Richard Harvey: A case example of servant leadership?


Update Feb 2011

Richard Harvey, chairman of P Z Cussons, was the subject of a post in 2007 in which he was presented as an example of servant leadership

Original post [2007]

Richard Harvey ‘retired’ from his high-profile job as head of the Aviva financial organization to what he called ‘the gap year I never had’, as a charity worker in Uganda. In doing so, he seems to illustrate the concept of servant leadership

Servant Leadership is a term that crops up in leadership texts. It sits uneasily with other leadership concepts which emphasize superior personal characteristics, greater drive and motivational needs. It attracts those in search of a spiritual counterweight to the economic thrust of much of the literature, and particularly to the so-called dark-side of leadership.

Let’s take as a given, for the moment, that servant leadership exists. If so, Richard Harvey can stand (‘serve’) as a good example of the genre, when good can mean exemplary as well as of high moral standing.


Nearly a year ago (January 2007) a news story broke in the UK. My earliest reference comes not from my usual business sources, but from the Sun Newspaper, which reported:

One of the City’s most powerful figures is quitting his £1.9million-a-year job to do charity work in Africa. Richard Harvey will step down in July as boss of Aviva, which owns Britain’s biggest insurer Norwich Union. The dad of three, 56, is swapping his London office live amid mud huts and grinding poverty for a year. Mr. Harvey and his wife Kay, who have a £2million house in swanky Chelsea, West London, were inspired to work in Africa after their daughter Jenny took a gap year there. He said: “Kay and I are going to have the gap year we never had.”

The spiritual and mundane dimensions

A cursory examination of Richard Harvey’s business career suggests a rather conventional high-achiever. After a degree in mathematics at The University of Manchester, he pragmatically switched from his intended career as a nuclear engineer into accounting. There followed a succession of increasingly successful jobs in which he demonstrated considerable business skills not without controversy.

In March 2004 Harvey ..came under heavy criticism, this time by members of Parliament in the Treasury Select Committee, for accepting what was described by the Manchester Guardian as “bumper raises” when millions of policyholders were suffering shortfalls on mortgages and pension plans.

The previously hidden private life of the business leader was later to become more publically known. It appears that that the family holds strong religious convictions, which helped overcome the trauma of a serious illness to Kay Harvey. Richard is believed to provide serious but discrete financial support to various charities.

It turns out that the couple’s ‘gap year’ involved them on behalf of Concern International

This has since received publicity through a BBC programme about the charity efforts scheduled for screening over the Christmas break [2007].

Idealism and pragmatism

Servant leadership tends to create an idealistic picture of someone. We should not ignore the dilemmas facing business leaders. A strong sense of values needs a healthy streak of pragmatism to survive and thrive. As Mr Harvey’s charitable activities were gaining publicity, his pension arrangements also were the subject of news attention [March 2007]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: