Servant Leadership and the Triple Bottom Line

Triple Bottom LineIn this blog post I look at servant leadership and explore how servant leadership as described in Peter Block’s (1996) Stewardship and Robert Greenleaf’s (2002) Servant Leadership: A Journey fits with the concept of the triple bottom line.

First, I must describe servant leadership. However, before I can proceed,  I want to point out that the treatment of servant leadership by Block and Greenleaf are similar but at the same time, have clear differences. Also, Block the recent author of the two, appears to be influenced by the writings of Greenleaf. In both authors’ work, the leader becomes a servant leader by being in service to others. For Block the leaders and everyone in the organization are in service of those on the front line, i.e., those who produce the final product, sell it, or those who are in service of the customer in general. Greenleaf’s view on the other hand, is more expansive; he not only writes about the leader being in service to the individuals in the organization, but also about the organization itself being in service to the larger community, “the organization as servant.” Here, Greenleaf focuses on the role that trustees can play in various organizational settings as a way to ensure such a service is delivered to society as a whole. I have been privy to attending a part of a Board of Trustees meeting for  a university  in which the board members and the board as whole acted in a servant capacity, trying to make sure that university is committed to its mission of service to the student and local community. During the meeting, several student were questioned about their programs and the larger role that their programs play in the community.

Another difference between the treatment of the subject by both authors is that Block is more concerned with democratic leadership and flattening the organization than Greenleaf. Still, Greenleaf does touch on the subject, but does not go as deep as Block. It would seem that Greenleaf takes democratic leadership as a matter of course in servant leadership. He writes about the concept of first among equals(primus inter pares) as a way for the leader to operate in teams. This position seems to be at odds with Block’s view which calls for true equality in work teams. Each of the position has its own merits, however, that is the subject of another paper.

An area of similarity between the two authors is the relationship of servant leadership to community building inside the organization. Both authors seem to think that there is a link. It would seem that Block’s ideas in this book about the relationship between community and servant leadership serve as a precursor to his book Community:The Structure of Belonging book. Both authors think that servant leadership and the environment that it creates in an organization is more conducive to creating a communal experience within the organization.

Servant leadership has its roots in religious tradition. Here two stories stand out, the story of Jesus Christ washing the feet of the disciples, an activity only reserved for the most lowly servants of the time. The other story is the story of a leader of a religious order named Leo, who traveled with a group as their servant, while unbeknownst to them he was the leader of the religious order to which they belonged. As the story goes, the success of the group was highly dependent on the presence of this servant to the degree that the group fell apart once he left the group (Greenleaf, 2002).

Servant Leadership and the Triple Bottom Line

The triple bottom line is about organizations measuring their success not only by using financial measures, but also by how well they treat people and the environment. Some have understood people to include both employees and the larger community, while others have a more limited sense that included one or the other but not both. The triple bottom line provides a more systemic view of the organization that fits squarely within the assumptions of open systems theory; the organization is both adapting and influencing of its external environment: resources, people and ideas flow in and out of the organization.    Also by measuring impact on the environment, and the community the organization takes responsibility for its actions. Finally, measuring the impact of the business  on the employees is a better indicator of performance than financial measures alone, which usually have a lag or delay and are therefore insufficient as a sole measure of organizational health.

The environmental aspect of the triple bottom line seems to be absent from either authors’ work. This lack of concern environment could be either done on purpose to keep the focus on democratic values. Also at the time of the writing of either book, environmental awareness was not as high as it now.  Finally,  the organization can really afford to ignore the environment as it is a commons, and commons usually have no feedback loop to indicate their level or quality.

Unlike the case with the environment, where there are no immediate consequences for acting in an environmentally irresponsible manner, dealing with the employee can have immediate impact on the bottom line. Both Block and Greenleaf seem to agree on how organizations and leaders should treat their employees. Both agree about the lack of success of top-down command and control leadership and the success of democratic leadership.

As far as the role of the organization as servant, Block seems to favor more money making, this can be inferred from his focus on serving the front-line employees such as production and sales people. Greenleaf, on the other hand suggests that the organization should take on some of the role played by government. The argument here is that American large businesses have the needed resources to act in a manner that is similar to government , and at the same time are nimble enough to have good chances of success, unlike the bureaucratic government.

Mohammed Raei Facilitating Affinity MappingMohammed Raei

Mohammed has experience in R&D, sales, marketing, business development, and quality management. He received a master’s degree in management and leadership and a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. Mohammed loves reading, air hockey, shuffle board, and ping pong.

Block, Peter(1996). Stewardship:Choosing Service Over Self-Interest. San Francisco, CA. Berrett-Koehler.

Greenleaf, Robert(2002). Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness 25th Anniversary Edition. Mahwah, New Jersey. Paulist Press.

Heifitz, Ronald(1998). Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Holman, Peggy et al(2007). The Change Handbook: The Difinitive Resource on Today’s Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems. San Fransico, CA. Berrett-Koehler.

Meadows, Donella(2008). Thinking in Systems. White River Junction, VT. Chelsea Green

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