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George Washington – Servant Leader

George Washington: A Servant Leader

Servant leadership is a promising approach to managing people. This paper speaks about George Washington as an example of a servant leader. George Washington’s servant leader profile is created. The added value of being a servant leader is discussed. The paper includes an evaluation of the servant leadership model in relation to the contemporary organizational realities. The need for servant leadership in organizations is discussed. The fundamental characteristics of an organization with servant leaders are specified. The pros and cons of servant leaders are provided.

Keywords: servant leadership, George Washington, serve, needs, humility, leader.

Choosing the most appropriate leadership style has become a cornerstone in the evolution of contemporary organizations and businesses. The growing multitude of leadership approaches and models makes it equally easy and difficult to find the best organization-leadership fit.

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On the one hand, contemporary leaders face a wide choice of theoretical and practical propositions, which can make them more effective in a variety of situations. On the other hand, no model of leadership is universal, and not everyone knows how to choose the most productive leadership style. Nevertheless, more organizations are coming to realize the inherent value of servant leadership. “Good leaders must first become good servants”, – said Robert Greenleaf (1998), the founder of the servant leadership philosophy. In the history of the United States, the most prominent leaders displayed the features of servant leadership, with George Washington being the most outstanding and widely known public servant. Today, the importance of servant leadership is justified by the need to make organizations more relationship-oriented and compel leaders to step away from self-centeredness and narcissism and aligning their organizational goals with those of employees and community members.


On a cold day during the American Revolutionary War, George Washington, then Commander of the Continental Army, left his headquarters. The weather was extremely unpleasant, and the Commander had to turn up his collar, draw on his huge coat and pull his hat down, in order to protect himself from the piercing wind. Just a few steps down the road his soldiers were building a new camp. He saw a group of soldiers, who were trying to raise a wooden beam and fix it in a high position. The corporal, under whose command the soldiers were working, was barking orders and humiliating his subordinates.

The Commander came closer. No one recognized him. He saw how the soldiers were trying to push the final log, all their attempts being in vain. They were exhausted, but the corporal kept pressuring them with his commands. Obviously, the soldiers’ power was not enough to complete the task, so George Washington went to help them. With all his strength and power, he and the soldiers finally managed to put the log into its place. Washington then asked the corporal why he never helped his soldiers; the corporal responded that he did not have to do it due to his formal status. What George Washington said became one of the fundamental pillars of the new servant leadership model: “I’m the Commander-in-Chief, so the next time you have a log too heavy for your men to life, send for me” (Anonymous, n.d.).

This is the story of a true servant leader. George Washington is rightly considered as one of the most outstanding servant leaders in the history of the U.S. What makes him a servant leader is his humility and willingness to serve others. His self-awareness was coupled with love towards other people; he was others-oriented, valued his people, and was committed to assisting people in their growth (Matteson & Irving, 2006). According to Russell and Stone (2002), the essence of servant leadership is in being able to balance the need for serving others with the need for power and authority. Washington’s power came not from his formal position as a Commander-in-Chief or U.S. President but his willingness to hear people, help people, and develop trust and openness in his relationships with them. To a large extent, George Washington exemplified a higher standard of leadership, which went beyond mere authority and people management. He transformed this vision to the extent, which made him a leader powerful enough to serve people. Consequently, he managed to build effective relationships not only with his followers but between his followers and his organization (Joseph & Winston, 2005). This case alone suggests that George Washington was empathetic, a person who was strongly oriented towards sharing his knowledge and empowering followers, as well as using his servant leadership focus for persuasion (Matteson & Irving, 2006).

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The Added Value of Servant Leadership

The special leadership talents of George Washington and other prominent leaders can hardly be underscored. Nevertheless, servant leadership can add to the most positive features of any leadership style. The servant leadership model can become a valuable addition to other leadership approaches and styles. For instance, Theory Y management and leadership approach could strongly benefit from incorporating the features of servant leadership (Envision Software, 2007; NetMBA, 2010). The Theory Y management and leadership model reflects the latest developments in the organization science and relies on the principles of decentralization, authority delegation, empowerment, and followers’ self-actualization (Envision Software, 2007; NetMBA, 2010). Servant leadership could enable Theory Y leaders to express their best traits through continuous interactions with followers (Savage-Austin & Honeycutt, 2011). Such leaders could further extend their capacity to build effective communities and foster their continued growth. George Washington combined the power of leadership with humility and willingness to serve others’ needs, which distinguished him from his contemporaries and political descendants.

