In Journey to the East Herman Hesse tells the mythical story of a group of men who travel to the east in search of spiritual renewal. Leo is the servant of the group who does the chores for the other travellers but also, through his positive spirit and singing, lifts morale and strengthens the group’s cohesiveness. His presence effects the group in profound ways. The journey goes well until one day Leo disappears and the group falls apart. Without him they cannot continue to function. It transpires later that Leo is actually the head of the order that sponsored the journey. While ostensibly the servant, he was in fact the guiding force, the leader of the group – the servant-leader.
The story illustrates the idea of the servant-leader. The key to true leadership is that great leaders seek to serve the needs of those that they lead. A servant is one who desires to help others. The servant-leader is one who lead through their service. Their leadership is based on inspiration and example rather than fiat or dictate.
The servant-leader offers a model for how to educate or bring out the best from those around us. All true learning comes from personal discovery. ‘Telling’ and ‘teaching’ have very limited long-term value. The best we can do is to create an environment and atmosphere which facilitates the growth and development of others. Such an environment is based on the values of respect, curiosity, humility and encouragement.
Humans operate at their best when they feel free, when they feel valued, and when they are encouraged to take risks. When we prize or cherish the person, and trust them to do what is best for them then they will begin to fulfil their potential. When we seek to put people in touch with their own internal motivation and give them the responsibility to direct their own unfolding then they are more likely to flourish. It is the task of those who work with them to simply facilitate this by preparing the ground and serving their needs.