Greenleaf writes: The lapse of…three…major institutions from distinguished to merely ordinary performance came, I believe, because the trustees ceased to demand distinction.  Their sense of trust declined probably because able, dedicated trustees were replaced by nominal trustees – not poor performers, but just ordinary – and there was no longer trust that could sustain spirit and unity of purpose.

Throughout his writings Greenleaf returns again and again to a number of themes.  In this short passage Greenleaf returns to one of them: Demand Distinction.  Individuals and groups of individuals (teams, departments, divisions, organizations, etc.) too often settle for ‘mediocrity’ when they should be striving for ‘distinction.’  ‘Distinction’ = marked superiority; high achievement.  How many of us consciously demand distinction of ourselves?  How many of us settle for mediocrity?  How many organizations demand distinction of themselves?  How many settle for mediocrity? 

How many organizations achieved ‘distinction’ only to become mediocre – or, worse perhaps, to become extinct?  I have known both not-for-profit and for-profit organizations that have achieved ‘distinction’ only to lose it and become ‘mediocre’ or to become extinct.  I am thinking about a not-for-profit organization that for more than 100 years served, via group homes, children (ages 8-18).  When I first became aware of them they had already achieved ‘distinction.’  They had a stable and committed and forward-thinking board of directors.  These folks were truly ‘trustees’ for they did, indeed, hold the organization and those it served in ‘trust.’ 

Then the shift began to happen.  Gradually, over a ten year period, the board of trustees changed.  The ‘old guard’ were, indeed, aging and no longer had the energy to serve and so they began to ‘leave the board.’  Sadly, more and more of those seeking to be board members wanted to serve because of the prestige associated with being on ‘that board.’  More and more sought this board out in order to ‘pad their resume.’  Within 8 years this wonderful organization became extinct.  Not because the staff did not perform with distinction; it became extinct because the board became less than mediocre. 

Achieving ‘distinction’ is not enough; we know that.  What is just as challenging is: How do we sustain distinction?  History tells us that ‘maintaining’ is not sufficient – too often it leads to mediocrity.  Sustainability requires a marriage of maintaining and creating/experimenting – two distinct pathways that over time will intersect so that a ‘third pathway’ emerges.  This pathway will contain some of the ‘old’ and some of the ‘new’ and will provide an opportunity for ‘distinction’ to survive and thrive. 

One of the great examples of this is the organization that Walt Disney founded.  Throughout his life-time he was committed to high achievement, to being distinctive, and to continuously evolving so that both high achievement and being distinctive would survive and thrive.  He invited folks to serve on his board who possessed an abundance mentality, a high achievement mentality, and a mentality that supported ‘being distinctive.’  These were three of Disney’s greatest qualities (among many) that he believed each of his board members needed to ‘bring to the table.’  There was no doubt that during his life-time he was able to achieve and sustain ‘being distinctive.’  Since his death there have been a few stumbles, but there has not been a sustained movement toward mediocrity – ‘Demanding Distinction’ continues to be one of Disney’s mantras. 

What is your organization’s current mantra?  Does your Board of Directors support ‘mediocrity’ or does it embrace being a Board of Trustees and ‘Demand Distinction’? 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Greenleaf writes: …large, complex institutions dominate the American scene…  Unless the quality of large institutions can be raised, not much can be done to improve the total society.

The trustee role…implies a dynamic obligation, an insistent motivating force originating with trustees that obliges the institution to move toward distinction as servant.  By this is meant that an institution makes a contribution, at least proportional to its opportunity, toward building a society that is more just and more loving, one that offers greater creative opportunities to its people. 

…A new condition of these times is the need for a high level of trust in institutions.  …The urgent need for trust requires this enlarged view of the role of trustee.

How are our large institutions doing today when it comes to moving toward distinction as servant?  How are they doing when it comes to their building a society that is more just and more loving?  How are they doing when it comes to their offering greater creative opportunities to their employees?  It appears that these past 18-24 months have revealed to us that we Americans are not as ‘just’ as we proclaim, nor are we as ‘loving’ as we proclaim. 

These past 18-24 months has revealed to us a great chasm between what we espouse – being a just and loving society – and what we are living out.  For me, this chasm is also filled with irony for we Americans also claim to be a ‘Christian’ nation and the ‘chasm’ reveals that we are not even close to be the ‘Christian’ nation that we believe ourselves to be. 

Greenleaf knew the power of large institutions for he was a member of one for almost 40 years.  He knew their potential, their strengths, and he knew their growing edges.  He also knew that the role of trustee was crucial for the trustee directly impacted – if not directly determined – the path the institution took.  Greenleaf knew that one purpose of a for-profit institution was to increase the bottom line; he was a realist.  Greenleaf was also an idealist.  He believed that for-profit institutions were also called to be ‘servants’ – in his words, to move the society toward being more just and more loving. 

