Interview on servant leadership with author Col. John Sullivan

In the exploration of leadership many would suggest that we are in need of authentic servant leaders. Author, Col. John Sullivan has a passion to teach leaders principles of servant leadership. As John’s son in law I have the opportunity to learn and grow from his wealth of knowledge.

(S.E.) What was it about servant leadership that caught your interest and imagination?

(J.S) I had become fascinated with the idea of leaders serving others beginning back in the late 1980’s when I ran across Tom Peters’ books on excellent organizations. Peter’s led me to Deming, and Deming to many other proponents of the quality movement. I read everything I could get my hands on about quality management since it made so much sense to me. From 1987 to 1990, I commanded a Marine Corps air station and was able to put into practice the approach and techniques I had been studying.

In 1990, I was assigned as a professor of management at the Naval War College, Newport, RI. There I continued my research, writing and teaching on quality and became active in the budding State quality effort. I helped write the State quality award, was one of their first lead examiners, and did some consulting in the private and public sectors.

When I accepted a teaching position at Montreat College, one of the things that attracted me was their stated objective of educating “servant leaders.” Although the College had several yearly activities associated with servant leadership, these primarily involved invited outside speakers and service opportunities for the students. Since they did not have a formal course in the catalog, I decided to develop one. As I began researching servant leadership, I found Robert Greenleaf’s writings to be helpful. I was struck by the compatibility between Greenleaf’s servant leadership and the philosophy of quality management. I saw how the concept of leader as servant fit with the tools and techniques of quality management. Yet I sensed that Greenleaf’s model lacked something. Then I discovered that the model for servant as leader was right before me!

No other leader in the history of the world has so lived out the philosophy of servant leadership than Jesus of Nazareth. As I studied the life of Jesus from a leadership perspective, I discovered that He was the ultimate servant leader and that was the missing element. (From the preface of John’s book)

(S.E.) What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership is a concept for leading others toward mutually agreed upon goals which benefit the whole and not just the leader. It inverts the organizational triangle and places the leader at the bottom as the one how provides the resources to the people, who do the work, to successfully accomplish the goals. This upside down leadership style puts the needs of followers above the needs of the leader, promotes teamwork, individual dignity and worth, and results in a synergy of purpose unachievable with the old leadership models.

(S.E.) What are some beginning steps that a person could take if the decided the wanted to invest themselves in becoming a servant leader?

(J.S.) Becoming a servant leader begins with having a servant’s heart. For many people, that does not come naturally therefore it requires reading, studying and praying. Once you become convinced that this is the only way to lead people with integrity, everything else will follow. I encourage anyone interested in the concept of servant leadership to explore deeply the expanding literature on the subject including my book, Servant First! Leadership for the New Millennium.


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