Greenleaf writes: The servant prepares him/herself to lead by a process of growth through experience guided by a self-image as a builder and within a conceptual framework that suggests the strengths that will emerge if allowed.

He continues: Leaders are not trained, they evolve. . . Leadership overarches expertise and it cannot be reduced to style.  A leader is not an identifiable style of a man [or woman]. 

 He adds: Effective leadership defies categorization, but one is risked – key words: direction, values, competence (including judgment) and spirit.  Ultimately every established leader has his [her] own ideas about the art (and it is truly an art).  [The Servant-as-Leader, circa 1969, pp.10-11]

Gentle Reader, within these three short excerpts, Greenleaf offers us a variety of considerations for us to reflect upon.  I have found that engaging in personal reflection and a searching conversation with others to be most helpful to me in my searching.

My experience is that most of us know that preparing is crucial.  Greenleaf does not begin with ‘theory,’ however.  For him, preparing entails a process of growth through experience – trial and error, examining motivation, choices, actions-behavior, and exploring both intended and unintended consequences.  ‘Experience’ is crucial and, for me, experience plus reflection is the learning that is most impact-full.  A Question: How often do you, gentle reader, invest time in engaging in a reflective process (alone and/or with another) after an ‘experience’?

The ‘preparing process’ is guided by a self-image.  Not any self-image, but the self-image of a builder [Greenleaf consistently challenges servant-leaders to make sure that growth is a conscious commitment; the growth of the person, the relationship, the organization].  We also know that the clearer the image one holds the more likely one will live into the image – to move the image from the potential to the ‘concrete.’  Added to this is a need for a conceptual framework.  Not any framework, but a conceptual one (think: how many folks are good at emerging an operational framework and downplay or ignore a conceptual framework).  Not just any conceptual framework but one that supports the emergence of one’s strengths.  A Question: How often do we actually identify, assess and help develop more fully everyone’s strengths? 

How is the evolution of the leader in contrast with the training of the leader?  Training generally involves skill building and ‘tool-using’ while evolution is a generative process.  A generative process means that only over time, or through time, will one evolve into a leader. A generative process requires patience – a virtue that we Americans are not known for.  We all know that a person can be given the designated role of a leader and not be a leader.  If ‘evolution’ does not resonate with you, consider the process of ‘developing one’s capacities in order to become a leader.’  Personally, I favor a ‘developmental process’ rather than an ‘evolutionary process.’

What words come to your mind when you read Greenleaf’s ‘key words’ – the one’s I highlighted in bold italics? What words would you add? What words, if any, would you remove?  Why?   

  Do you believe that leadership is an art?  You might check out Max De Pree’s book, Leadership is an Art for one man’s idea that it is, indeed, an art (if this book resonates with you then you might also check out his second book: ‘Leadership Jazz’).       


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


The following excerpts are from an unpublished essay that Greenleaf wrote as a ‘result of discussions with students of the Harvard Business School (1960-1961).   The students participated in the Musser Seminars on Religion and Business.’  Greenleaf writes:

 …from time to time events…have caused me to stand aside and ask myself some searching questions such as: Who am I?  Where am I?  Why am I here, anyway? 

 Gentle Reader, what are some of the events in your life that have motivated you to stop, step-aside, and emerge a number of searching questions?  What were the searching questions that emerged into your consciousness?  I have held the three questions that Greenleaf emerged and here are two others that I have held: ‘Where am I going?’  ‘Why am I choosing to go there?’  (think: the path that my life is taking) 

 …the most important of all the lessons I have learned is that the emergence, the full development, of what is uniquely me should be an important concern throughout my entire life.  . . .  Regardless of the obligations that I assume or how hard pressed I am by circumstance, the development of what is uniquely me always claims a substantial share of my attention.  

 Gentle Reader, I am thinking of Gandhi’s counsel: ‘Become the change you want to see in the world.’  How much time and energy do we put into becoming the person that others want us to become?  When I was a young I had a friend who was, we all knew, called to be an electrical engineer – he was fixing peoples’ radios and television sets when he was 10 years old.  His parents wanted him to become a physician.  He entered premed-school and flunked out.  It took him another 8 years to embrace his passion and, thankfully, he finally did and became a superb electrical engineer.  Who are we called to become?  One way of thinking about this question is to identify our gifts-talents-abilities (those we have developed and those which lie dormant within us and need to be called forth and developed) and then work at discerning needs that exist in the world that you can use your gifts, etc. to help address. 