The ‘greed is good’ folks cynically tell us that the ONLY purpose of a for-profit institution is to make a profit (think: to financially benefit the stock-holders).  Greenleaf also knew, via first-hand experience, that for-profit institutions could be so much more than ‘profit-makers’ and he challenged them to become so.

As a realist, however, Greenleaf often stated that his challenge would become a success if only one large, for-profit institution embraced and lived into and out of his challenge.  Just one.  He believed that if one did so then others would follow.  A number have actually done so thanks to folks like Ken Melrose, Max De Pree, Bill Turner, Anita Roddick and Ray Anderson (to name a few). 

Greenleaf was also a gradualist.  He understood that the forces of ‘greed’ were better organized and were in greater number than the forces that would accept his challenge.  The forces of ‘greed’ would only be tampered over time by the steady deep currents.  He knew that ‘waves’ crash; he did not want his concept of ‘servant, first’ to become a ‘wave.’  He knew that only steady deep currents, deep currents that moved slowly and powerfully over time, would make a difference.  Greenleaf was hopeful that the steady deep currents would ‘win out.’ 

On my good days I am also hopeful.  On the days when I am reminded of the great chasm that still exists I am tempted to move to cynicism.  I know that when I become cynical that the dark side of the force wins (The ‘Star Wars’ saga is more than just an entertaining number of movies).   Greenleaf – and the other deep current residents – continue to support me and others and for this I am deeply thankful. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


In 1972 Greenleaf shared his thesis with us.  Greenleaf writes: This is my thesis, caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built.  Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt.  If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them: servants.

In this brief statement, Greenleaf begins to engage important issues – issues that were important to him in 1970 and issues that continue to be important for us today.  Included are the issues of power and authority, of trust, and creation (of the institutions and of the world we want to live in) and most importantly he reiterates his major theme: Servant   Servants will provide the regenerative forces necessary to ensure that his thesis is transformed from concept to reality 

What is our response today to his implied question: What is the rock upon which a good society is built?  What is our societal ‘rock’ today?  I am 77 years old and when I was young a major rock was the rock of relationship.  Our family relationships (nuclear and extended) was supported and enhanced by our neighborhood relationships and by our many ‘community relationships (schools, volunteer organizations, places of worship, etc.).  Today, many people experience more relationships with folks they work with than they do with their next door ‘neighbors.’ 

Today, more than ever before in recorded history, large, complex, powerful and impersonal institutions shape our lives and, as Greenleaf noted, ‘caring’ is often mediated through them.  Actually, large, complex institutions are hybrids.  They are living paradoxes (just as each of us is a living paradox).  Institutions are BOTH organic and inorganic; they are personal and impersonal; folks working within them are treated as human beings and are treated as parts of a machine; people are viewed as human and are viewed as cyborgs, and as non-organic entities (think: assets, resources, and commodities).    

Greenleaf makes an assumption that we desire a society that is more just and more loving.  There are many signals afloat today that perhaps this is not what we want – at minimum this has not been a ‘center-stage’ topic for us (in our country the ‘center-stage topic’ for years has been using our vast resources to affect a change in the world).  There are more voices crying out for justice and love as necessary if we are to thrive as a nation. 

Greenleaf appears to have been correct when he noted that our society will continue to be shaped by large institutions.  And that if a more just and loving society is to take root then they must become more just and more loving themselves and they must serve the society in ways that promote justice and love.  His ‘gardener’ (to keep the garden metaphor) for this is the ‘servant.’ 

The individual chooses to be servant, first and chooses to seek ways of serving so that institutions themselves are transformed into servants (the human side of the paradoxical institution will trump the non-human side).  If one believes that all institutions are organic – they are simply individuals and relationships writ large – then Greenleaf’s thesis becomes possible.  The non-human part of the organization will not like this (the ‘machines’ in the movie ‘The Terminator’ are metaphors for the non-human part of life’s paradox).  We, each of us, still has choice – that is what makes us fully human.  The questions remain: ‘What will each of us choose?’  ‘What are each of us choosing?’  ‘Why are we so choosing?’ 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Greenleaf writes: …I want to return for a moment to work, vocation, and its relevance to growth, to the drawing out of the unique significance of the person. 

…Think of yourself as a person with unique potentialities and see the purpose of life as brining these into mature bloom. 

