Servant Leadership Workplace-Charisma

Servant Leadership and Charisma

Are servant leadership and charisma compatible?

On one hand, it’s pretty well accepted that humility is a cardinal virtue of servant leadership. And charismatic people often lack humility.

But on the other hand, there is nothing wrong with charisma by definition.

Charisma is the ability to attract, charm and influence people. It’s is an ancient idea, sometimes thought to be a supernatural power. Increasingly, people believe charisma can be learned and practiced.

Sure, a leader can use charisma for evil ends as well as good. But standing alone, in my view, charisma is neither positive nor negative.

Moreover, charisma is subjective. A person who can attract, charm and influence me may be different than one who can attract, charm and influence you. So, it’s hard to generalize too much about charisma.

But let me tell you about one person I found particularly charismatic: Ramesh Bhai.

The son of two teachers, Bhai was born in a small village in India. He devoted his entire adult life in the service of women, poor and the dispossessed. Among many other leadership roles, he was the General Secretary of All India Harijan Sewak Sangh, an organization founded by Mohandas Gandhi to address the issue of untouchability and education for the most marginalized.

In 1983, Bhai established the Sarvodaya Ashram, a residential school for girls who, for various reasons, had been prevented from attending regular schools.

I met Bhai in 2000 while visiting the Sarvodaya Ashram on behalf of CARE International, my employer at the time. CARE supported the ashram and considered it a jewel in CARE’s crown of programs. (I took the picture above on that visit. You can see the students in their uniforms having a breakfast of rice.)

Though it was more than 15 years ago, I vividly remember meeting Bhai.

Why vividly?

Because Ramesh Bhai had charisma.

It was a gentle, soft-spoken, slow-moving, careful charisma. I remember sitting with “Bhai Ji” over a plain meal. He was dressed simply in white, listened thoughtfully and spoke rarely-but-powerfully on behalf of the girls who lived at the ashram.

I felt then as if I were in the presence of someone or something transcendent.

I feel the same way as I remember it today.

Ramesh Bhai died in 2008 at the young age of 57.* I have no doubt he was a great servant-leader. And I know that many more people than me were attracted, charmed and influenced by him.

So, I believe that servant leadership and charisma are compatible. I don’t think servant-leaders must have charisma, but I do believe they can have it.

That’s a conclusion I draw after eating a meal with Ramesh Bhai.

What do you think?

Let us know.

As always, we appreciate your views.



* This picture of Ramesh Bhai was placed in the ashram after his death. For more on Ramesh Bhai and the Sarvodaya Ashram click here.