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April 2012


“The Servant as Leader”


by Robert K. Greenleaf (The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 1973)


What are the big take-aways?


In this ground-breaking essay, originally penned in 1970, Robert Greenleaf posits the radical notion that “the great leader is seen as servant first.” Greenleaf predicted forty years ago that:


A fresh critical look is being taken at the issues of power and authority, and people are beginning to learn, however haltingly, to relate to one another in less coercive and more creatively supporting ways. A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader. Those who choose to follow this principle will not casually accept the authority of existing institutions. Rather, they will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants. [Author’s emphasis.]


Greenleaf argues convincingly (and often poetically) that leadership effectiveness comes from a motivation to serve, and that the hallmarks of great leadership include: purpose; skilled listening; the ability to use language for facilitating imaginative leaps; resilience; acceptance and empathy; intuition; awareness; persuasion; and foresight, which he refers to as “the central ethic of leadership.”


Why did I like it?


A consistent theme throughout my career – as a public interest lawyer, adult educator, higher education administrator, and now as a leadership coach and consultant – has been my desire to be “of service” to the growth and self-defined success of others. So, when reading Greenleaf, I felt rooted in a tradition of thinking about leadership that validates my “service” orientation to leadership and life, which is still not – in my view – the pervasive one in our culture even if it is (as Greenleaf so presciently anticipated) more widely accepted than it was forty years ago.


Second, the essay is timely in American socio-cultural terms, especially in the questioning of existing institutions (think: Occupy Wall Street, the low approval rating of Congress, the latest controversies about reforming our national health care and educational systems, etc.). While Greenleaf wrote “The Servant as Leader” during the Vietnam War, amidst domestic political and economic turmoil, shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, and in the early years of the second-wave feminist movement, the echoes of his time reverberate immediately today. Currently the U.S. is attempting to wind down its involvement in two foreign wars amidst domestic political and economic turmoil, there is an African-American family in the White House, and a nation-wide civil rights movement for same-sex marriage is afoot.


Finally, to me the significance of Greenleaf’s emphasis on the ethical dimension of leadership vision – what calls “foresight” – cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, contemporary examples of the devastation caused by leadership failures of foresight abound, and many are not difficult to brand as “unethical” in their origins and proportions. I appreciate the strength and clarity with which Greenleaf defines his terms:


Foresight is the “lead” that the leader has. Once leaders lose this lead and events start to force their hand, they are leaders in name only. They are not leading, but are reacting to immediate events, and they probably will not long be leaders. There are abundant current examples of loss of leadership which stem from a failure to foresee what reasonably could have been foreseen, and from failure to act on that knowledge while the leader had freedom to act.


I agree with Greenleaf when he declares that “the failure (or refusal) of a leader to foresee may be viewed as an ethical failure” [author’s emphasis].


In what situations would this be useful?


“The Servant as Leader” would be a satisfyingly provocative piece for the philosophical person – whether servant, manager, leader or follower – who is attracted to or actively grappling with questions of personal values, life purpose, and the individual search for meaning. I also note that, while not overtly religious, the essay has a distinctly spiritual bent which may be attractive to some readers.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


If “The Servant as Leader” is – or just sounds – inspiring, I recommend the full volume Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, 25th Anniversary Ed. (Paulist Press, 2002). It addresses the nature of servant leadership in specific industries, including business, education, foundations and churches.


Due to a lot of overlap between the concepts of servant leadership and authentic leadership, for an accompanying workbook I would recommend Bill George’s True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership or Kevin Cashman’s Leadership from the Inside Out (both previously reviewed in the Leadership Library). If a deeper dive is called for, I recommend Barbara Braham’s Finding Your Purpose: A Guide to Personal Fulfillment, rev. ed. (Axzo Press, 2003); the particular advantage of the Braham workbook is that it addresses the different prevailing “purpose” questions that tend to characterize different stages of life.


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