Servant leadership – Vincent and Louise

by | Nov 12, 2015 | Formation, Reflections | 1 comment

dc-featured-newsSr. Maggie Reynolds, a Daughter of Charity in Australia, offers this review of the concept of Servant Leadership and how Vincent and Louise exemplified it.

She reads their lives through the lens of Robert Greenleaf’s three foundational questions for servant leaders to check:

  1. Do those served grow as persons?
  2. Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?
  3. What is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?

Servant Leadership


Throughout our lives, many of us are called into leadership roles in our various ministries, communities or work places.   There are many styles of leadership, which are briefly mentioned here, but the focus of this essay is on the concept of servant leadership, which is a modern definition that has actually been around for centuries.  I have attempted to trace the historic elements of servant leadership through to the present day and show how Vincent and Louise modeled it in their lives in the 17th century.

Styles of Leadership

A leadership style is a leader’s way of providing direction, implementing plans, and motivating people.  There are many different leadership styles that can be exhibited by leaders in various fields.  Some of these are:

  1. Authoritarian where leaders keeps strict, close control over followers by keeping close regulation of policies and procedures given to group members.
  2. Paternalistic where leaders act as mother/father figure taking care of their group members as a parent would. These leaders supply complete concern for their group and in return they receive the complete trust and loyalty of their group members.  They become totally committed to what the leader believes and don’t work independently.
  3. Democratic where leaders share the decision-making abilities with group members by promoting the interests of the group members and by practicing social equality. This style of leadership encompasses discussion, debate and sharing of ideas and encouragement of people to feel good about their involvement.
  4. Laissez-faire is sometimes described as a “hands off” leadership because the leader delegates the tasks to their group members while providing little or no direction to them. If the leader withdraws too much from their group members it can sometimes result in a lack of productivity, cohesiveness and satisfaction.
  5. Transactional where leaders focus their leadership on motivating group members through a system of rewards and punishments. This type of leader identifies the needs of his/her group and gives rewards to satisfy those needs in exchange of certain level for a performance.
  6. Transformational where leaders are not limited by their group members perception. The main objective is to work to change or transform their group member’s needs and redirect their thinking. These leaders challenge and inspire their followers with a sense of purpose and excitement.

However many successful companies are embracing a leadership model called ‘servant leadership’.  Servant leadership is an approach to leadership development, coined and defined by Robert K. Greenleaf and advanced by several authors.

Servant and Leader – can these two roles be fused in one real person, in all levels of status or calling?  If so, can that person live and be productive in the real world of the present day?

Servant Leadership

Robert Greenleaf’s idea of the servant as leader came out of reading Hermann Hesse’s “Journey to the East”.[1]    In this story we see a band of men on a mythical journey.  The central figure of the story is Leo, the stable boy, who accompanies the party as the servant who does their menial chores, but who also sustains them with his spirit and his song.  He is a person of extraordinary presence.  All goes well until Leo disappears.  Then the group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned.  They cannot make it without the servant Leo.  The narrator, one of the party, after some years of wandering finds Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored the journey.  There he discovers that Leo, whom he had known first as servant was in fact the head of the Order, its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader.

To Robert Greenleaf, this story clearly says the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to their greatness.  Leo was actually the leader all of the time, but he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down inside. For Leo, leadership was a by-product of service.  Leadership could be taken or given away, but service and the servant nature was the real person – not bestowed, not assumed, and not taken away.

However, the concept is thousands of years older than this.  The history of servant leadership dates back to ancient times where some Kings were regarded as servants of their subjects.

Chanakya or Kautilya, the famous strategic thinker, teacher, philosopher and royal advisor from ancient India, wrote about servant leadership in his 4th century treatise Arthashastra:  In this treatise, Chanakya discusses the duties and obligations of a King.  He says:

“The King shall consider as good, not what pleases himself, but what pleases his subjects”. 

