Dateline NBC 

Can humility, faith be good for business?
Business management model catching on with companies
Stone Phillips- Dateline NBC  By Stone Phillips NBC News
Updated: 6:23 p.m. ET Feb. 27, 2004

Every time you open the newspaper these days, it seems somewhere, some corporate executive is under fire for unethical or even criminal wrongdoing. But now there is a movement in America that insists arrogance, greed and selfishness don't have to be the hallmarks of business. It's a model of business management that's catching on with corporations today, called servant-leadership. Can humility and faith be good for business? Was Jesus the ultimate CEO?

Larry Spears: I think the classic image for me that embodies servant leadership would be that of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. For me that is the best visual showing servant leadership in practice.

It’s an image nearly 2,000 years old and a message that true leaders are servants first. It's an idea that's finding new disciples in corporate America.

Stone Phillips: How many corporate bosses in America today are washing the feet of their employees?

Spears: Well, I don't know of any who are literally washing the feet of employees. On the other hand, I do know of a number of corporate bosses who are increasingly trying to support their employees through other means.

Larry Spears is president and CEO of the Greenleaf Center, a worldwide non-profit organization headquartered in Indianapolis. It is named after Robert Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive, and Quaker, who challenged the pyramid model of business management with one based on sacrifice and service by those at the top. Though Greenleaf's inspiration came mostly from his experience in the business world, Spears says the idea of servant-leadership can be found in many religions.

Spears: We have at the Greenleaf Center members and customers who are Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, you name the faith background, and there is somebody who is, in fact, a sincere practicing servant leader. I think what servant leadership has done in some ways is to bring a language that's helping to unite what can sometimes be different and difficult relations between people of different faith or secular backgrounds.

Greenleaf's original essay, "The Servant as Leader, written in 1970, has now been translated into nine languages, most recently Arabic.

Spears: Robert Greenleaf's key message is that one should be, as much as possible, a servant to others, that that is the fundamental way in which we can improve the quality of caring within society, within organizations and in relationships between people.

Phillips: What kind of qualities are you talking about?

Spears: They're things like an emphasis on listening to others, getting the ideas of others with whom they work. The use of persuasion within organizations.

Phillips: As opposed to bossing people around?

Spears: Correct.

Phillips: And if you can't persuade everybody?

Spears: Well, as you get larger as an organization, it probably becomes less and less likely that you can get everybody on board.

Phillips: And what does the servant-leader do in that case?

Spears: What we've seen is that time and time again, if you have made the effort to get as many people as possible on board, even those who may not have been persuaded of a particular decision, find it easier, and have greater trust in the leadership qualities of those who are running the company.

Phillips: So, the medicine goes down a little easier if you've made that attempt?

Spears: That's right.

Phillips: So, good listening, trying to persuade, as opposed to coerce, when it comes to decision making. What else?

Spears: Well, another characteristic is an emphasis on the growth of people.

Phillips: To advance not just within the company, but as people?

Spears: That's right.

They aren't exactly the qualities we associate with the corporate leaders who've been making headlines lately, accused of blatant self-interest and greed. But Spears says a growing number of businesses are drawing from the servant-leader model, including Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, the Men's Warehouse, TDIndustries, and Vanguard Investment Group.

John Bogle (Vanguard): I call servant-leadership as much as anything else, the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have others do onto you. I look at CEOs out there, probably I was this way a little myself, thinking they are the big cheese, they are what's important. But in the course of my business career I think arrogance took a back seat to humility. And my appreciation of the people that do the hard work of the company, those that we would call the servants perhaps, the people who get out of bed in the morning and do the world's work are the most valuable asset a company can have. So it's not only an idealistic strategy, it's a great business strategy. It really works, what can I say?

Phillips: You can be competitive with this kind of a leadership model?

Spears: Absolutely. There's a growing body of studies that are being published now, and those studies have shown that in fact those companies do as well as or better than their closest competitors.

In fact, on Fortune magazine's list of the top 100 companies to work for, more than 20 have sought guidance from the Greenleaf Center.

