Do those served grow as persons…-Robert K. Greenleaf

An Essential for Greenleaf is an ‘organic metaphor.’  People are fully human beings.  They are, also, at their best living paradoxes of good evil (Greenleaf’s words; others use ‘virtue & vice,’ or ‘light & darkness,’ or ‘light & shadow’).  Institutions are also organic; they are simply individuals and relationships writ large.  Greenleaf’s organic metaphor is also counter-cultural for our Culture’s major metaphor these past 50+ years has been – continues to be – a ‘Banking Metaphor.’  What does this mean?   For example, people are not fully human, they are assets, commodities and resources to be used and used up.  If these do not provide a ‘return on investment’ they are then ‘traded’ or ‘cashed in.’

[AN ASIDE: By the by, gentle reader, in our Culture the Mechanical and War Metaphors are still deeply imbedded in our organizations.  For example, with an organic metaphor an institution will engage in ‘developmental planning’ and with a war metaphor an institution will engage in ‘strategic planning’.]

Speaking of ‘paradoxes.’  Greenleaf offers us his seminal paradox: Servant-Leader.  A paradox is a seeming contradiction.  It is rooted in ‘both-and’ not ‘either-or.’  This paradox is also counter-cultural for in our Culture we are enamored with the concept ‘Leader’ and we have integrated a negative view of ‘servant.’  Greenleaf was clear that he choose this paradox on purpose; he also choose to have ‘servant’ be the major tap root that nurtures and sustains the person at his or her core.  ‘Leader’ is a role that will go away – or be taken away.  ‘Servant’ is who one is at one’s core; it cannot be ‘taken away’ and yet it can be ‘given up’ by the person.  For Greenleaf the emphasis is always on ‘servant-first.’

Greenleaf’s concept of the servant-leader is inherently ethical-moral.  The servant-leader and servant-follower seek to be in a relationship rooted in trust, in mutual support and in mutual accountability.  ‘Leadership’ then is a by-product of the relationship between the servant-leader and the servant-follower.  If the relationship is ‘strong’ then leadership will be ‘strong.’  If the relationship is dysfunctional then leadership will also become dysfunctional.  BOTH are accountable; both are unconditionally response-able and responsible.  This is also a counter-cultural view-position.

Greenleaf is also clear, it is Essential that the servant always begins ‘in here’ and not ‘out there.’  This makes sense because Greenleaf’s concept is ‘being precedes doing’ and the servant is who one is at one’s core.  Given this, the ‘first move’ is to look inward.  Consider, if the institution is also ‘servant-first’ then the institution’s first move is also to look inward (Think: What are our core values, core guiding principles and what is our Purpose, our Vision and our Mission?).

The servant-first is ‘agent-centered + relation-centered + act-focused.’  Traditionally, leadership is ‘act-centered’ – What does the leader do?  Greenleaf begins with the ‘Who’, as in, ‘Who you are will determine how you will lead and what you will choose to do, especially when the pressure is on.’

Responsibility requires that a person think, speak and act as if personally accountable to all who may be affected by his or her words, thoughts, and deeds. . .Awareness is important. –Robert K. Greenleaf





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Responsible people build; they do not destroy. They are moved by the heart. – Robert K. Greenleaf

For more than 40 years now folks have been asking me: ‘What are the Essentials of Servant-Leadership?’  This, I think, is a common question that all who espouse to embrace Greenleaf’s concept are gifted with.

My experience is that what we deem to be the Essentials depends upon the person.  I have never seen a list that everyone agrees with.  Given that – Here is my list.  Gentle Reader, I invite you to consider my list and, if you have not already done so, I invite you to emerge your own list.

Greenleaf was a practical man. He was rooted in ‘practice.’  He was also a ‘reflective’ man. My belief is that he would agree with Charles Handy that Experience plus Reflection is the Learning.  Greenleaf’s ‘concept’ of the Servant-Leader emerged into his consciousness as a result of his being practical AND reflective.  It is essential to remember that Servant-Leadership moved from ‘Practice to Concept;’ it did not move from ‘Concept to Practice.’