…Whatever your work is, make something out of it that enriches you.  Work itself cannot be truly significant except as it is seen as the means whereby the people who do the work find themselves in it.  Do your work well; keep your sense of obligation high; cultivate excellence in everything you do; but above all ‘use’ your work, use it as a means for your own fulfillment as a person – your own becoming. 

…This can be one of the great excitements of life – the surprise when you discover what you have become and realize that more is yet to come. 

More than 25 years ago I met Phil Adelman.  Phil was the doorman at a hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  At the time we met he had been the doorman at that hotel for almost 20 years.  During a two year period I stayed five or six times at this hotel – mainly because of all of the folks I met who worked there.  Among other things, Phil had a photographic memory.  My first stay at this hotel lasted three days and about eight months later I returned.  The taxi pulled up to the front door and Phil opened the cab’s door and when I peered out he said with a tone of warmth and a broad smile, ‘Welcome back Mr. Smith; it’s been about eight months hasn’t it?’ 

During this trip I stayed four days at this hotel and I made it a point to ‘watch’ Phil and the other employees.  I also made it a point to spend some time talking with Phil – he loved to talk, which helped.  After a few conversations I asked Phil what motivated his attitude of hospitality, good cheer and excellent service.  I can still see his face as he paused, stepped aside to greet folks as they entered and left the hotel.  After a few minutes he returned to where I was standing and said: ‘I care.  I care about myself; I care about my colleagues; I care about each person who enters or leaves this hotel; and I care about the stranger who walks on by.’ 

Phil saw his role as an opportunity to give a variety of gifts to others.  His smile, his warmth, his excellent service – he lived his ‘caring.’  The General Manager told me that Phil provided the hotel with ideas as to how things could be improved – but more importantly, he said, Phil demonstrates what excellence rooted in caring looks like.  The General Manager noted that Phil  modeled excellence for all of them.  ‘We are a better organization and we are better people because of Phil Adelman.’ 

Phil was a living embodiment of what it is to find meaning in the very work one does.  He impacted me and continues to provide me a model of excellence rooted in caring.  When I think about our holiday called ‘Thanksgiving’ I often think of Phil.  Thanks, Phil, for the gift you gave me and the gift you gave so many others. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Greenleaf writes: As entheos becomes a more constant companion, one moves toward the minimum of difference between the outside and inside images of the self; one becomes more willing to be seen as he is.  …the power of entheos makes this possible.

…Then one becomes conscious of the good use of time and unhappy with the waste of time.  As awareness opens, one of the measures it takes of our contemporary society is the number of elaborate and seductive devices lurking about that serve no other purpose than to waste time.

A further test is the growing sense of achieving one’s basic personal goals through one’s work, whatever it is…

…Finally, there is a developing view of peopleALL people are seen more as beings to be trusted, believed in and loved and less as objects to be used, competed with or judged. …Love of oneself in the context of a pervasive love for one’s fellow man is a healthy attribute and necessary for the fulfillment of a life. 

A few thousand years ago the Oracle at Delphi advised one to ‘Know Thyself.’  Socrates added to this when he noted that ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’  And hundreds of years after that Marcus Aurelius wrote in his ‘Meditations’ – ‘Our life is what our thoughts make it.’  More recently, Greenleaf wrote that to refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral.

There continues to be a common theme that all wisdom figures – past and present and probably future – offer us: Seek to know thyself and seek to accept thyself and you will be more willing and able to be seen as you are.  Entheos is one of the sustainers that enable us to reflect upon and respond to one of life’s essential questions: Who am I?  Our response then enables us to engage a second essential life question: Who am I choosing to become?  And this opens the pathway to a third essential life question: Why am I choosing this becoming? Entheos not only sustains us in our search, it helps us sustain our ‘being and our becoming’ and it is also a major tap root that nurtures and sustains our ‘doing.’ 

Self-acceptance also opens a pathway to our being able to accept others.  Self-acceptance – or our lack of self-acceptance – powerfully influences the way we ‘view’ others.  If I view myself as fully human I am more likely to view the ‘other’ – the ‘stranger’ – as fully human.  If I truly ‘love’ myself (the self that is revealed in ‘know thyself’ and ‘examine thyself’) I am more apt to seek to love the ‘other’ and the ‘stranger.’  If I learn to accept my imperfect self – my self as a living paradox – I am more able to accept the ‘imperfect other.’  If I ‘see’ and ‘accept’ myself as a fully human being then I am more likely able to ‘see’ and ‘accept’ the ‘other’ person as a fully human being.     

I leave us this morning with the words of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche: ‘Going Home’ is a journey to the heart of who we are, a place where we can be ourselves and welcome the reality of our beauty and our pain.  From this acceptance of ourselves, we can accept others as they are and we can see our common humanity.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment