Servant-Leadership: On Giving Things Up, Listening, and Silence

by Evan Wildstein

“When you get out there, I want you to ignore your instincts… Don’t do anything, don’t try to surf, don’t do it. The less you do, the more you do.”

You might recall that line from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, when the character played by Paul Rudd attempts to instruct actor Jason Segel how to surf. There’s a correlation with leadership to be learned from that scene — I promise. [Note: I reference several resources throughout this piece, reflected in-full at the very end]

“We tend to believe that we must do something to solve a problem.”¹ Don Frick wrote that one decade ago, and I’ve often assumed that, to be effective, I must be doing something. I had this backward for a long time, and it has taken me almost 20 years in the workforce to realize I was doing no favors to myself and those around me by doing more. I point to Rudd’s counterintuitive, do less advice to enlighten some mistakes I’ve made in my career, and what it’s taught me about leadership.

Great Men

For well over a century, there has been a great deal of systematic research and writing on leadership. A search of the term on Forbes and Harvard Business Review returns over 123,000 and 28,000 results, respectively; here on Medium, that same tag accounts for nearly 160,000 stories. I believe one of the finest compendiums on the subject is Peter Northouse’s Leadership (flashy title, I know) which traverses more than a dozen overarching traits and theories.

The oldest of this research explores what we know as “great man” theories, unsurprisingly named because they attempted to study what made great leaders… great — traits like self-confidence, sociability, and determination.² These are big, obvious traits, which were originally attributed mostly to men, though not always.

My first jobs were in the performing arts, where I spent years working with (and for) artistic directors, performers, technicians, patrons, and others who feigned great man traits. Rudd wouldn’t have thought those individuals led from a place of doing less. Rather, they were a do more ilk, leading loudly, as if that was the only way to conduct business. “I suppose it is tempting,” Abraham Maslow once said, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

As a young, impressionable sponge, I tried to emulate those colleagues. In hindsight, this was detrimental because I absorbed a lot of unsavory habits, many of which I’ve spent decades trying to unlearn — as it turns out, few situations at work (or in life) call for hammers. Northouse affirms, “An individual with leadership traits who was a leader in one situation might not be a leader in another situation.”² I saw those big, great displays of work at certain times and blindly assumed they would apply equally well in others.

I wish I had Northouse’s book on my nightstand 20 years ago.

Do Less

I’ve navigated interesting, diverse roles as a member of the workforce — I’ve run a youth outreach program, administered an international arts education curriculum, produced operas, fundraised, and even briefly dabbled in consulting. With full confidence, I can say I’m an expert in none of those things. However, I learned a lot from the collective experiences.

While I’ve managed people for nearly all of my career, the idea of leadership — real, honest-to-goodness leadership — began to make sense only recently. What’s become increasingly clear to me is how introspective a practice leadership can (and often should) be. The research, too, has evolved over time, moving from those personality-driven, great man traits, to practices like leader-member exchange³ and adaptive leadership.⁴

One of the more introspective practices comes from Robert Greenleaf, father of servant-leadership which, even after one half-century, seems misunderstood in the mainstream. My sentiments on this are framed by colleagues who seemed to confuse servant-leadership with something more vainglorious, narcissistic, or self-centered. These attributes are a far cry from the foundational concepts of servant-leadership; Greenleaf was adamant —

“The servant-leader is servant first… sharply different from the person who is leader first.”⁵

In discovering the life’s work of Greenleaf, I had micro-epiphanies about leadership — and how I could do more by doing less. This began to take shape after reading Fortuitous Encounters by Paul Davis and Larry Spears — 18 brief stories underpinned by servant-leadership.

What Will You Give Up?

In one story from Fortuitous Encounters, Paul Davis recalls a small dinner with Coretta Scott King, where he learned the Kings chose not to have carpet in their home because the people who looked up to them considered carpets a luxury.⁶ “I don’t have carpet,” said King, “because I choose to lead poor people.” Davis’ takeaway from the encounter was simple and incredibly effective —

“During that fortuitous encounter, I learned that leadership is not about what you get by being a leader, but about what you are willing to give up.”

Reading that story and that line was a serious learning moment for me. In all my years being around people who treated leadership as an exercise in social capital, that sentiment changed my mind and my actions. After so much time in the performing arts, I became used to the egocentricity of the industry, and admit to having participated in it myself. I was uncomfortable giving credit to others, so I didn’t.

Slowly, I found myself sharing the spotlight, and encouraging others to step into it. I started seeing abilities in other colleagues I hadn’t noticed before and wanted them to stretch and grow into their potential.

Instead of running every one-on-one meeting, I turned the reigns and agendas over to the people on my team. Rather than have myself listed as the primary contact on every web page or marketing piece, I listed other colleagues who were just as knowledgeable, and who would benefit from the deeper engagement.

It was hectic, and it was uncomfortable, but it was rewarding. And, it sparked another fundamental, yet simple, idea: Just listen.

Listening: A Sanctuary in Silence

The concepts of servant-leadership are myriad. In the early 1990s, Larry Spears — one of the nation’s leading experts on the practice — led an exercise to distill a “top 10” of sorts. Chief among these characteristics, the one about which Greenleaf wrote more than any other, was listening. “I have a bias about this,” Greenleaf admitted, “which suggests that only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first.”⁵ This notion expanded my views on leadership in a big way; I began to feel less like a hammer, and situations appeared less like nails.

Previously, I was typically the person in a room to speak early, jumping into conversations words-first, trying to solve problems by putting my voice and opinions in front of others’. British band The 1975 may have been singing about me with the line, “This conversation’s not about reciprocation no more, but I’m gonna wait until you finish so I can talk some more.”