Greenleaf was also a self-proclaimed ‘Gradualist.’  He believed that it would take a generation or two for his concept to become a ‘wave’ (if, indeed it would ever become a ‘wave’).  He was correct.  The Servant-Leadership ‘Wave’ began to form in the early 90s, more than a generation after Greenleaf first wrote and published his seminal essay, The Servant as Leader.  So, an Essential element of Servant-Leadership is that it is rooted in Gradualism; transformation occurs incrementally and generationally.

Greenleaf’s writings are a blend of the ‘Practical’ and the ‘Conceptual’ and the ‘Philosophical.’  It is helpful to remember that Greenleaf’s first ‘center’ was The Center for Applied Ethics.  Applied Ethics combines the practical, the conceptual and the philosophical.  All three are required – they are Essential.

In addition to being a combination of ‘Practice-Concept-Philosophy’ Servant-Leadership also espouses a certain ‘attitude’ – a serving attitude.  It is, therefore, Essential to note and remember that Servant-Leadership is a way of being in the world.  This Being precedes and supports-nurtures the Doing.  The Doing also supports, reinforces and affirms-confirms the Being (Think: Servant-First).  This Way of Being (Servant-First), then, is also a Guiding Principle.

As a Way of Being and as a Guiding Principle, Servant-Leadership is then Counter-Cultural.  It is Essential that we continue to understand this.  Our Culture is ‘leader-focused’ and the idea that one might choose to be ‘servant-first’ cuts against our Cultural grain.  Even those who espouse to embrace Greenleaf’s concept too often emphasize ‘leader’ rather than ‘servant-first.’

It is also Essential to remember that the servant-first and servant-first leader is motivated by caring.  The servant-first person/institution is called to serve/care so that those served – individuals, institutions and the society – become more caring, more loving and more just.

We convince by our presence. –Walt Whitman

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My 14th of February, 2018 posting focused on Greenleaf’s ‘Life’s Choices as Markers.’  This morning I am inviting you, gentle reader, to stop, step-back, take some time and reflect upon the following questions.  The questions emerged for me many years ago when I first read Greenleaf’s essay, ‘Life’s Choices as Markers.’


  • What was one choice you made in your life that has deeply affected the person you are today?
  • Who was a person that called forth gifts-talents-abilities that you did not know you possessed?
  • What did he/she call forth?
  • How have you developed these or developed them more fully in your life?
  • In what ways have these made a difference in your life?
  • In what ways have these made a difference in others’ lives?
  • When have you served another by calling forth gifts-talents-abilities that this person did not know he/she possessed?
  • Recalling the person who served you by ‘calling forth’ what you were not aware of. respond to this final question: ‘When and how did you thank him/her?’

…manage your lives with attitudes and values and ways of initiating that will assure service with distinction. –Robert K. Greenleaf


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A few days ago I had the privilege of enjoying a long conversation with Jack.  Jack is the head of the humanities department at a community college.  A few hours after our conversation I began to think about Greenleaf’s essay, Liberal Arts Education and the World of Work.

Greenleaf quotes a college president: The grand design of education is to excite, rather than pretend to satisfy, an ardent thirst for information; and to enlarge the capacity of the mind, rather than to store it with knowledge, however useful.

Greenleaf then writes: My own inclination would be to state the goal in more operational terms: to prepare students to serve, and be served by, the present society.  By this I mean that a college…will influence its students to be a more constructive building force in society, and do this in a way that helps them find their own legitimate needs, psychic and material, better served.

Back in my day almost all college/university freshmen were required to take mostly liberal arts classes.  This continued for many into the first semester of their sophomore year.  Beginning with the second semester of their sophomore year students could then ‘declare a major’ and thus begin to focus their studies in one or two ‘major’ areas – science, math, law, medicine, literature, philosophy, etc.  Even then each student was still required to take a ‘humanities’ or ‘general studies’ elective each semester.

Today, it seems, that almost all colleges and universities allow students to begin to specialize beginning their freshmen year.  Those not choosing a ‘liberal arts’ degree are no longer required to immerse themselves in the ‘humanities.’

A major purpose of the ‘humanities’ is to help the student develop more fully as a ‘human’ being.  This development is crucial.  There are many reasons why our human development is crucial.

If we are going to develop societies that are more just and more caring (Greenleaf’s ‘Big Dream’) then each of us must develop and develop more fully the five dimensions that define who we are as human beings.  We are to develop more fully our Physical Dimension, our Intellectual Dimension, our Emotional Dimension, our Spirit(ual) Dimension, and our Social Dimension (Think: Relationships) – our P.I.E.S.S.