“The King is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the State together with the people”.[2]

In approximately 600, Lao Tzu was the most important Spiritual sage.  Lao Tzu is the father of the Chinese spiritual tradition Taoism, mainly because of his text called Tao te Ching based on the way of life.  In it he says:

“The highest type of Ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.  When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say: “We ourselves have achieved it”.  He concludes this quote by saying:

“A leader is not a good leader if he is so ego-driven that he is always standing in front of his team, and letting the team feel it.  The most empowering way is to inspire people so that they become able to realize their own potential”.[3]

The concept of servant leadership in the west can be traced back long before this, to Jesus, who taught his disciples that:

 “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to

become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[4]

Vincent de Paul came to servant leadership through prayer and scripture.  He was inspired, for instance, by the passage from Luke: Jesus said,

“Earthly kings lord it over their people and claim the title ‘Friends of the People’.  Yet it cannot be that way with you.  Let the greater among you be as the youngest, the leader must be like the servant.” [5]

Jesus is the model for servant leadership and authority in the New Testament.  Jesus gives us the example of servant leadership and model to follow in ‘Washing the Feet of his disciples’.

 After Jesus had washed their feet, he put his outer garment back on and returned to his place at the table.  “Do you understand what I have just done to you?” he asked.  “You call me Teacher and Lord, and it is right that you do so, because that is what I am.  I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet.  You, then, should wash one another’s feet.  I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you.  I am telling you the truth: no slave is greater than his master, and no messenger is greater than the one who sent him.  Now that you know this truth, how happy you will be if you put it into practice!”[6]

What characterizes being Jesus’ disciple is mutual service.

Qualities of a Servant Leader

Robert Greenleaf who is recognized as the father of servant leadership in contemporary society, described servant leadership in this manner:

“It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  The conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead….The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant – first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” [7]

He provides three foundational questions for servant leaders to check:

  1. Do those served grow as persons?
  2. Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?
  3. What is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?

Vincent as Servant Leader

Vincent was the servant leader of his day.  He was concerned about the growth of those he served:  his Confreres, the Daughters of Charity, the Ladies of Charity, the Council of Conscience and the poor.  Transforming them into servant leaders, he sent them to serve and evangelize.  Acting with prudence and circumspection, in which he excelled, Vincent was a disturber and an awakener.  He planted his vision firmly in the mind of his followers and never wavered from his ideal.

In Vincent’s eulogy the officiating Bishop said,

“Yes Messieurs, it is necessary to tell you it was Vincent de Paul who all but changed the face of the Church…. [8]  

He certainly changed the way much of society thought about the poor.  He was able to do this because he was a transformational, servant leader.  This is the secret to what attracted others to his vision.  Vincent pioneered this approach to leadership and Robert Greenleaf has put words on the experience.

Vincent’s life story states the unabashed truth of a life in total service of others.  His story lives on both in the lives of those served and among the Vincentians Family carrying out this work today around the world. As we evaluate those three foundational questions for servant leaders, that Larry Greenleaf proposed, we can say, the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.  They grow as persons, they become healthier, wiser, freer, more likely themselves to become Servants.

Vincent and Greenleaf both realized that followers are incomplete creations and the only way to accomplish anything through them was to serve them.  If we are servants, either leaders or followers, we are always searching, listening, expecting that a better solution is in the making.    Vincent and Louise always sought new and better ways to serve the poor, sharing Greenleaf’s notion of continuous quality improvement – a concept popularized by recent authors.

Vincent de Paul founded an institution of service to the poor shared now by many, and turned the Church upside down and put the poor on top with the rest of us in service and support.

Louise as Servant Leader

In May 1629, Vincent sent Louise de Marillac on mission, the woman who was to be one of the first leaders formed at his school.

“Go therefore, Mademoiselle,” he said, “go in the name of Our Lord” [9]

Vincent gave some advice and a warning that the role of servant leader she was undertaking would bring with it joy and suffering, success and failure, as it had in the life of Christ, their model.  On that day, Vincent sent Louise to Montmirail to visit, on his behalf, one of the early Confraternities of Charity.  He was being the servant leader to Louise, offering her advice and mentoring her, but letting her develop her own potential, which in time enabled her to become a servant leader.  At the time, neither Vincent nor Louise were aware of just how far the journey of servant leadership would take her, nor of its ramifications for the Church and for the service of generations of persons in need.