Listening was not something I was used to, and silence was not a space in which I felt comfortable. However, that space has since become something of a sanctuary for me. In contrast to The 1975, Bradley Baurain notes, “[L]istening is more than waiting patiently for one’s turn to speak… Depth in human relationships and community is often built upon this kind of listening.”⁷ Greenleaf grappled with this idea, too, and invited others to do the same —

“One must not be afraid of a little silence… It is often a devastating question to ask oneself — but it is sometimes important to ask it — In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?”

This question from Greenleaf’s founding thesis, The Servant as Leader,⁵ knocked sense into me I didn’t know I needed and has become a recurring consideration in the back of my mind. If only more of us pondered this before we contributed to conversations! I’m reminded that whether or not it was intended this way, we have two ears and one mouth. “Research has found that while people speak at a rate of about 250 words per minute, they are capable of listening at more than three times that rate.”⁷

It is perhaps no coincidence that listen is an anagram for silent.

What Do We Do, Now?

Early in The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf asks, “What are you trying to do?” He continues, “A mark of a leader, an attribute that puts him in a position to show the way for others, is that he is better than most at pointing the direction.” Good direction is unquestionably important, though it warrants a query: Must we be a hammer forcing in the nails, or might we be different agents of growth?

While I don’t know what you might do, I can tell you what I have done, pointing to Steve Boyd’s “silence-enhancing techniques” as a practical, refreshing stratagem during challenging times.⁸

Be the fourth person to speak in a meeting.

“When in a meeting, don’t be one of the first to give a comment… Being silent at first gives you added information. Hearing other people speak gives you a better sense of what to say and when to say it.”

I’ve had to really stretch to be comfortable with this. However, the technique is simple yet wise, and I have gleaned much from colleagues and others by giving them a chance to speak before me.

Pause before you give feedback.

“Often, when listening, we can’t wait to speak. Our goal should be instead to pause three seconds before responding… This encourages the other person to give you more… It also lets the other person know that what [they are] saying is important to you.”

In my current role as a nonprofit fundraiser, this is advice I wish I had learned sooner. Especially in conversations that involve a financial ask or another request, leaning into a silent pause can open up space for something meaningful to be said. Further, I’ve found that people take it as a deep sign of respect.

Embrace periods of silence.

“There are people who can’t stand silence and will talk just to fill the silent times… embrace silence; savor it and encourage it among people around you. For example, when you ask a question, and no one responds; don’t give your own answer quickly. Wait people out. Let the silence linger.”

Being comfortable in silence can be full of anxiety; it always was for me and I suspect it always will be. But, I try to open up to it, and this has been helpful not just in my work, but in my marriage and other corners of life. Forced silence has never been very productive for me, though Boyd suggests 15 minutes of private, daily meditation as a way to “reinforce the value of silence.”

Servant Leadership or Hammer?

Songya Kesler muses,

“Servant Leadership is the ability to lead from behind, beside and within. It calls upon us to see eye-to-eye with our colleagues and to champion the inherent capability and knowledge within each individual in our organization.”

Perhaps the practice resonates so much for me because I have a penchant and passion for service. This is not meant to sound pedantic — it’s a matter of the actions and behaviors which most bring me joy. I feel fulfilled when I am being of use to others, and now, a couple of decades into my career, I feel as though I have greater resources to do so.

That said, I don’t believe servant-leadership — the way Greenleaf intended — is for everyone, and it’s certainly not a be- or end-all approach. Just like great man qualities don’t work at all times, servant-leadership has its limits, too. There is a spectrum within leadership, because there must be. Some situations are nails, and sometimes they require an exacting hammer. We don’t always have the luxury to pause and enter a deep, contemplative state of listening before we make choices, especially when lives are at stake.

There are chaotic, dangerous environments like natural disasters or within the military which require different skills. Crisis leadership expert (and retired brigadier general) Tom Kolditz researched this under the guise of in extremis leadership, or “leading as if your life depended on it.” When he surveyed those whose lives involved being in high-risk settings, he found, “Followers demand leader competence… Only competence commands respect, and respect is the coin of the realm in in extremis settings.”⁹

American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck suggested, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” A lovely reminder for us all to do less, and lean into silence and listening, even when we might feel compelled to do more — or do otherwise.

¹ Frick, D. M. (2011). Greenleaf and servant-leader listening (p. 12). Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
² Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership (pp. 19–23). SAGE.
³ Leader-member exchange differs from other scholarship because it is not a one-way practice, but rather, a dyadic exchange between leaders and followers, the results of which can benefit both parties and the organization by promoting lower rates of turnover, better performance, deeper commitment, and improved attitudes (Northouse, 2019, pp. 139–162).
⁴ Northouse (2019) writes, “Adaptive leadership focuses on the adaptations required of people in response to changing environments… [it] stresses the activities of the leader in relation to the work of followers in the contexts in which they find themselves” (p. 257).
⁵ Greenleaf, R. K. (1970) The servant as leader. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
⁶ Davis, P. & Spears, L. C. (2013). Fortuitous encounters: Wisdom stories for learning and growth. Paulist Press.
⁷ Baurain, B. (2011). Teaching, listening, and generative silence. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 27(3), 89–101.
⁸ Boyd, S. D. (2005). The beginning of listening: Silence. Steve Boyd.
⁹ Kolditz, T. A. (2007). In extremis leadership: Leading as if your life depended on it (pp. 10–11). Jossey-Bass.

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