The Humanities helps us with our human development – with the development of our P.I.E.S.S.  The Humanities also helps us live into what the college President called the grand design of education.  The Humanities helps excite and enlarge our intellect.  They help us engage, address and struggle with what I call ‘Essential Life Questions’: Who am I?  Who am I choosing to become?  Why am I choosing this becoming?  Why am I here?  Where am I choosing to go?  Why am I choosing to go there? 

These ‘Essential Life Questions’ help us engage, address and struggle with two additional life questions: Does the way I choose to live get me what I want?  What do I want?  We focus on the second question first.  Given our response to the second question we can then begin to engage the first question.

Albert Einstein offers us this to consider: Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist.  They are wrong: it is Character!

I leave us today with the words of one of Greenleaf’s friends, Abraham Joshua Heschel:  Know that every deed counts, that every word is power…above all, remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art.

The Humanities, the Liberal Arts, help us live into and out of Einstein’s and Heschel’s words.

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…manage your lives with attitudes and values and ways of initiating that will assure service with distinction. –Robert K. Greenleaf

Among other attributes, Greenleaf was a person who sought to be mindful, intentional & purpose-full.  He was a person who understood the value & importance of ‘Choice.’  He knew that in order to exercise ‘choice’ – to choose wisely – one had to be fully present, one had to be awake, aware, intentional and purpose-full.  One also had to become a full reflective-participant-observer in one’s life – he or she had to be open to and committed to seeking to understand in order to be open to learning.

Greenleaf was a person who was aware of ‘Life’s Choices as Markers.’  How often, gentle reader, do we (you and I) identify, pay attention to and learn from our ‘Life Choices’ so that some of them can, indeed, become ‘Markers’ for us?

Greenleaf identified five persons who deeply affected his ‘Life Choices’ – they became ‘Markers’ for him.  Here are Greenleaf’s ‘five’:

  • His father, George Washington Greenleaf. Greenleaf noted that his father showed him, by his behavior. The importance of and the power of listening, first.  He showed young Robert, again by his behavior, that it is important – crucial – to invite and honor all voices and to pay attention to what was said, not said, and what was emerging from within one’s self as one listened.
  • A College Professor, Oscar Helming, helped Greenleaf by emphasizing the need for one to Discern (one’s path), to Commit (‘Commitment’ became a major theme in Greenleaf’s life and in his concept), to embrace a Generational View (Greenleaf was a gradualist and believed that the seeds sown might take generations of nurturing in order to come to flower), and Helming stressed the value and importance of ‘Influence’ (Greenleaf found that if he could find his places of ‘influence’ at AT&T that over-time – generationally – he could make a difference; it was influence not authority-power that Greenleaf sought).
  • The author, E.B. White, via his writing, taught Greenleaf the importance of Seeing Things Whole (today we call this ‘systems thinking’).
  • Greenleaf’s wife, Esther Hargrave Greenleaf, taught him about what it means to love, what it means to be awake & aware & learn and not to be full of yourself.
  • The radio Commentator, Elmer Davis, via his radio broadcasts, helped Greenleaf understand the value & importance of planning without being attached to the plan [Gentle reader, if you ‘google, Elmer Davis you will find a youtube video or two of Elmer broadcasting/speaking].

Gentle reader, who are the people who have touched you so deeply that you are, because of them, the person you are today?  What are some of your ‘life-markers’ and ‘life-choices’ that have also powerfully influenced, if not directly determined, who you are today?



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Consider, gentle reader, that Servant-Leadership is concerned with the Difficult things for Leaders to do.  For more than 30 years I have been keep a list of the Difficult things for them to do.  As I continued to emerge a list I noticed that there were some common themes.  Following ae the top five – these five have been identified by leaders as the most Difficult things for them to do.

  • Return love for hate
  • Include the excluded
  • Admitting that ‘I’ am wrong – seeking forgiveness and then reconciling
  • Offer forgiveness & seek healing & reconciliation (includes self-forgiveness)
  • Being Vulnerable (being transparent & ‘carrying the wound gracefully’) [Vulnerable comes from the Latin root ‘Vulnus’ which means: to carry the wound with grace]

Servant-Leadership is concerned with ‘correcting errors’.  An ‘Error,’ in this case, is the gap that exists between what I-We espouse and what I-We ‘live out’ – some of these ‘gaps’ are actually ‘chasms’ or even ‘grand canyons.’  Because we are imperfect beings these gaps will always occur and hence will always require our identifying them and then investing our time, energy, skills, and resources, etc. so we can diminish the gaps, if not close them.