Spears: What we're trying to encourage through servant leadership is showing your caring side in the work place. Someone who is truly loving and caring at home with their family, with friends, neighbors, they have that capacity to bring that to the work place. And servant-leadership sort of challenges people to be brave and courageous, and to bring ideas like friendship and perhaps even love to the work place.

Phillips: The courage not just to be caring, but to be loving.

Spears: That's right. The word 'love' is something you rarely hear in the daily workings of most organizations, but in servant-led organizations you, in fact, can hear that.

Phillips: Some leaders might be concerned that if they adopt this model, this servant as leader, that they may be perceived as weak.

Spears: In my belief, servant-leadership is anything than weak. In fact, it takes a toughness and a strength of character because you are, in fact, making commitment not just to the bottom line financially but to the bottom line when it comes to people.

How's the philosophy put into practice? At TD Industries in Dallas, a company that installs heating and air conditioning systems, employees are called "partners, with special perks for none and equal benefits for all -- including the opportunity to train for different jobs. Sheet metal workers learn to be plumbers, plumbers train to be electricians. Executives say workers gain more job security and the company gains flexibility.

Phillips: So how would a servant leader handle what Donald Trump has to do every week on The Apprentice? Tell somebody, "You're fired." In your model of servant leadership?

Spears: I'm not even sure how to answer that question. [laughter]

Phillips: I'm not sure Donald would want you to. [laughter] I mean, he's pretty blunt about it. He hears. He listens. And then he fires them.

Spears: Well, it's hard to know, based upon the viewing of a TV show, how much time and energy has gone in, on his part, to working with an employee or an intern before firing them. I would say that if truthfulness or bluntness is not handed out in equal measure with love for that employee, that it isn't really servant-leadership. They go hand-in-hand.

Of course, Donald Trump's performance on "The Apprentice" is just that, a performance. Spears says the reality of firing someone is a test for servant-leaders.

Spears: There's a lot of pain involved in that sort of decision for a servant-leader.

Empathy, humility, self-sacrifice. Those are the marks of a true servant-leader. According to Spears, recent examples include Jimmy Carter and South African religious leader Desmond Tutu. Spears also points to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Phillips: I take it Vince Lombardi would not be an example of a servant-leader. And yet a lot of people would say, I would have loved being on his team, those Green Bay Packers. As tough as he was, now that's a leader.

Spears: Actually, what I've read of Lombardi suggests to me that, in fact, he was a very complicated man. And at some level was, in fact, a servant-leader.

Phillips: Tough, demanding Vince Lombardi? A servant-leader?

Spears: The way that I think Vince Lombardi exhibited servant-leadership was a real emphasis on his teams and the people who made up his teams.

Phillips: I mean this is a guy who was pretty much a dictator on his team.

Spears: Perhaps, but where servant-leadership I think did come into play was through his encouragement of each individual player to be the very best they could be.

Phillips: Personal growth.

Spears: Personal growth.

Phillips: And he cared about them. Tough, but he cared.

Spears: I believe he did.

Phillips: To become a servant-leader, to bring this to your company, to your school, whatever it might be, is a leap of faith required?

Spears: I believe it is taking on this dual commitment to people and to the financial bottom line and doing it extraordinarily well. So, I do disagree with the idea that servant-leadership is a soft concept. In fact, I think it takes a real toughness of spirit and commitment for people to take it on.

Phillips: And some faith?

Spears: And some faith in people.

Spears says anyone can be a servant-leader. All you need is the desire to serve others and the courage to seize opportunities to lead. They've been among us through all of history, in all cultures and all religions.

Spears: Jesus is often pointed to as sort of the classic servant-leader. He served others and sought to do so through countless encounters with people during the course of his life.

Phillips: Being willing to give his life on the cross, in service of others, kind of the ultimate example of this.

Spears: I think it is the ultimate example.

Phillips: It sends a powerful, uplifting message to the troops, if you will. What happens when that kind of a message gets sent and received?

Spears: While leaders aren't literally being put upon crosses these days, there are difficult times, with difficult problems that almost every organization goes through. And in that sense, certainly there are great challenges and sacrifices that get made in the modern work place. The message and feeling that comes to recipients of that sort of sacrifice is most often one of gratitude, and of love.

Transcript and images © 2004 MSNBC Interactive