Book of the Week: The Power of Servant Leadership

The late Robert K. Greenleaf was widely revered for his profound impact on leadership theory during the last three decades of the 20th century. Eight of his most compelling essays on servant-leadership (a term he coined) are published here in book form for the first time. These essays testify to Greenleaf’s legacy and to his important role in the philosophies of leadership and service. Issues of spirit, vision and wholeness are woven through many of these essays, which address individual and institutional leadership in all areas, including government, business, religion, education and philanthropy. I highly recommend this eloquent book to those contemplating or holding leadership positions.

In The Servant as Leader, published in 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf first defined servant leadership, a term he coined that continues to challenge and inspire people worldwide. “The servant-leader is a 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?” Servant-leadership is now in its third decade as a specific leadership and management concept, and it continues to revolutionize workplaces and institutions. It is a long-term, transformative approach not only to work, but also to life.

Within Greenleaf’s original writings, several characteristics are central to the development of servant-leaders: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people and building community. “How can an institution become more serving? I see no other way than that the people who inhabit it serve better and work together toward synergy — the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.” Servant-leadership is a group-oriented approach to analysis and decision making that strengthens institutions and society, since it does not use profit as the sole motive. Instead, it holds that the “primary purpose of a business should be to create a positive impact on its employees and community.” For-profit businesses, not-for-profit businesses and organizations, churches, universities, foundations and other organizations are applying servant-leadership as a leadership philosophy. In education, servant-leadership is at the core of “experiential learning,” also called “learning by doing.”

Essay 1 — Servant: Retrospect and Prospect
Caring for people is at the core of a good society. Once, caring was done person-to-person, but now much of it happens through institutions that are often large, powerful and impersonal, not always competent, and sometimes even corrupt. The most effective and economical way to build a better society is to raise the performance of society’s institutions as servants. The idea of “servant” is rooted in the Judeo-Christian heritage. But today, society has evolved into a low-caring culture. Given current resources, being more caring is certainly possible. A lack of vision plagues every kind of institution, including businesses, churches, schools, and philanthropies. But the vision these institutions need probably won’t come from administrative leaders, since administrators are short-range in their thinking and lack a sense of history — both limitations to vision. The basis of a caring, serving society is the ability to provide a place for visionaries and the fearlessness to implement their visions.

Essay 2 — Education and Maturity
Education is a powerful maturing force. “Maturity is like art and virtue; it is best demonstrated.” Recognizing and cultivating your uniqueness is part of the maturation process. As you mature, you accept responsibilities. Four issues are at the heart of maturity:

  • The consequences of stress and responsibility.
  • Tension between the requirement to conform and the essential person.
  • The struggle for significance amid the complications of status, property and achievement.
  • Facing the requirements for growth and accepting some process for drawing forth one’s uniqueness.

Essay 3 — Leadership Crisis: A Message for College and University
Forces and influences either nurture or depress the human spirit. The conditions that do this in colleges and universities are not much different from those operating in other institutions. Ideas about leadership in business, then, are equally applicable in the academic world. The vision crisis in education is not different from the one in every other institution. Leadership is deficient in academia, which is ironic because the university is supposed to help create leaders out of its students. When people lead, they usually turn to one or more of the three kinds of power — coercive power, manipulative power and persuasion as power. Without a vision or a dream, power is just an exercise, devoid of ultimate meaning. Leaders must be reminded (or learn in the first place) that their leadership must be based upon a vision. Universities are in desperate need of vision, “a great new dream.” A small dream is not enough.

Essay 4 — Have You a Dream Deferred?
Langston Hughes wrote, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Whether you are a student or out in the business world, if you widen your awareness, your experiences will become more intense and more meaningful. To do this you must open up to influences and opportunities that will expand your awareness in the first place. Many of these show up in unexpected ways. When Robert Frost was asked the meaning of one of his poems, he said, “Read it and read it and read it, and it means what it says to you.” Meaning defies logic and analysis. It comes as a gift, an insight; it comes from openness. William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is, infinite.”

Essay 5 — The Servant as Religious Leader
Much of what has been written about leadership focuses on people who head great institutions or who leave their mark on history. Those leaders are able to carry on because “many lead effectively in smaller ways that support them.” This is true of every institution, every moment. Leadership is dependent upon spirit. Leadership isn’t just “walking at the head of the parade.” A leader goes on ahead and shows the way, even when the way may be unclear, difficult or dangerous. Few leaders can effectively lead in all situations. Even the best leaders should be aware that there are certain times and places in which they should follow. Nurturing seekers is an important aspect of religious leadership. While intuition and foresight are essential to all leaders, religious leaders may understand them better, since relying on intuition and foresight is an act of faith in itself.

Essay 6 — Seminary as Servant
Seminaries should both lead and serve. As institutions, they can be models of servant leadership for their students. Central to the seminary’s role is answering the question, “Where can one best put one’s effort to build a better society?” Since caring for people makes a good society, seminaries (more than any other institutions) potentially hold, through the churches, the greatest potential to influence the caring, serving qualities of an entire society. Seminaries should answer these basic questions about their purpose:

  • Are the theological resources of the seminary adequate?
  • Whom and what purpose does the seminary serve?
  • What should be the content and teaching method of the seminary?
  • How best to serve the churches?
  • How can the seminary be a constant source of prophetic vision?

Essay 7 — My Debt to E.B. White
Writer E.B. White had two gifts that are rarely seen in one person: the ability to see things whole, and the language to tell what he sees. From reading E.B. White, you are assured that you will see clearly where you are (and where you and others in similar circumstances have been), and if your direction is right. Then you will have a better idea of what to do now.

Essay 8 — Old Age: The Ultimate Test of Spirit
The concept of spirit is connected to the concept of serving because of the consequences on those being served: Do they grow as persons? Do they become stronger, wiser, freer, more at peace and likelier to become servants? Spirit is the driving force behind the motive to serve. The ultimate test for spirit in one’s “old age” is looking back at one’s life and knowing that one has served. Even in old age, one can continue to serve. A 95-year-old man sits by the window of his house on the coast of Maine knitting nets for lobster traps that will be used by the younger, still active fishermen in his family. The elderly man is still serving by doing what he can do best at his age. In the opening lines of his poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” Robert Browning wrote: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be; The last of life for which the first was made.” If you prepare for old age, you can make a good life out of it no matter what impairments you suffer. But, to prepare for old age, you must have the ongoing courage to remain aware and to live comfortably with the constant threat of adversity, pain and anxiety. “Think of yourself as a person with unique potentialities, and see the purpose of life as bringing these into mature bloom.” The servant spirit still thrives in old age, but is perhaps applied differently than in one’s youth. At some point, one realizes that one is at an age when one can “best serve by being.” Perhaps this is the “best” that the poet was referring to: finally to simply be, to live wholly in the present moment.

Key Take-Aways

  • The servant-leader is a leader whose focus is on serving.
  • Servant-leadership is a specific leadership and management concept.
  • Servant-leadership is a long-term, transformative approach.
  • Servant-leadership is essential in all institutions, including government, education, business, religion and philanthropy.
  • Servant-leadership is applied to the private sector, the public sector and the nonprofit sector.
  • Caring for people and serving them is the basis of a good society.
  • Caring used to be done person-to-person, but today much of it happens via institutions.
  • A lack of vision plagues every kind of institution.
  • Without vision there can be no effective leadership.
  • The basis of a caring, serving society, is the ability to provide a place for visionaries and to implement their visions.
Great to read! Robert K. Greenleaf: “The Power of Servant Leadership – Essays”
Berrett-Koehler Publishers © 1998, 313 pages

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