Greenleaf writes: Acceptance requires a tolerance of imperfection.  …Many otherwise able people are disqualified to lead because they cannot work with and through the half-people…  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.

Tolerance = the act or capacity to endure.  I have many conversations these past fifty-plus years with leaders and emerging leaders who found Greenleaf’s statement about ‘Acceptance requires a tolerance of imperfection’ to be a difficult one to embrace.  “Why would I want to tolerate imperfection?”  A common question among leaders.  One can rage all one wants against ‘imperfection’ and it won’t change reality: Each person is, by his or her nature as a human being, imperfect.  We humans are more likely to ‘stumble the mumble’ rather than ‘walk the talk.’ 

By the by, Gentle Reader, followers are all too frequently trapped by their need for the leader to ‘walk the talk’ and they, like the leader, find it difficult to accept that the leader is an imperfect human being and is more likely to ‘stumble the mumble. Peter Drucker provided the leader an out: ‘Help develop people’s strengths so their weaknesses become irrelevant.’  By the by, ‘their’ refers to the Leader and the Follower.  Appreciative Inquiry is rooted in this idea. 

These two ideas help the leader to ‘lift up’ those who follow so they ‘grow taller’ than they otherwise would grow.  The leader’s deep assumptions about people will powerfully impact both their tolerance of imperfection and their ability to help people ‘grow taller.’  Thus it is crucial that a leader emerge his or her deep assumptions about people and decide whether these deep assumptions serve them and those who follow. 

Greenleaf notes that the leader must always be accepting of the person while at the same time helping the person to develop his or her skills, abilities, talents and capacities more fully.  Always accept the person while judging the person’s behavior or work or follow-through.  Leaders who are not able to accept their own ‘imperfections’ will find it difficult, at best, to be tolerant of others’ imperfections.  Their own negative self-judgment blocks them (how can one possibly accept the other if one does not accept one’s self). 

The leader is obligated to discern what will help the follower ‘grow taller’ and then is obligated to help the follower grow.  Not all leaders have this ability for discernment AND this type of discernment is necessary if one is going to help others ‘grow taller.’  If I, as a leader, am not able to discern and/or I am not able to help the other ‘grow taller’ then what?  This is another challenge for the leader. 

I know of no one right answer to this question; I have known leaders who were aware of their own limitations when it came to both ‘discernment’ and to ‘helping others grow taller’ and a number of them found a way (through another person, mostly).  In order to do this the leader had to accept and tolerate his or her own imperfection and limitation(s).  No small task. 

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Greenleaf writes: …one cannot serve as one leads…without being a good listener.  …Listening begins with attention and the search for understanding, both the outward manifestation and the inward conviction of really searching to understand.  This must be communicated by the way one attends and the way one responds. 

Greenleaf also asks: ‘Why is there so little listening?’  Not only are leaders poor listeners, too often they do not strive to listen at all.  It is my experience that by the time we are four years old we have developed the ability to discern when another is listening to us and when they are not (think: when they are faking it).  I cannot begin to count the number of designated leaders that I have known these past 55+ years who were either poor listeners or who prided themselves on not having to listen.  There are also those leaders who believe that they are good listeners and they are not (I do not think that this number is small).  There are also leaders who strive to improve their listening skills, abilities and capacities (a smaller number, I think).  Because designated leaders are imperfect human beings each one can develop his or her listening skills, abilities and capacities more fully. 

An excellent listener demonstrates certain characteristics.  First, he or she is ‘present’ – the person is awake, aware, intentional, and purpose-full in the ‘now’ (How many leaders are not in the ‘now’ but are in the ‘know’ and hence are not motivated to listen well, if at all?).  Anyone who has been with a person who has been ‘present’ to them knows of what I speak.  Second, the person seeks to listen with what I call undefended receptivity – one attitude the person holds is that he or she might well be influenced by what one hears (this is no small feat for some; it is especially difficult for the leader who is ‘sure’ or who is in the ‘know’).  The person does not ‘defend’ him or herself (often this ‘defense’ occurs internally and at times it manifests itself externally). 

Third, the person who is listening, as Greenleaf notes, seeks to ‘understand’ first.  This type of seeking begins, as Greenleaf often notes, ‘in here’ inside of the person and this internal position is manifested externally.  My hunch is that you, Gentle Reader, have experienced a leader giving lip-service to ‘understanding’ while holding an inner attitude that hinders or blocks the search for understanding.  This leader is not only disingenuous, this leader is sowing the seeds of distrust if not cynicism in the other(s).