Finally, for this seven part series, Servant-Leadership is concerned with Choice.  Consider the following Choices:

  • Choosing to be awake and aware (and as Greenleaf noted, to then, choose to be disturbed)
  • Choosing to be motivated by… (choosing to become aware of what motivates us and why – for example, am I-You-We motivated by fear, love, care, control, anxiety, certain virtues and certain vices)
  • Choosing to be unconditionally response-able & appropriately reactive (NOT choosing unconditional blame)
  • Choosing to serve so that I-You-We ‘Grow’ (think: P.I.E.S.S.) & develop or develop more fully our capacities
  • Choosing to be fully human – to be living paradoxes (Greenleaf notes that at our healthiest we are living paradoxes of ‘good and evil’; some find these concepts too disturbing to consider so they choose other combinations like: virtue-vice or light-darkness or light-shadow
  • Choosing to act at all times with intentionality and purpose (this requires us to be awake, aware and fully present in the ‘now’)
  • Choosing to be a ‘reflective-participant-observer’ in one’s own life (all organized groups of two or more folks can also choose this) – Reflection + Observation + Experience opens the pathway to learning

Well, gentle reader, there you have it.  ‘My Rationale’ for choosing to embrace and integrate Greenleaf’s concept of Servant and Servant-Leadership into my being.

In closing, I leave you, gentle reader, with a question: What is your rationale for what you have embraced and integrated into your own being? 

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Consider, gentle reader, that Servant Leadership is concerned with certain Disciplines that we are called to develop, integrate and enact.  Aristotle noted that we become our habits.  Our Disciplines become habitual.  Here is a short-list of the Disciplines that Greenleaf speaks to in his writings:

  • Being Present = being fully present in the ‘now.’ How often are we present physically but not emotionally or intellectually?
  • Listening = When confronted with a challenge (think: paradox, problem, polarity or dilemma) the servant-first leader always, Greenleaf notes, listens first. The servant-leader listens first in order to seek to understand.
  • Inquiry = The servant-leader supports his or her Being Present and his or her commitment to Listen-first via the Discipline of Inquiry. I have yet to meet a servant-leader (or any leader) who cannot benefit from developing more fully their skill and capacity for Inquiry.
  • Balancing ‘Being Faithful’ with ‘Being Effective and Efficient’ = The question of course: What must a servant-leader be faithful to even if he or she might not be effective or efficient? This question must also be held by teams (or departments or divisions or organizations).  One ‘obvious’ response: The servant-leader must be faithful to his or her integrity.  To the best of the servant-leader’s ability he or she will never compromise his or her integrity.  Put another way, individuals and organized groups choose servant-leadership because for them this is the ‘right way to be in the world.’  It becomes a major, if not ‘the’ major, tap root that sustains them during the tough times.
  • Being Vulnerable = The servant-leader takes risks, seeks to be ‘transparent,’ opens oneself up to criticism, and, perhaps most importantly, seeks to ‘carry the wounds delivered’ with grace. ‘Vulnerable’ comes from the Latin ‘vulnus’ and ‘vulnus’ means to carry the wound with grace.
  • Caring-Loving = Greenleaf’s big dream and big challenge for the servant-leader and servant-organization is to serve so that our society becomes more just, caring-loving.

Servant-Leadership is also concerned with what I call Essential Life Agreements.  Again, the individual servant-first and all organized groups of two or more (think: team, department, division and organization) have integrated into their ‘being’ Essential Life Agreements.  It might take some time and effort for the servant-first to raise these to a conscious level – and decide which ones to keep and which ones to let go of and replace.

As an example, here are my Essential Life Agreements (as an imperfect human being I continue to strive to live into and out of these with more consistency).  I invite you, gentle reader, to emerge your own.

Richard’s Essential Life-Agreements

  • Speak rooted in Integrity
  • Listen with Undefended Receptivity
  • Inquire from a place of Trust and Not Knowing
  • Act from a Core of Deep Love


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