watch your actions, they become habits;

watch your habits, they become character;

watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

In short, I believe “servant-leader nature” can be formed through servant-leader practices consciously cultivated into servant-leader habits.

Because, I believe, what we areour natureis what we repeatedly do: our habits.

That means, on one hand, a person could be born a “natural” servant (to use Greenleaf’s phrase) and, later in life, depart from that nature through the acquisition of contradicting habits. I have known poor leaders formed this way.

On the other hand, a person could be born something other than a “natural” servant and, later in life, become a servant-leader through the acquisition of servant-leader habits. I have known servant-leaders formed this way, too.

What do you think? Are servant-leaders born or made? What are we missing here?

Let us know.

As always, we appreciate your views. Thanks!


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