Servant Leadership: like being an ‘Undercover Boss’

Contemporary leadership in modern society is often associated with power trips and tough-sounding phrases such as: dog-eat-dog, put-up-or-shut-up, and my-way-or-the-highway.

But some leaders believe in using a different approach. In 1970, a longtime AT&T executive, Robert Greenleaf, wrote an essay about another type of management: he called it “servant leadership.”

In his essay, Greenleaf recalled the story, “Journey to the East,” by German author Herman Hesse. In the tale, a group of members of an organization are on a journey, accompanied by a servant named Leo.  At one point, Leo leaves the group and the individuals discover they are lost; then, the group falls apart. Years later, one of the group members realizes their “servant” really was the top leader of their organization. Little did they know their humble ‘servant’ really was their leader!

This is what Greenleaf set forth as a foundation of servant leadership, says Robert Toomey, the coordinator of a new UW-Madison Continuing Studies servant leadership certificate program.

First, There is a Desire to Serve

“To begin with, as Greenleaf explained, a person must first have the desire to serve. Then he or she aspires to lead,” he explains.

So what makes a servant leader different from other types of leaders or bosses? Toomey, who completed a master’s degree in servant leadership, says one of the key characteristics is: getting down in the trenches with the workers.

“A servant leader is subtle, similar to an ‘undercover boss,’ ” Toomey notes, referring to the popular television program of that name. He also says while there are well-known servant leaders like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, there are also servant leaders who are not well-known, who quietly lead among us.


Characteristics of a Servant Leader

“Servant leaders are good listeners, generous with time and talent, and other-focused,” Toomey points out. “Another important trait is self-awareness. These leaders know their values and both their personal strengths and weaknesses, and practice good stewardship of resources, whether the resources are financial, human capital, or the earth’s resources.”

Toomey considers the location of the program classes, Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton, an appropriate place for the series as a retreat-type setting and a local example of good stewardship because its new building is LEED-certified.

To earn this noncredit continuing education certificate, participants must complete five one-day programs that meet on Fridays throughout four months. The first module starts Mar. 7. Other dates are April 4, 25, May 16, and June 27, for a total of 30 hours of instruction. Participants also complete a final reflective project on a topic of their choice, and give a project presentation on the last day of instruction.

People from varied organizations are welcome including individuals from businesses, nonprofits, healthcare, human services, and other organizations. For more details email Toomey or call 262-2576; on the web, visit https://continuingstudies.wisc.edu/classes/servant-leadership-certificate/.