The Power of Servant-Leadership

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Based on the seminal work of Robert K. Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive who coined the term almost thirty years ago, servant-leadership emphasizes an emerging approach to leadership-one which puts serving others, including employees, customers, and community, first. The Power of Servant Leadership is a collection of eight of Greenleaf's most compelling essays on servant-leadership. These essays, published together in one volume for the first time, contain many of Greenleaf's best insights into the nature and practice of servant-leadership and show his continual refinement of the servant-as-leader concept. In addition, several of the essays focus on the related issues of spirit, commitment to vision, and wholeness.

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Introduction

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“The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader, 1970

With that initial definition of servant-leadership in 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf planted a seed of an idea that continues to grow in its influence on society with each passing year. In fact, during the 1990s, we have witnessed an unparalleled explosion of interest and practice of servant-leadership. In many ways, it can be said that the times are only now beginning to catch up with Robert Greenleaf’s visionary call to servant-leadership.

Servant-leadership, now in its third decade as a specific leadership and management concept, continues to create a quiet revolution in workplaces around the world. This introduction is intended to provide a broad overview of the growing influence this unique concept of servant-leadership is having on people and their workplaces.

 

1. Servant: Retrospect and Prospect

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I believe that caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is what makes a good society. Most caring was once person to person. Now much of it is mediated through institutions—often large, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one more just and more caring and providing opportunity for people to grow, the most effective and economical way while supportive of the social order, is to raise the performance as servant of as many institutions as possible by new voluntary regenerative forces initiated within them by committed individuals: servants.

Such servants may never predominate or even be numerous; but their influence may form a leaven that makes possible a reasonably civilized society.

Out of the perspective that emerges from my long concern for institutions, I have come to believe that a serious lack of vision is a malady of almost epidemic proportions among the whole gamut of institutions that I know quite intimately—churches, schools, businesses, philanthropies. And that needed vision is not likely to be supplied by the administrative leadership of those places. Administrators, important and necessary as they are, tend to be short-range in their thinking and deficient in a sense of history—limitations that preclude their producing visions. If there is to be a constant infusion of vision that all viable institutions need, whatever their missions, the most likely source of those visions is their trustees who are involved enough to know, yet detached enough from managerial concern, that their imaginations are relatively unimpaired. Trustees are most effective when they are led by an able and farseeing chairperson—by a quality of leadership that is rare in our society today. These extraordinary chairpersons are not necessarily “big” people. The most effective trustee chair I have ever seen in action (and I have seen quite a few) was a “little” person in the world of affairs.

 

2. Education and Maturity

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A talk before the faculty and students of Barnard College, at their fifth biennial vocational conference, November 30, 1960

Maturity has many meanings, especially when applied to people. But in my own association, there is a strong link between the word maturity and the word becoming. Education, in particular a liberal education, can be a powerful maturing force. Depth of meaning about process emerges only out of experience. This, briefly, is the framework within which I shall try to deal with the subject of education and maturity.

A friend of mine in Madison, Wisconsin, tells a story about Frank Lloyd Wright many years ago when his studio, Taliesen, was at nearby Spring Green. Mr. Wright had been invited by a women’s club in Madison to come and talk on the subject “What is Art?” He accepted and appeared at the appointed hour and was introduced to speak on this subject.

In his prime, he was a large impressive man, with good stage presence and a fine voice. He acknowledged the introduction and produced from his pocket a little book. He then proceeded to read one of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, the one about the little mermaid. He read it beautifully, and it took about 15 minutes. When he finished he closed the book, looked intently at his audience and said, “That, my friends, is art,” and sat down.

 

3. The Leadership Crisis

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In the eight years since I wrote the following essay on “The Leadership Crisis,” I have moved into a more meditative life with greater concern for the forces and influences that either nurture or depress the human spirit. And I have come to see the conditions that raise or lower the quality of life in colleges and universities as not materially different from those that operate in other institutions: governments, hospitals, churches, schools, businesses, philanthropies. Therefore, what I first addressed to colleges and universities and published in an academic journal, now seems to me to be much more widely relevant. And what is being said today in the flood of literature about how to lead in business seems equally applicable in the academic world.

Most important, as I noted in the earlier essay, “an indispensable condition for the persuasive power (of leaders) to be effective is that the institution is living out a great dream. … Institutions function better when the idea, the dream, is to the fore, and the person, the leader is seen as servant of the idea. It is not ‘I,’ the ultimate leader, that is moving this institution to greatness; it is the dream, the great idea. ‘I’ am subordinate to the idea. ‘I’ am servant of the idea along with everyone else who is involved in the effort. … It is the idea that unites people in the common effort, not the charisma of the leader. … Far too many of our contemporary institutions do not have an adequate dream, an imaginative concept that will raise people’s sights close to where they have the potential to be. … that has the energy to lift people out of their moribund ways to a level of being and relating from which the future can be faced with more hope than most of us can summon today.” That was the way I saw the crisis of leadership eight years ago: the need to produce in more of our institutions the overarching dream that will have this energy.

