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The new servant leader

Servant-leadership is back in fashion. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi doesn’t let go of any opportunity of projecting himself as a “Prime Sevak,” even corporate India isn’t far behind. On his first day as Infosys chief executive in August last year, Vishal Sikka quoted Rabindranath Tagore in describing himself as a servant leader and said when communication and computing technology have flattened the world and made everything accessible, to assume that some leader has more ability to solve some problem than others is nonsense.

But no one perhaps exemplifies this model of leadership more than Arvind Kejriwal. When he insists that the landslide election victory is not about him or his party but about the ordinary Delhiites, his frustrations and aspirations, Kejriwal is essentially echoing what Lao-Tzu, philosopher, wrote about servant leadership in the fifth-century BC: “The highest type of ruler is one whose followers say after the task has been accomplished, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’” That’s precisely what the volunteers and followers of Aam Admi Party (AAP) are saying.

Servant leadership is a style that nurtures participatory leadership and encourages the talent of followers and hence is in direct contrast to the centralised, command-and-control model that most organisations follow.

In modern times, the term servant leadership is attributed to an essay written by Robert Greenleaf in 1970. In the essay titled, “The Servant as Leader”, Greenleaf, who had worked in AT&T before setting up a centre for servant leadership, said such a leadership style encourages a decentralised structure that focuses on employee empowerment and encourages innovation. This means having upper management share key decision-making powers with employees who work directly with customers and hence are better aware of what is needed to serve clients. As Kejriwal has shown, servant leaders also rely on persuasion, rather than positional authority in making decisions. 

There are several other leadership insights that the business world can draw from Kejriwal. It’s the way he fought back after his 49-day chief ministership and subsequent near-decimation in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.  He learnt quickly from the mistakes, apologised in public (the main reason why people who were angry with him earlier were still willing to give him another chance) and quickly regrouped to fight another battle. The result: AAP was much better equipped organisationally this time through a distributed leadership model. 

But like all successful business leaders, Kejriwal made sure he remained focused, resilient and communicative with his core audience, as a result of which everyone knows why AAP was created. His single-minded approach to fighting corruption ensured that no business school can teach the importance of ‘focus’ as well as Kejriwal.

Articulation of your mission to your team and customers is another important facet of leadership. And this is where Kejriwal and team performed brilliantly through one-to-one, direct communication through ‘mohalla sabhas’ with clear ideas, all of which was force multiplied by social media usage. This is what is known in management parlance as the blue ocean strategy — create new demand in an uncontested market space rather than compete head-to-head with your competitors. 

Kejriwal may not leave you spellbound with his carefully crafted speeches or a strong persona, but he surely knows how to connect with the hearts of his audience – the 60% of Delhi’s 17 million population – through disruptive means of communication which did not require money power.  

And he surely knows how to laugh at his own expense – a trait which endeared him to many. Which political leader in India would be willing to appear in a spoof show on Youtube where the host asks him whether he would like to have coffee or cough syrup? All this was part of a carefully cultivated smart marketing of a leader who is “normal”, resembling your friendly neighbourhood ordinary educated middle class man firmly aligned to values like justice, equality, truth and transparency. If this is not smart marketing, what is?

As he gets sworn in tomorrow, the only concern Delhi’s new Chief Minister should have is how to scale up the model. As is the case with almost every political party, AAP is also fundamentally a one-man band. He has to remove that crucial similarity with the traditional leadership model. The faster, the better.


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