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Servant leadership could add value to leader-follower interactions in the distance and virtual business environments. Neufield, Wan, and Fang (2010) are right: with the growing scope of remote work arrangements and increased workforce dispersion, choosing the most suitable leadership style has become an unachievable task. Nonetheless, leaders keep influencing their followers, and the quality of leader performance remains an essential factor of organizations’ performance, even at a distance (Neufield et al., 2010). Through empathy and productive communication, servant leaders still have enough opportunities to learn their followers’ needs. The impact the performance in ways that enable followers to pursue growth and meet the objectives set by the leader. Even transactional and autocratic leaders can benefit by shifting their focus from self-centeredness and narcissism towards serving the needs of others. As a President, George Washington could no longer stay in personal touch with every member of his nation, but he worked to ensure that his decisions meet the needs of most, if not all, country citizens.

Fast Forward to Today: The Promise of Servant Leadership

Needed or not?

Whether or not servant leaders are needed is one of the chief questions facing today’s organizations. The answer is simple: servant leadership holds a promise to save modern organizations from narcissism and self-centeredness, while also providing them with a strong competitive advantage in the form of customer-, community-, and employee-orientation. It is no secret that modern organizations evolve in the atmosphere of competition and individualism. Servant leadership can enable them to shift their focus towards employees and customers, thus embracing the focus on others as the most effective way to sustainable advantage.

Many organizational decisions are taken without and, actually, at the expense of employees and their future wellbeing. “Re-engineering, restructuring, downsizing, merger and hostile take-over strikes fear in the hearts of employees whose jobs are directly affected” (Wong & Davey, 2007, p.2). By contrast, servant leadership is irrational, human, and not mechanistic like other leadership models; in a world where humanism has lost its popularity, servant leaders can inspire followers to work for their benefit and for the benefit of their community without sacrificing their personal needs and goals. At difficult times, servant leaders display a better capacity to manage employees and communities through the troubled waters, making the most fundamental organizational changes less stressful to them (Wong & Davey, 2007).

Finally, servant leadership reflects the latest changes in management philosophy: human capital and cultural diversity have become the two most valuable assets in the knowledgeable economy. Financial incentives no longer suffice to motivate employees, but servant leaders could successfully accomplish their motivational function and facilitate employee retention through positive management and appreciation of their efforts (Wong & Davey, 2007).

As employees are becoming more diverse, servant leaders can unleash their productivity potentials, by letting them find emotional and spiritual meaning in the workplace while showing respect for their culture and ethnic belonging (Wong & Davey, 2007). To a large extent, servant leadership provides an ideal organizational perspective, which works for the benefit of organizations and its members: Wong and Davey (2007) report that organizations led by “servants” manage to increase their profits by 15-20%. Apparently, everyone benefits from servant leadership.

An Organization Full of Servant Leaders

Given the most essential features of servant leaders, it is not difficult to imagine how an organization full of such leaders could look like. It should be noted that in an organization that exercises servant leadership, leaders would be self-determined, cognitively complex, empathetic, and ethical (Dierendonck, 2011). The culture in such organizations would be characterized by increased humane orientation and lower power distance. Simply put, such organizations would encourage their employees to be more altruistic and kind to one another and others, as well as consider all potential community impacts of their workplace decisions (Dierendonck, 2011).

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In these organizations, decision making would be more decentralized and less formalized, thus empowering employees to participate in all major organizational decisions. Such organizations would foster leader-employee relationships that rely on the mutual realization of employees’ intrinsic value (Greenleaf, 1998). Leaders would exercise humility and acknowledge that they do not have answers to all questions, inspiring in such a way their followers to participate in all organizational processes as equal.

Contingencies: In Favor or Against Servant Leadership

The advantages of servant leadership are numerous and have been extensively discussed in this paper. According to Savage-Austin and Honeycutt (2011), servant leadership practices profoundly alter the very nature of the organization. Servant leadership results in trust and facilitates information exchange; increased leader-follower loyalty is another contingency that favors the implementation of the servant leadership model (Savage-Austin & Honeycutt, 2011). Still, servant leadership is not without problems. Aside from being time-consuming, servant leaders may face considerable barriers on their way to organizational success. The success of the servant leadership model is impossible without having a corporate culture that fosters the use of this leadership style: servant leaders, who operate in the environments that are not conducive of their leadership approach, will have significant problems realizing their potential to the fullest (Savage-Austin & Honeycutt, 2011). Overall, servant leadership is a very desirable alternative to many other leadership styles, but servant leaders must be prepared to restructure the organizational culture and eliminate the barriers on their way to more effective organizations.

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George Washington represents and reinforces the most essential features of servant leadership. It is due to his humility, willingness to serve others, and preparedness to foster others’ development and growth that George Washington can be regarded as a true servant leader. Servant leadership can add to the benefits of any leadership style, but it is clear that servant leadership is one of the most needed concepts in today’s organizations. In the atmosphere of competitiveness and individualism, organizations can develop a sustained competitive advantage by serving employees and community members’ needs. Certainly, servant leadership is not without difficulties, and many leaders face barriers to implementing the servant leadership model. Still, servant leadership does have the potential to make modern organizations more competitive and ethical when faced with the most serious environmental dilemmas.


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