 

4. Have You a Dream Deferred?

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What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the Sun?

Or—?

Langston Hughes

Do you have a dream deferred, now that you are nearing the end of your freshman year? And what about the charge of idealism and the high expectations you brought here last September; what shape are they in? How does your university adventure look to you at this point?

We are here today because you have applied to be appointed Ohio Fellows. The objective of the Ohio Fellows program, as I understand it, is to help you realize your potential for service in the public interest. It is not concerned with what vocation you choose for your life work. But it assumes that, in your work or outside it, you want to make a social contribution through becoming a self-actualizing person.

Because you want to be admitted to this group, I assume that you are still searching, within the resources of the university, for something you have not yet found—perhaps to renew your faith in your dream. If my assumption is correct, what is the nature of your search? What is your personal strategy for the optimal use of the opportunity which the next three years offers?

 

5. The Servant as Religious Leader

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Much of the literature on leadership deals with those who head great institutions or who leave a mark on history. Such persons can carry their large roles only because many lead effectively in smaller ways that support them. This essay is as much concerned with those who lead small molecular forces—whether as part of a large movement or as lone individuals—as with those whose names go down in history.

This is written, not as the ultimate treatise on religious leading (I doubt that that will ever be written), but rather to stimulate and contribute to dialogue about the critical issue of religious leading in our times. My perspective is that of a student of organization, not of a scholar or theologian. What I have to share about religious leading is largely what I have gleaned from experience, both my own and others’, from reading literature and history, and from thinking. Not much of it has come from formal study of either leadership or religion.

I am a creature of the Judeo-Christian tradition in which I grew up, as modified by the Quaker portion of that tradition that I acquired after maturity. I cannot judge how I would have addressed the subject of religious leading if I had been raised in another culture, or if my life experience had been other than what it was; but I am quite sure that I would have a different view of it. What is written here is offered in the hope that no persons will exclude themselves from consideration of the issues raised because of their religious beliefs or their biases about leadership.

 

6. Seminary as Servant

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The essays that follow were written in recognition of two pervasive social problems: (1) widespread alienation in all strata of the population, and (2) the inability or unwillingness to serve on the part of far too many of the institutions that make up our complex society. Each of these problems may be a contributing cause to the other, and neither is likely to be healed without coming to terms with the other.

I believe that new religious insight is needed to deal with the dilemma that this reciprocal dependency presents (religious in the root meaning of rebind). Such insight may come as a gift to any earnest seeker, but its availability to the many whose lives may be enriched by it will be greatly enhanced if seminaries embrace it, put it in a context so that churches may mediate it, and give sustaining support to churches as they do their work. Any seminary that performs well in this role will be truly a servant in our times. But, as I argue later, this achievement is unlikely to come unless the stated missions of seminaries require it—mission statements that have clarity and power and the ring of contemporaneity. Such mission statements are not likely to emerge until seminary trustees give a character of leadership that is not yet generally accepted.

 

7. My Debt to E. B. White

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In 1929, when I moved to New York, I was immediately attracted to The New Yorker magazine, that was then in its fifth year, and to E. B. White, who had helped make it a remarkable magazine, and who had been on the staff for three years. My debt to Mr. White, after 55 years of living with his writings, stems from two gifts that are rarely possessed by one person: the ability to see things whole, or more whole than most, and the language to tell us ordinary mortals what he sees.

I am not a literary person, but I know that White’s writing style is greatly admired among some literary folk. His revision of Strunk’s The Elements of Style is a widely used text. He is sometimes identified as a humorist, and I find good laughs in his work. He is a fellow who, when the spirit moves him, just naturally breaks into song—so there is quite a bit of poetry. In his later years, there have been stories for children. As a so-called adult, I find them delightful. But his writing style, his humor, his poetry, and his children’s stories are not the central focus of what I want to acknowledge here, though, obviously, they are the context within which it is housed.

 

8. Old Age: The Ultimate Test of Spirit

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Spirit! What are we talking about? The unabridged dictionary I consulted begins a full page of definitions with “The breath of life.” But dictionaries can do little more than summarize common usage; and it seems clear to me, after reading the full page of definitions, that there is no well-accepted meaning for this much used and important word.

I conclude, then, that I cannot give a concise definition for spirit, for which old age seems to me to be the ultimate test. The meaning of that word, as I use it, lies beyond the barrier that separates mystery from what we call reality. Yet I have a sharp awareness of spirit when it is present, in myself and others, and I have a depressing feeling of loss when it is absent, in myself and others, at times when it is urgently needed.

I have come to connect spirit, the kind I would like to see more of, to a concept of serve as I see it in the consequences on those being served: do those being served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become stronger, wiser, freer, more at peace with themselves, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what will be the effect on the least privileged in society? Will she or he benefit, or at least not be further deprived? The quality of a society will be judged by what the least privileged in it achieves. My hope for the future rests on the belief that among the legions of deprived and unsophisticated people are many true servants, and that most people can be helped to discriminate among those who presume to serve them, and identify, and respond only to those who are true servants.

 

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