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Servant Leadership: A bygone era on the African continent?
February 27, 2015

“It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

These are the words of Robert K. Greenleaf, the man behind our modern conception of servant leadership.

Today, servant leadership is rare. Modern politicians have proved that the social contract has been breached. These leaders, or rather rulers, have placed their interests above all else.

The Social Contract

Portrait photo of Rumbidzai Dube (State Dept.)
Rumbidzai Dube, a 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow, calls for a revival of servant leaders.

The philosophies of Jean Jacques Rousseau — a proponent of the social contract theory — have informed the legitimacy of political authority for centuries. Rousseau argued that government came into being to right wrongs such as the economic and social inequalities precipitated by civilization. He claimed these inequalities robbed human beings of their natural state, one characterized by freedom and dignity.

Rousseau suggested that to recreate the balance of nature, where freedom existed and inequalities did not, man made two pacts: pactum unionis and pactum subjectionis. Under pactum unionis, human beings agreed to coexist peacefully in return for the guaranteed protection of their lives and property. Under pactum subjectionis, they ceded their rights to an authority with the power to enforce the contract. This meant giving power to the authority to govern them to their benefit, to represent their interests and to protect their freedoms.

This theory assumed that those vested with the power would respect the submission of individual wills to the collective will, and that the agreement was between free and equal persons.

A Different Approach

Rousseau’s theory would work perfectly if those given the power to govern would be driven by the desire to serve, and to serve first.

Humility, selflessness, empathy, foresight — these are some of the qualities of a servant leader.

Servant leaders are deeply committed to identifying and fulfilling the needs of all those they serve. They recognize the invaluable contributions of every member of society.

Servant leaders walk in the shoes of those they lead, for their comfort and even existence comes secondary to that of their people.  This principle is embodied in one of Nelson Mandela’s statements at the Rivonia Trial:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Servant leaders do not stir conflict to their benefit. They do not take action to entrench authoritarianism. They are persuasive, convincing others to work together toward a common good. They reaffirm others, nurturing the gifts and abilities they see in those they lead. They recognize their own limits and harness the strength that comes from many different people and many different skill sets.

I have learned the value of servant leadership in the work that I do: championing the rights of women, monitoring parliaments, improving rights literacy. This work is not about me, what I want or what I think. It is for the greater good.

The core is to serve, to do good, to enhance lives, to encourage. Anything less is not servant leadership.

Rumbidzai Dube is a social justice advocate who is passionate about using the written word to inform, educate and transform societies. A 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow from Zimbabwe, Dube currently works as a legal researcher for the Research and Advocacy Unit, a local nonprofit organization that advocates for a Zimbabwean society where citizens are aware of their power and demand good governance. She holds law degrees from the University of Zimbabwe and the University of Pretoria. She is a member of the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.