Fourth, but not necessarily ‘finally,’ the person who is listening communicates his or her ‘understanding’ to the other(s); the leader seeks to have his or her understanding confirmed or disconfirmed by the other(s).  If the leader’s understanding is confirmed they can move forward and if the leader’s understanding is disconfirmed then a search for clarity of understanding continues.

There are a number of ‘traps’ that can snag both the leader and the other(s).  A common trap is one that any parent of a child older than four or five will know well (it is also a common trap that the leader probably set for his or her parents).  The trap: equating ‘understanding’ with ‘acceptance’ or ‘agreement.’  The not-so-subtle implication is: If you understood me you would agree with me or you would do what I want you to do or you would let me do what I want to do!  I cannot begin to count the number of times I said to one or the other of my two children: ‘I do understand AND you cannot do…’  The leader might well receive this response from the other(s): ‘If you really understood me then you would…’  

Now, gentle reader, if you really understand what I have just communicated to you then you will choose to develop or develop more fully your capacity to listen intently and receptively in order to understand, first – ‘understanding does equal agreement and acceptance’ doesn’t it?    

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Greenleaf writes: Every achievement starts with a goal…  The starter of the goal must elicit trust, especially if it is a high risk or visionary goal, because those who follow must accept the risk along with the leader.  Direction, a goal, from a leader does not elicit trust unless one has confidence in his values and his competence (including judgment) and unless he has a sustaining spirit (entheos) that will support the tenacious pursuit of that goal. 

As important as goals are as the base point of leadership, the faltering of leadership today is not so much for want of goals as for the lack of trust because the evidence of values, competence and spirit is lacking.  …People rightly want to know: Can I trust you?

I have learned that those who freely choose to follow a leader do so because they trust the leader.  I also know that people follow because they are coerced or manipulated to follow.  Do they then truly ‘freely choose to follow’

How does a leader ‘elicit trust’?  Greenleaf provides us with some ingredients: the potential follower ‘has confidence’ in the leader’s values.  ‘Confidence’ means that the potential follower believes that the leader is reliable and is worthy of one’s trust.  A ‘Value’ is a quality that is desirable as a means or as an end. 

The potential follower must know and understand certain values that the leader espouses AND has integrated.  The most powerful values are the leader’s ‘core values’ – those values that to the best ability of the leader are never compromised (because the leader is an imperfect human being he or she will, at some point, compromise a core value – then repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing are needed in order to rebuild trust).  ‘Consistency’ not ‘Perfection’ is what the potential follower notes. 

The leader’s values do not have to be rooted in ‘virtue’ they can be rooted in ‘vice.’  Hitler elicited the confidence of potential followers because he communicated that he was worthy of their trust (those who did not believe he was worthy of such trust suffered, as we know and many freely chose to follow him). 

‘Confidence’ in the leader’s values is not enough.  The potential follower must also trust the leader’s competence.  ‘Competence’ means that the leader demonstrates suitable and sufficient skill, knowledge, and capacity rooted in lived experience – this includes the leader’s ‘judgment.’  (For example, during WWII the foot soldier had more confidence in the veteran NCOs than they did in many of their officers – they trusted their skills, knowledge, capacities, and judgment).

The leader also needs to demonstrate that he or she has a ‘sustaining spirit’ (which Greenleaf calls ‘entheos’).  For the potential follower it becomes clear as to the spirit that sustains the leader.  In my conversations with followers and with leaders I have learned that they have some sense of the spirit that sustains the leader and many can provide more concrete terms for what ‘spirit’ means to them (think: courage, tenacity, commitment, self-sacrifice, example, etc.). 

Greenleaf noted that ‘the lack of trust’ was responsible for the ‘faltering leadership’ when he wrote these words (the late 1960s).  Today, are we, as a country for example, more trusting of our elected leaders or are we less trusting?   Last year, as I listened to those seeking our vote, I heard a common theme: ‘You cannot trust any of the other candidates; you can, however, trust me!’ 

What are the criteria we potential followers employ in order to determine whether one or more of these folks is truly worthy of our trust?  My hunch is that we do not employ Greenleaf’s criteria; instead we, too often it seems to me, use ‘emotion’ to define whether one or more of these folks is trustworthy. 

Today we will have a new President.  Will we be able to commit ourselves to engaging in a healing process?  Do we really want to ‘heal’?  I pray we do.  I also believe that the person ‘we the people’ elected will strive to lead us into healing.  The question I hold: How many of us will choose to follow? 

