Nosce te Ipsum: Know Thyself. –The Oracle

Greenleaf’s Legacy: Consciousness, Character, Conduct.

Unlike most theories of leadership, Greenleaf does not begin with Conduct.  He begins with two major tap roots that feed, nurture and support Conduct; he begins with Consciousness & Character.

Consciousness & Character form, inform and guide – and at times directly determine – one’s Conduct.  These tap roots determine what I will choose to do, or not do.  They will determine to what extent I choose to be responsive or reactive and whether I will do so appropriately or inappropriately.  They will also determine whether I will choose to be unconditionally response-able and responsible.

Greenleaf’s good friend, the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel noted that ‘Few are guilty but all are responsible.’  A ‘wake-up’ statement if there ever was one.  [AN ASIDE: Gentle Reader, if you have never read Heschel’s writings I invite you to check them out.  If you read Heschel you might discern how he influenced Greenleaf’s thinking.]

The servant-person (think: individual, leader, trustee, teacher, ‘minister’) and the servant-institution (think: any organized group…including boards of directors) are entrusted with the care and development of individuals and of all organized groups – including society (today Greenleaf might well add the ‘Global Community’).

Put simply: The servant-person and the servant-institution are charged with serving others’ highest priority needs.  They are charged with living into and out of the servant’s Best Test.  They are charged with serving the society in ways that enable the society to become more just, caring and loving.

In order to ‘conduct’ themselves in these ways, the servant-person and the servant-institution must choose to be awake and aware (Consciousness) now.  For Greenleaf ‘now’ has two meanings.  One involves a period of time, say from today to six months ago and from today to six months out.  The other involves a period of time that involves a few minutes of ‘now’ – at this time.

Being Conscious means being fully present ‘now’ – one brings all of one’s self to the ‘now.’  Being Conscious also means being awake and aware to what is emerging from within oneself and to being aware of what is emerging from within the other(s) and to being aware of what is emerging or of what already exists within the environment (the near environment but also the wider, even global, environment).

Greenleaf is clear: This type of awareness does not bring comfort or solace.  This type of awareness brings disturbance.  [AN ASIDE: Gentle Reader is you are not familiar with Anthony de Mello’s powerful book, Awareness, I invite you to check it out.]  For example, one will become aware of the injustice that exists within an organized group (because all groups are composed of imperfect human beings injustice will exist; being aware helps reveal the extent of the injustice and this awareness will be disturbing to the servant).

In addition to being conscious of who one is, the servant is also charged with being conscious of what he or she chooses – and why.  For example, here are a few guiding questions: Who am I? Who am I choosing to become?  Why am I choosing this becoming?  When is my serving potentially immoral? 

Greenleaf emphasizes Being & Doing.  I also invite you, Gentle Reader, to explore the concepts of Being & Having (this is crucial for our Culture of Having and Consuming).  I invite you, Gentle Reader, to spend time with Erich Fromm’s powerful book: To Have or To Be?

There are three things extremely hard…steel, a diamond and to know one’s self. –Benjamin Franklin


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Oh, would that my mind could let fall its dead ideas, as the tree does it withered leaves! –Andrè Gide

In early 2012 when I decided to write and post I took some time to emerge a guiding statement.  The statement that emerged into my consciousness is the one that appears at the top of this blog: A tribute to Robert K. Greenleaf’s Legacy: Consciousness, Character, Conduct.  For me, these three concepts capture Greenleaf’s Legacy.

In his writings, Greenleaf is clear.  His primary focus was on the servant theme.  The servant, for Greenleaf, was not a role; the ‘leader’ is a role that can and will go away.  For Greenleaf, the servant is who one is at one’s core.  The leader, whether by situation or role, is rooted in ‘doing.’  The servant is rooted in ‘being’ – who one is at one’s core.  This ‘being’ cannot be taken away; it can, however, be ‘given up’ or ‘transformed’ by the person.

As is his wont, Greenleaf ups the challenge.  Greenleaf views any organized group as an organic, not inorganic (think: mechanical), living organism.  Hence, as a living organism it is capable of developing (becoming more complex and of a higher order – we call this evolution or at the extreme, transformation).  Thus, the ‘Institution’ can also become a ‘servant’ – at the ‘core of its being’ the institution can also become a servant, first.

Greenleaf was, and continues to be, counter-cultural.  We in the West are rooted in the mechanical metaphor (thanks to the Industrial Revolution).   We had expanded this metaphor and in the 1920s we added – and eventually embedded into our consciousness – another metaphor: The Banking Metaphor.

So, today, if one were to pay attention to our word choice we hear people referred to as ‘cogs’ (a term still popular) but more likely they will be referred to as: resources, assets, or commodities.  When they lose their value they are cashed in or traded.  As a Culture of consumers our institutions, more so today than ever before, consume their resources, assets, and commodities.

Greenleaf offers us, in addition to servant, two other metaphors: Community and Garden (again, living, developing, organic systems).