As we look at Louise’s leadership style, it is essential to recognize that for her, as for Vincent, leadership is service. Their way of demonstrating this quality grew over many years of personal development, conversion through life experience and deep relationships. Servant leadership doesn’t seek its own advancement or that of the institution itself.  It has nothing to do with power, a word that Louise employs only when speaking of God.  Servant leadership bridges gaps between groups and, focuses always on the well-being of those being served, and leads to collaboration through gentle persuasion.  Louise mentored her collaborators, particularly the Ladies of Charity and the Daughters of Charity, helping them to grow spiritually, personally and professionally.  She realized the importance of setting clear boundaries for living the Vincentian vocation, and communicated these expectations early on.  She also allowed others to develop their own potential, and recognized the importance of feedback.  Above all, she sought to enable those who shared the Vincentian Mission to maintain their focus on the ‘why’ and the ‘who’ of their service.

Louise was a highly organized, gifted leader with a strong personality.  She was also keenly interested in her collaborators and in their work.  She lived in a hierarchical society where all power was vested at the top.  Despite this, her correspondence reveals another approach, namely subsidiarity, at a time in history when the concept and the word were virtually unknown.  Subsidiarity requires people prepared to assume responsibility which, in turn, demands mentoring. Without the trust that such a leadership style implies, and a willingness to allow other strong personalities to develop their potential, the works in distant places at a time when communication was difficult, could never have flourished.

To her sisters, Louise was the mentor and teacher, and through the advice she gave and the expressions of both tenderness and reproach present in her correspondence, she taught the sisters how to metaphorically wash the feet of those to whom they ministered.  They were taught by the servant leader to be servant leaders.

An idea of Louise’s mentoring can be perceived in her letters to Sister Cecile Angibost, who was sent to Angers as local superior which, at the time, meant that she also supervised the nursing care.  Cecile had little experience and Louise offered practical suggestions.  See letters below.[10]

 Louise constantly asked about the wellbeing of the sisters and gave Cecile advise, counsel and guidelines on serving the needs of the poor, building and enhancing community living, and offers a different perception of sister’s behavior. She supports and guides Cecile through difficult and challenging times.  Through these letters, Louise teaches Cecile how to take up the role of leadership, how to care for the sisters, how to deal with the challenges and to grow in her spiritual life.  This is mentoring of the highest standard.  Louise mentored Cecile just as Vincent had mentored her.  In the same way, through these letters we are also being mentored.  Note that Louise always signs her letters, “Your very humble and loving sister and servant”.

Servant leadership manifests itself in the care taken to ensure that the needs of others are the highest priority.  Louise always did this.

At the school of Vincent, Louise developed as a Vincentian leader in her right. It has been said, however, that the great test is that the works continue to flourish when the leader is no longer there. Louise, therefore, remains a challenge and an encouragement for all of us, and when things get difficult for all of us, as they inevitably do, she advises us as she did her collaborators:

“….arise each morning with new courage to serve God and the poor well.” [11]


So, let’s conclude with a simple definition of what ‘servant leadership’ is:

“It is exemplary leaders using their power in service of others and enabling them to act by strengthening them and developing them into leaders.”

Greenleaf noted that a great leader is a servant first, and that the conscious choice of wanting to serve first makes one want to lead.

The ultimate goal of a servant leader is to fulfil the needs of others.  Jesus Christ was the model par excellence of servant leadership.  Vincent and Louise were his faithful followers. 


Hermann Hesse, Journey to the East (Martino Fine Books, Feb 16, 2011)

Chanakya, The Arthashastra

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Holy Bible Scriptures

Vincent de Paul Correspondence, Conferences Documents

Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac

Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership (New York Press, 1977)

Henri de Maupas du Tour: The Funeral Oration for Vincent de Paul.  Rev. Edward R. Udovic CM

Vincentian Heritage Vol. 19 No. 1. 1998


[1] Hermann Hesse, Journey to the East

[2] Chanakya, The Arthashastra

[3] Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching – quote 5

[4] Mark 10:42-45

[5] Luke 22:25-26

[6] John 13:12-17

[7] Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership.  A journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. (New Your Paulist Press, 1977. Page 13

[8] Henri de Maupas du Tour: The Funeral Oration for Vincent de Paul.  Page 96

[9] Correspondence Conferences Documents. Vol. 1.  Page 6.

[10] Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac.  Letter 320 Page 248, Letter 323 Page 253, Letter 231 Page 268, Letter 248B Page 320, Letter 290B Page 320, Letter 405 Page 379, Letter 341 Page 390, Letter 360b Page 411, Letter 376 Page 458, Letter 505 Page 531,  Letter 523 Page 549

[11] Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac.  Letter 201 Page 225

1 Comment

  1. marguerite broderick


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