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During my morning meditation one of Greenleaf’s quotes emerged into my consciousness – it is the last quotation in this entry.  Later, as I was putting finger to key I decided to offer us some quotes from Greenleaf.  For more than forty-five years these quotes continue to stretch my thinking, to challenge me, and sustain me along the way.  Perhaps, gentle reader, one or more of these will also stretch your thinking, challenge you or sustain you as you travel along. 

“Manage your lives. . .with attitudes and values and ways of initiating. . .that will assure service with distinction.”

“Responsibility requires that a person think, speak and act if personally accountable to all who may be affected by his or her thoughts, words and deeds.  Awareness is important.  Is my sense of responsibility growing, deepening becoming sharper and more insistent?”

“The forces for good and evil in the world are propelled by the thoughts, attitudes, and actions of individual beings.”

“Pacing oneself by appropriate withdrawal is one of the best approaches to making optimal use of one’s resources.  The servant as leader must constantly ask himself, how can I use myself to serve best?” 

“Why is there so little listening?”

“In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?”

Greenleaf offered us five observations:

  • “True servant-leaders are artists in the deep 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”

ROBERT K. GREELEAF, Journal, August 31, 1940:  “The rewards of living a full life may be measured in joyous moments rather than in days or years. . .The moments nobly lived, challenges met, the truth spoken, the slur turned aside, the tumult quelled, the helping hand extended, and the simple expression of gratitude, the burden borne; meeting life and feeling the response of living – taking responsibility prudently, if possible, but taking it and leaving it joyfully once taken.”

“Not much thought seems to be given to the problem of where the new seed will come from or who the gardener to tend them will be.”

“Awareness is not a giver of solace – it is just the opposite.  It is a disturber and an awakener.”

“Love is all there is.”

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Greenleaf writes: A mark of a leader, an attribute that puts him in a position to show the way for others, is that he is better than most at pointing the direction. As long as he is leading, he always has a goal. It may be a goal arrived at by group consensus; or the leader, acting on inspiration, may simply have said, “let’s go this way.” But the leader always knows what it is and can articulate it for any who are unsure. But clearly stating and restating the goal the leader gives certainty and purpose to others who may have difficulty in achieving it for themselves.

How does the leader discern ‘the direction’? Greenleaf suggests two ways. One is via ‘consensus’ and the other is via ‘inspiration.’ I find both to be quite intriguing. Greenleaf was a Quaker and so his concept of ‘consensus’ is rooted in the Quaker concept of ‘consensus.’ Today, it seems as if there are a number of definitions of ‘consensus.’ Some equate it with a ‘super-majority’ (8 of 10 folks support the idea and this equates, for them, to having reached a ‘consensus’); some equate it with an ‘agreement’ that all commit to supporting the ‘direction’ even though one or more would not choose this (in order for this to work all voices must be heard, understood and considered and each participant has the ‘power’ to say ‘no’ and stop the process if the person’s ‘no’ is rooted in a moral or ethical ‘no’) – there are probably some others but these two will suffice for now.  

In theory, when it comes to ‘seeking consensus,’ the ‘direction’ – the ‘goal’ – emerges from the wisdom of the collective. I have known a few leaders who have engaged a group in a ‘consensus’ process in order to emerge ‘the direction’ but this does not seem to be a common process. A major hindrance to engaging this process involves a combination of time and energy. How many leaders and leadership teams are willing to invest the time and energy required to reach a consensus? In my experience, not many.  

On the other hand, ‘Inspiration’ is also not a process that, in my experience, many leaders would ‘own’ for it feels too ‘soft’ or too ‘undisciplined’ or too ‘new age-like.’ On the other hand – What is ‘Inspiration?’ ‘Inspiration’ is commonly defined as: ‘the process of being mentally stimulated to do something.’ Given this definition, however, it seems as if it is common for leaders to emerge a ‘direction’ rooted in inspiration (although they might not label it as ‘inspiration’).  

Whether emerged by consensus or by inspiration, the leader will invite others to go with him or her: ‘Let’s go this way!’ Greenleaf then notes that the leader has another obligation. The leader clearly articulates the direction/goal – over and over and over. This continuous articulation provides ‘certainty’ (think: This is for real, folks!) and ‘purpose’ (folks, one reason we exist is to seek together to achieve/reach this goal). The leader knows that it will take the commitment of the ‘whole’ in order to keep the focus and stay the course. No one person can do this on his or her own YET, one person can hinder or even block the effort.

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