 Every life…is a blend of experiences that build up ego strength and those that tear it down.  As one’s responsibilities widen, these forces become more powerful.  I see maturity as the capacity to withstand the ego destroying experiences and not lose one’s perspective in the ego building experiences.

Gentle Reader, what have been (or are) some of your life experiences that have nurtured your ‘ego strength’ and what are some that have depleted your ‘ego strength’?  What support do you need that would help you embrace more of that which nurtures and sustains your ego strength?  What support do you need that would help you avoid choosing experiences that would deplete your ego strength?


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Greenleaf writes that: The trouble with coercive power is that it only strengthens resistance.  And, if successful, its controlling effect lasts only as long as the force is strong.  It is not organic.  Only persuasion and the consequent voluntary acceptance are organic.  Since both kinds of power have been around for a long time, an individual will be better off if he is close enough to raw coercion to know what it is.  One must be close to both the bitterness and goodness of life to be fully human.  The servant must be fully human.  . . . because of this [the servant] is dependable and trusted.  [The Servant as Leader, circa 1969, p.33].

I have seen young children resist more when a parent is attempting to exert coercive power.  I have also seen children resume the ‘old behavior’ once a parent has ‘left the scene’ and coercive power is no longer in play.  Most adults are more passive in their resistance and most also return to their ‘old ways’ once the coercive person ‘leaves the scene.’

Although organizations (think also: divisions, departments, and teams) are simply individuals and relationships writ large many continue to embrace inorganic metaphors (think: mechanical metaphors and banking metaphors).  People are dehumanized; they become ‘cogs’ or ‘assets’ or ‘commodities’ or ‘resources.’

One implication in what Greenleaf offers us is that in order to use coercive power one must engage in dehumanizing both one’s self and the one to be coerced.  We move from an organic ‘I-Thou’ relationship to at minimum an ‘I-It’ relationship and at maximum to an ‘It-It’ relationship.  I had not thought of this implication in this way before and yet, I can see both of these types of relationships [the ‘I-Thou’ and the ‘I-It’] as I sit here this morning in a coffee shop watching employees interacting with one another.

As I am thinking about this post I am aware of three questions that have emerged into my consciousness:  Why and when do I choose to dehumanize others?  What is my need that motivates me to dehumanize the other(s)?  Is it easier for me to coerce if I dehumanize the other(s)? 


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Greenleaf writes: The interest in and affection for his followers which a leader has, and it is a mark of true greatness when it is genuine, is clearly something the followers haven’t to deserve. . . deep down inside the great ones have an unqualified acceptance of those who go with their leadership. . . .Acceptance requires a tolerance of imperfection.  Anybody could lead perfect people. . . the ‘typical’ person. . . is capable of great dedication and heroism if he is wisely led. . . The secret of institution building is to be able to weld a team of such people by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be. . . . Men grow taller when they are accepted for what they are and are led by the ablest and strongest and ethically soundest people. (Ethical in the sense of being sensitive to what helps people grow taller and more autonomous and disposed to act on that knowledge.)  Leaders who fully accept those who go with them are more likely to be trusted. [The Servant as Leader, circa 1969, p. 18]

In this passage, Greenleaf offers us a number of ideas to consider: interest in, affection for the followers and these are freely given, they do not have to be earned.  In what ways might a servant-leader demonstrate/show interest in a follower?  In order for the ‘interest in’ to be efficacious must it be affirmed by the recipient (the message received is the message)?  To what extent should the follower define ‘interest in’?  Then, of course, as is his wont, Greenleaf ups the ante and adds, ‘affection for.’  When I consider this concept, ‘affection,’ I think of demonstrating empathy, compassion, mercy, caring and love (as a follower of Jesus-the-Christ I strive to adhere to his directive, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’).

Then there is the challenge for the leader to have an unqualified acceptance of the led; talk about a challenge for most of us. The challenge is to unconditionally accept the other as a fully human being.  In order to be able to do this the servant-leader must first be able to accept him/herself unconditionally – no easy task for most of us.  It is possible to unconditionally accept the other AND hold the other accountable.  I am thinking of the owner of a company who fired an executive who had been with him and the company for more than 20 years.  I can still see the pain that engulfed the owner as he struggled with the decision.

