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Putting Others First: Organizational Development and Servant Leadership

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

—Mahatma Ghandi

Organizational development (“OD”) and servant leadership are both relatively new behavioral science practices, but they have been in existence and practiced without the nomenclature for centuries. From religious figures to monarchy resisters, people have been putting others first since the beginning of time.


An example of one of these people would be St. Nicholas, who is known by all. Legend has it that after receiving his inheritance he traveled to new places and used his newfound wealth to help people who were sick and poor, becoming admired for his acts of kindness.


A second example is Ghandi. He is well known for using nonviolent resistance to free India from British rule, and is considered to be one of the most well-respected political and spiritual leaders of the 1900s.


Ghandi as Servant Leader

Both OD and servant leadership are based on human-to-human values. From my observation, these values put effort and development into human capital, which translates to financial and societal returns for their investors.


Yet, it seems, neither of these practices have a concrete set of values. The values are very much like a living organism growing and evolving with the needs of the practice as well as with contemporary organizational and global challenges.

As will be explored in this article, overarching themes make the two practices' founding principles almost interchangeable. By understanding the shared core of humanity behind each field, possibilities for deeper collaboration, information sharing, and new perspectives open up for both OD and servant leadership practitioners.

Shared Values Between OD and Servant Leadership


Organizational development, often considered to be founded by Kurt Lewin in the early 1930s, was based on bringing out the best in an individual, but the field later evolved into a more systemic, solution-based practice. Servant leadership, as coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970, was rooted in the theory that the best leaders serve their people. From their foundings, both practices held human capital central to the core of their many theorems.

According to Chris Worley, a renowned academic and practitioner in the field of OD, the values of organizational development are participation, democracy, involvement, diversity, equity and inclusion, commitment to growth, self-actualization, sustainability, humility, and organizational effectiveness.


Robert Greenleaf listed the values of servant leadership as listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. The values were recently modified by Greenleaf to emphasize that a good society is built upon the acts of people caring for one another. Now that large, powerful and impersonal institutions have a great impact on society, it is important for practitioners to empower servant leaders within these institutions to perform acts of caring.


When comparing the values of organizational development and servant leadership, an interesting array of commonalities can be seen, as illustrated in the visual below.

OD and servant leadership values graphic

Figure 1. Commonalities between Organizational Development and Servant Leadership


In comparing the two fields, the similarities between their values become more apparent.


Both OD and servant leadership practices value stewardship and facilitation over self-interest. Further, Ed Schein (Humble Leadership), Worley (OD) and Greenleaf (servant leadership) emphasize the importance of humility, a contemporary approach to problem solving, and raising the capacity of the practitioners and performance through organizational effectiveness.


Human-first practices are core to both servant leadership and organizational development and were a common thread between both Lewin and Greenleaf. Another common denominator is the growth mindset of individuals and organizations, as well as the acknowledgement that emotional awareness is imperative to that growth. Lastly, both encourage diversity of thought and inclusivity. For instance, servant leadership values commitment to the growth of people and communities together, showing the value of unity. Similarly, organizational development holds diversity and inclusion as a core value, and recognizes that organizations and people are increasingly seeking to develop diverse and inclusive workforces to enhance performance in response to globalization.

Why OD and Servant Leaders Should Come Together


Given the similarities in values between the fields, I believe organizational development and servant leadership practitioners should look to collaborate and gain competencies across both fields. They might determine that their practices are aligned as they are guided by similar values and may find fresh perspectives that would help them learn from one another and further grow and refine their approaches.


As such, organizational development practitioners should actively build relationships with servant leaders, as these relationships can become natural alliances based on shared values, and lead to collaboration on projects. Additionally, organizational development practitioners can identify how servant leaders are furthering their values within their organizations, and consider these practices alongside their own developed practices to further help their client bases. Together, organizational development practitioners and servant leaders can learn much from one another and better help the people within their organizations, as well as their organizations at large, to prosper. ◼️



This was a guest post submitted by Lia Snell-Rivalsky.

Lia Snell-Rivalsky innovates and cultivates complex organizational change through challenging norms and elevating leadership skills. A former Division II athlete, she believes that perseverance and a positive mental outlook are key to being a facilitator of extraordinary groups. Before becoming a consultant, Lia worked at several nonprofits. In addition to this, she coached junior and collegiate rowing and had the pleasure of working with several junior Olympians. Lia is an entrepreneur who founded three small businesses, a habitat home builder, and pottery enthusiast.

Lia attended Ohio University where she studied psychology, business, and global leadership studies. During this time, she was fortunate to study abroad at Nha Trang University with the Global Leadership Center. Southeast Asia remains Lia's favorite place to visit. Lia is currently a student at Bowling Green State University where she is studying Organizational Development with an interest in the government sector.


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I am curious how many ODC Practitioners would define their Leadership Practice as Servant Leadership.

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