One of the most popular answers to “Tell me about your leadership style” is I am a servant leader. Too often it is said with less than grand enthusiasm, almost a matter-of-fact throw away line.

So I began to ask questions about the origins of Servant Leadership and the answers I got were not very compelling. Many said the Bible, which is true, but most launched into their version of a definition.

The Rest of the Story

So here, as radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “Is the rest of the story.”

Robert K Greenleaf (1904 – 1990) holds the credit for first using the term in a 1970 essay. Greenleaf, who created and ran the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. He attributed his inspiration for the term to a short story written by Hermann Hesse, “Journey to the East,” first published in 1932 and later translated to English in 1956.The story describes a group of men, members of The League, a timeless religious sect whose members include famous fictional and real characters who contracted with a company to organize a long journey.

The Disappearance Led to Chaos

One of the servants, a man named Leo, was admired by the travelers because he handled the chores and menial tasks and maintained the morale of the travelers and the other servants with his good humor and song. The trip was moving ahead on schedule until they came to a deep gorge. It was there that things changed.

Leo disappeared and soon the other servants were arguing among themselves. Chores were not getting done and the travelers became downtrodden without Leo’s good cheer. Soon, the travelers abandoned their journey.

Years later one of the travelers happened to visit the company that had organized the trip. Much to his astonishment he discovered that Leo was not some minor functionary but the owner of the company.

The takeaway:

When describing your leadership style, something that is integral to who you are as an executive, it is a good idea to take the time to explore what and why you believe what you believe. Do not get flat-footed by an interviewer who calls your hand.