This is followed by an equally stretching challenge: a tolerance of imperfection.  Greenleaf reminds us that at our healthiest we are living paradoxes of good and evil (his words).  We are at our best imperfect beings.  A challenge is to define both tolerance and imperfection.  I am thinking of the CEO who told a project leader that he had just spent 20 million dollars educating him (rather than firing him for a, to say the least, big mistake).  The CEO followed up with: If you make this type of mistake again I will fire you. . . I will also fire you if you stop taking risks.  Now get out there, learn from this mistake and do your best work!  This project manager ended up becoming, twenty-five years later, the CEO and helped the organization successfully weather its greatest storm.

But Greenleaf doesn’t leave it simply with ‘tolerance;’ he says the genuine leader will lift people up so they can become greater than they believe they can. This leader is more likely to be trusted.  The story I just related to you is an excellent example of both – lifting people up and engendering trust in the servant-leader.  It seems to me that each of us is charged with seeking ways of lifting others up.  A trap here is that we might also help the other to become dependent upon us (how many leaders seek their followers to become dependent (think: becoming loyal to the leader rather than committed to the organization – there is, Gentle Reader, a difference between ‘being loyal’ and ‘being committed’).  Servant-leaders seek to be trust-builders, trust-repairers, trust-nurturers, and trust-sustainers.  They demonstrated being trust-worthy. 

 Coercion and manipulation in order to get compliance will work if the ingredients for these are in place; but if a leader wants to live into what Greenleaf offers above, then these two favorite leader tactics won’t work.  Implied in this is that the leader must know him/her self and must also come to know those who choose to follow.  It can quickly become over whelming for a leader to become aware of those who have placed their well-being and their trust in him/her and yet, as Greenleaf notes: Leaders who fully accept those who go with them are more likely to be trusted.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Greenleaf writes: Most of us at one time or another, some of us a good deal of the time, would really like to communicate, really get through to a significant level of meaning in the hearer’s experience.  It can be terribly important.  The best test of whether we are communicating at this depth is to ask ourselves, first, are we really listening?  Are we listening to the one we want to communicate to?  [The Servant as Leader, circa 1969 p. 16]

I remember marking this passage years ago.  I remember it because of Greenleaf’s ‘test.’  I expected, and I don’t think I am alone in this expectation, that he would offer something like this: ‘Are you clear in what you are saying?’ or ‘Is your message clear and concise?’ or something about being sure of the message you are delivering.  But, no.  Greenleaf offers that the best test is ‘are we really listening?’ 


I am the one delivering the message; the others should be trying to listen to me. Shouldn’t they?  No.  Greenleaf, once again, wants the speaker to ‘listen’ – in this case, to listen to the person who is receiving our message.

So I ask: What are the ways I might listen to the person who is supposed to be receiving my message? How can I listen in order to make sure that both of us understand; the listener understands me and I understand the listener?  

Greenleaf is clear.  Over and over and over again he counsels the servant (whether follower or leader – perhaps especially the leader) to listen, first.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


In Greenleaf’s seminal essay addressed to college/university student leaders [The Servant as Leader, circa 1969], he offers us the critical question.  What distinguishes the servant of others from the self-serving person?  

He responds as follows: Great injustice and destruction have been wrought by so-called ‘good’ people who presumed to be serving others.  The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those being served grow as persons; do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous while being served?  Since so many people seem afraid to grow the true servant-leader who brings it about is an extraordinary person.        

  NOTE: During the period between 1969 and 1980 Greenleaf expands upon this, his initial iteration of his ‘Best Test’.

I continue to find his critical question to be counter-cultural.  He does not focus on ‘leader’ but continues with his theme of ‘servant.’  At this point he is not interested in what sets leaders apart; he asks a more fundamental question.  It does not lead us to ‘what do leaders do or even to, what do servants do;’ it leads us to another question, for me a deeper more challenging question: ‘do those served grow as persons?’  This type of serving is not just any type of serving; it is the serving that directly promotes the growth of the one being served.  In what ways have you grown as a result of my serving you?  In what ways have I grown as a result of you serving me?  Greenleaf continues with more questions: ‘do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous while being served?’  Do they become physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually more healthy?  Do they become wiser – more informed, showing more good judgment, for example: Do they become freer?  What could this mean?  Do they become more autonomous – ‘individuation’ was a popular psychological concept in the mid-late 60s.  And all of this is to occur during the process, during the while being served.

