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Solo In Chicago

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Book Review: The Servant

By James C. Hunter

Reviewed by Peter R. Olson

In “The Servant” James Hunter uses the biblical concept of servant hood as exemplified by Jesus Christ to teach ethical business leadership principals based on the premise of serving others. “The Servant” takes readers on a fictional journey to a Michigan monastery where six people of varying backgrounds end up together in a leadership seminar taught by former Fortune 500 executive Leonard Hoffman n/k/a Brother Simeon (fictional).

“The Servant” is a fast and easy read at 187 pages with most of the story allowing readers to pull up a chair and view a group discussion lead by Brother Simeon on the topic of leadership. The story advocates an accountable if simplistic form of leadership seemingly absent in most of our business leaders today.

“The Servant” reflects on the awesome responsibility which leadership entails: employees spending up to half of their waking hours working and living in the environment created by the leader. Mr. Hunter defines leadership as the skill of influencing people to work enthusiastically toward goals identified as being for the common good.

“The Servant” makes an important distinction between power and authority. Power is identified as the ability to force someone to do your will while authority is the skill of willingly getting people to do your will because of your personal influence. Sure, power works for a little while but eventually it erodes relationships and can be very damaging. Think about the difference between Mother Theresa and Bob Knight.

I found this discussion to be the most useful in the story.

Wants versus needs are also compared. Leaders should identify and meet the needs not the wants of their people, and serve them. Slaves do what others want, servants do what others need. A want is a desire without any regard for the physical or psychological consequences whereas a need is a legitimate physical or psychological requirement for the well-being of the human being.

“The Servant” discusses a unique perspective on honesty as it relates to accountability. Honesty is about clarifying expectations for people, holding people accountable, being willing to give the bad news as well as the good news, giving people feedback, being consistent, predictable, and fair. In short, behavior must be free from deception and dedicated to truth at all costs.

And commitment means sticking by your choices. True commitment is a vision about individual and group growth along with continuous improvement. The committed leader is dedicated to growing, stretching, and continuously improving—committed to becoming the best leader they can be and that the people they lead deserve. It’s also a passion for your people, pushing them to become the best they can be.

And the verb love is analyzed not as the feeling that we typically associate with it but rather love as a behavior and choice. Agabe love and leadership are synonymous. When Jesus spoke of love in the New Testament the Greek agape is used, a love of behavior and choice, not a love of feeling. We can’t always control how we feel about other people but we can control how we behave towards others.

Finally, the story includes an interesting discussion about the many messages that lateness sends. First, someone who’s late is saying that their time is more important than your time. Second, it conveys the message that you must not be very important to them because he would surely be on time for an important person. It also communicates that he isn’t honest because honest people stick to their word, even time commitments. Being late is extremely disrespectful behavior and also habit forming. I can surely learn from this type of disrespect.

“The Servant” is an allegory that teaches the timeless principles of servant leadership. The use of allegory and the various personalities of the seminar participants makes “The Servant” both easy to understand and also easy to identify with, traits often lacking in so-called business leadership books.


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