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A Conversation on Servant Leadership
February 27, 2015

After more than 30 years of work in the corporate sector, Pat Falotico’s heart called her to service. In 2014, she left IBM Corporation and joined the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership as its chief executive officer (CEO). Below, she describes the concept of service leadership in business and how YALI Network members might implement the practice in their daily lives.


What is servant leadership, and how is it different from traditional leadership?

Pat Falotico:

I first heard of servant leadership from a wonderful leader here in Atlanta who is the CFO [chief financial officer] of Home Depot, Carol Tome. She described servant leadership as an inverted pyramid, where the CEO is at the bottom focusing on enabling his or her followers, the employees and ultimately the customers the organization serves.

Martin Luther King Jr. mural virtually imposed on basketball court (AP Images)
As a testament to his leadership during the U.S. civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. is honored before an Atlanta Hawks basketball game.

[Management expert] Robert K. Greenleaf gave the term “servant leadership” to this practice in 1970 when he wrote the essay The Servant as Leader. What he talked about was being a servant first, being committed to helping others. So servant leadership is an “other-ish” versus a selfish motivation.

Greenleaf goes on to say that it’s not just having a servant’s heart but also choosing to lead. Servant- leaders say, “I choose to help others in a meaningful way so that I can ensure their highest priority needs are met.”

Servant leadership is not soft; it is not without accountability. Because I cannot meet the highest priority needs of those  whom I serve if I don’t deliver outstanding business results. I do not provide for their most basic needs if they can’t get a paycheck.

Servant leadership is also built on empathy. It’s accepting individuals for who they are, but not necessarily accepting that their performance is always adequate. I can value you as a person, but if you show up for work every single day late, if you’re not engaged in your work, I probably need to understand why because that effort, that outcome is not acceptable. But the person is always accepted.

By definition, you can see how servant leadership differs from traditional power structures. It’s a people-building versus a people-using model.


Give us an example of someone who has exhibited servant leadership.


Nelson Mandela is a great example, given what he endured and how he was able to bring about the end of apartheid. It wasn’t in his own self-interest, but he gave of himself to enable others. He led by example.

You also have Martin Luther King Jr. and all that he did with the civil rights movement here in the United States, focusing on the right to vote and all that we needed to do to desegregate our country and provide equal opportunity for all. He and his family endured such sacrifice. But he focused on others, so that they could be lifted up.

What I love about these examples is that it’s a journey. In our humanness, we make mistakes. We’re not always in line with our purest vision of ourselves. But servant leadership is a simple commitment to care for and support others, to do something bigger than ourselves.


Why should YALI Network members adopt the principles of servant leadership?

Several people sorting piles of books (AP Images)
In the United States, January 19 is Martin Luther King Day, a time for community service. These volunteers, for example, are helping a Florida secondary school convert its books to a new sorting system.


First of all, because it works. You get results. There’s a group of companies called the “Firms of Endearment” that practice servant leadership. Maybe they don’t call it servant leadership, but they really do practice it.

And it is those companies that outperform their peers.

And it is so much more fulfilling.

But it’s not easy. Servant leadership takes time. Servant leadership takes effort. And servant leadership forces us to really question our values about others. And because of the hard work, people sometimes don’t want to put it in. But for those that do, they see it’s worth it. They see the results.


What can a YALI Network member do today to start implementing the principles of servant leadership?


Get the essay. Read it and reflect upon it. Really focus on the self-awareness aspects of it. Who am I? How am I perceived? How do I present myself? Am I authentic? Am I committed to others? And really understand.

So many people say, “Yes, I am committed to others, I am a servant leader,” and what they mean by that is “I volunteer and do good things in the community.” And you can volunteer and do good things in the community and not be a servant leader.

There are skills and capabilities of a servant leader that you can work on: listening, empathy, self awareness are three of the big ones that people can work on.


Anything else you’d like to share with the YALI Network?


Yes, in a different essay, Greenleaf talks about how this change will happen. And he talks about the reality that certain generations may be so fixed in the way that they operate that they’re not going to be able to bring about this change themselves — that it will be from inside, at other levels within the organization. He talks about the opportunity and the responsibility to motivate young people to see that there’s a better way, and have them bring about change in these institutions. So, make sure YALI Network members know that we’re counting on them to change the institutions that they enter from the inside.

To learn more about the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership you can visit its website or join its communities on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.