This ‘best test’ is not only difficult to administer it is truly a challenge to live out.  How will I know?  How will you know?  Perhaps only by looking back; yet he says that we should know in the ‘present’ while the serving is occurring.  I don’t know.  I have found that on-going, depth conversations with others helps me to understand, if not to know the effect and affect of my serving upon you, NOW, in the PRESENT.

What comes to you as you reflect upon yourself as one who seeks to serve or as one who believes that you are serving?  What is the ‘best test’ you would use for yourself?

To what extent am I afraid to grow?  I have held this question for myself for decades; at times I am clear as to my fear and at other times I can sense, if not feel, the fear that resides within; a fear that is hidden in the mist of surety or denial or complacency.      



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


We convince by our presence. –Walt Whitman

This morning, Gentle Reader, I will conclude my reflections on Greenleaf’s quotations by briefly focusing on: Five concluding observations [Greenleaf’s original ‘inspired’ essay]:

  • True servant-leaders are artists in the true meaning of being open to chaos.
  • Not much that is really important can be accomplished with coercive power.
  • Nothing much happens without a dream. For something great to happen, there must be a great dream.
  • To refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral.
  • In the end, all that matters is love and friendship.

In 1994, I was told by the archivist that Greenleaf published 500 copies of his ‘original’ essay, ‘The Servant as Leader.’  He addressed his original essay to college-university student leaders.  Greenleaf then ‘edited’ this essay for the general public – today this edited version is referred to as ‘the little orange essay.’  I treasure his ‘original essay’ for I view it as the ‘inspired essay.’  The archivist also gave me a gift: a copy of Greenleaf’s original essay.

I continue after all of these years to be intellectually and emotionally moved by Greenleaf’s ‘Five concluding observations.’  Greenleaf literally ends his essay with these five observations.

True servant-leaders are artists in the true meaning of being open to chaos.  The implication: serving and leading are arts [Note Max de Pree’s wonderful book, ‘Leadership is an Art’ and Peter Vaill’s ‘Managing as a Performing Art’].  Leaders are charged with embracing two, often conflicting, positions: maintaining & experimenting.  One of the consequences of embracing both is that chaos, conflict, consternation, and confusion often appears (actually, these are positive signals that both are being equally embraced at the same time).  Gentle Reader, you might remember that my son, Nathan, is an artist, a ceramicist.  His studio is chaos in the flesh.  Yet, out of this chaos he will emerge wonder-full art.  The same holds true for leaders and, to up the ante, for servant-leaders.  What might happen to an organization and to a leader if they embrace and integrate an ‘art metaphor’ into their culture?

 Not much that is really important can be accomplished with coercive power.  Over time, at best, coercive power will result in compliance.  There might be some adaptation that occurs.  The likelihood that buy-in and emotional ownership will be embraced is almost nil.  There are times, of course, when compliance is called for and hence where coercion might be what is needed.  If the leader desires folks to adapt or to buy-in or, again to up the ante, to emotionally-own then coercion will not work.

Nothing much happens without a dream. For something great to happen, there must be a great dream.  We know this to be true.  If, Gentle Reader, you want to know what it takes to emerge, embrace and integrate a ‘great dream’ I invite you to learn about Walt Disney.  There are, of course, other organizations and individual leaders that you could learn about – one’s that will support Greenleaf’s conclusion.  I am thinking about Herman Miller, Toro, TDIndustries, Synovus Financial, ServiceMaster and Southwest Airlines.  I am thinking about Max de Pree, James Autry, Ken Melrose, William Turner, Jack Lowe, Sr. and Howard Schultz.

 To refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral.  I have addressed this ‘conclusion’ earlier and in many other posts.  Thousands of years ago ‘The Oracle’ counseled us: Know Thyself.  Socrates expanded this: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’  Greenleaf, one of many others, upped the ante: ‘To refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral.’  Our most powerful assumptions live and thrive deeply within our subconscious.  They are, therefore, not easy to emerge and name.  Nevertheless, they powerfully influence, if not directly impact and determine, our thinking, our choices and our actions.  They frame how we view the world and those who make up the/our world.  They have become our identity. Who wants to give up his/her identity?  As Greenleaf notes: Becoming aware of our assumptions is disturbing – one major reason we resist doing the work of emerging and naming them.

In the end, all that matters is love and friendship.  I have come to believe that Greenleaf is correct.  What about you, Gentle Reader. ‘In the end…’ what matters to you?

Become the change you want to see in the world. –Gandhi


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment