Public Servant as Servant Leader

I was struck last month by a story I read in The New York Times. The Prime Minister of South Korea announced he was stepping down after 302 lives were lost in a ferry disaster. In that article, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won is quoted saying “when I saw the people’s sadness and fury, I thought it was natural for me to step down with an apology”.

Arguably, our public servants should be doing what is in the best interest of the public. It is sometimes difficult to imagine American leaders being so altruistic, though I do know some lesser known public leaders who are. The South Korean Prime Minister seems to have applied the philosophy of Servant Leadership. He made a decision to step down so that he would not be an impediment to his country moving forward after a tragedy. He took ultimate responsibility even though the disaster will likely be what he is remembered for.

Government employees are often called public servants. The idea is that when you work for the government, the people are the ones to whom you are ultimately accountable. When working as a public servant it is important to ask ourselves, am I a self-serving leader or a servant leader? It is easy to tell the difference. When faced with feedback self-serving leaders are ruled by their fear of loss of position or status, while a servant leader will see feedback as information useful to allow her to provide better service.

Servant leadership goes beyond putting others first. It is supporting and growing individuals to allow them to do their best work. That doesn’t mean letting your team run the show. It means taking initiative to remove road blocks and get your team what they need to produce quality products and services. You can read more about the philosophy in chapter 14 of Leading at a Higher Level. There is a great story about a Department of Motor Vehicles lead by a servant leader who made a big impact in how citizens were treated and how quickly they were served.

How do you serve those you lead?

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