servant leadership workplace MLK

MLK – Too Good a Role Model?

Most people would agree that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a model servant-leader.

Indeed, MLK had a goal to make the world a better place and led followers towards that goal.* MLK brought greater meaning, prosperity and joy into the lives he touched.** He played to win and he got results.***

And, at the end of the day, MLK met the “best test” of a servant-leader offered by Robert K. Greenleaf, the man work coined the term “servant leadership” in his important 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader.

Greenleaf writes:

“The best test [of a servant-leader], and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?” ****

Which brings me to a question that came up in a servant leadership workshop I facilitated recently for a business:

Is MLK too good a role model?

I am a promoter of servant leadership in the workplace. But I wonder – and I wondered aloud at the workshop – whether I might be doing servant leadership a disservice by holding up great people as models.

I asked the folks in our workshop whether they thought business people would turn off to servant leadership because they couldn’t hope to be like the famous servant-leaders.

In sum, here’s the response I got: No, great role models like Dr. King are important.

For two reasons.

First, servant leadership is a journey. There is no final destination. No place where one would stop and say, “well, at last, I can rest knowing I am a servant-leader.” The important thing is to keep moving. You never know how far you can go.

Second, people like MLK act as guiding stars. We can learn from an epitome, a person or thing that is a perfect example of a particular quality or type. For many, the servant leadership of MLK remains a target worth aiming at.

And as Henry Thoreau reminds us:

“In the long run men only hit what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.”

What do you think? Should we make role models of the great servant-leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.? Are there downsides in doing so, especially in the workplace?

Let us know.


As always, we appreciate your views.


Maybe some of these posts might interest you:

*      “2 Servant Leadership Essentials Often Overlooked”

**     “Servant-Leaders Play to Win”  “What Was So Great About Mother Teresa?”

***    “Want More Meaning, Prosperity and Joy?”

****    “Greenleaf’s ‘Best Test of a Servant-Leader”