By the by, in our Culture, we have also added – actually combined – two additional metaphors: sports & war.  We freely interchange these two metaphors – which is scary in itself.  During the First Gulf War, the General who spoke to us every day, via television and radio, employed a ‘sports metaphor’ to describe the war.  We, for the most part, did not question his choice for we knew what he was talking about (war was a sport).  As a contrast, in Indiana at the same time we had a famous basketball coach who was called ‘The General’ and when he talked about a game he used ‘war words’ and, again, we all knew what he was talking about: ‘Sports is War!’  The implications seem to elude us, even today.

Because Greenleaf’s concept is organic, developmental, evolutionary, and transformative it is crucial for us who want to understand and embrace his concept to understand his ‘Legacy’: Consciousness, Character, Conduct.

Our life is what our thoughts make it. –Marcus Aurelius

Here is one of my favorite photos of Greenleaf.

Robert K. Greenleaf


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Greenleaf writes:

If seminaries would first create Centers for the Study of a Theology of Institutions, and then establish an Institute of Chairing, they could begin by convening seminar groups of existing chairpersons in order that the ‘state of the art’ of contemporary chairing could be assessed. 

 With this perspective (and a little inventiveness) courses for current chairpersons or newly appointed ones could be established, in seminaries.  With this resource of experience, gradually to expand the content of these courses until enough is learned about what contemporary chairing might be to begin to formulate a theology of chairing. 

 From this knowledge base, it may then be possible to move to seminars for undergraduates and graduate students on the leadership opportunities in chairing so that a vision of a better society might begin to be shared with young people in their formative years. 

 With this involvement, seminaries might begin to attract the quality of students who, as later pastor-leaders, will help bring churches into a more vital culture-shaping role.

 What is envisioned here is not just a stirring of the waters, a new fad that will soon be replaced by a newer fad, but the start of movement toward a profound change for the better in the structure of society in which trustees and directors emerge as people of great strength and influence as originators and purveyors of visions that give direction and purpose to our legions of institutions.

 …the chair of these processes will be seen as one of the leaders in shaping the future course of our economy and our culture.  The consummation of these achievements will be slow and deliberate.  Only the start is suggested here.

 The spirit nurturing of trustees and chairpersons may come to be a major mission for churches, supported by seminaries that may become important conceptual resources for the advancement of our civilization. . . .

 An overriding vision for seminaries may be reaching for the opportunity to become what the root meaning of their name implies: seminal, the place of all places from which seminal ideas emerge.  When seminaries become oriented to seminal ideas, a core concern may come to be grappling with the means for building greatness in both people and institutions as the focus of a long sustained effort that would establish seminaries as the prime generators of visions in a vision-starved society.  Gradualism at its best.



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Greenleaf writes:

In concluding… I want to suggest a difficult but feasible first step that could provide a solid basis for hope.  If a first step is taken prudently it may open the way for next steps in the long slow movement toward a society that is more caring and less power-ridden.

The first step suggested is toward a strong visionary leadership in those who chair the trustees of our legions of institutions.  It is to establish institutions of Chairing in seminaries.  Why seminaries?  …if seminaries were strong institutions today and carrying effectively the vital culture-shaping role they are best positioned to carry, the proposal being made here would not be needed.  The proposal made here is for seminaries to make the effort to become strong as a first step.

 AN ASIDE: Being ‘effective’ is crucial; as is being ‘efficient.’  However, there is a third ‘Being’ that is just as crucial: ‘Being Faithful.’  So here’s a guiding question: ‘What must I-You-We be faithful to even if we might not be effective?’  Think, for example: To be rooted in Integrity at all times.  Remember Mother Teresa’s words: ‘I am not called to be effective, I am called to be faithful.’ Back to Greenleaf…

Seminaries need to be made strong because churches, also feeble, need to be made strong so that, as community based institutions, they can carry the vast amount of work necessary to move toward a more caring and less power-ridden society.  Churches are weak for want of vision and purpose that they are likely to get only from seminaries.

 The premise here is that seminaries move toward strength by connecting themselves with the kind of knowledge base that generators of visions must have.  Visions are not generated out of thin air.  They arise out of wisdom.  And the wisdom to produce visions that will move contemporary society is not in libraries because our institution-bound society is too recent.  Seminaries will need to tap directly a knowledge base in contemporary institutions (the suggestion here is that they relate directly to their chairpersons). 

[To be continued…]

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Greenleaf writes:

My personal goal as a gradualist reformer is progress, however small, toward a more caring and less power-ridden society.  The two goals are linked.  Our society is not likely to become more caring until it becomes less power ridden. 

 These goals are proposed in the belief that a national society that is more caring and less power-ridden will be stronger in all assessable dimensions of strength, because the flowering of the human spirit will be favored.  And therefore that society will better hold its own in our contentious world.

 Greenleaf wrote these words in 1987.  They continue to challenge us today – perhaps they are more challenging than at any time in our 200+ year history as a Nation.  Are we a Nation addicted to power?  Are we becoming less caring? We are certainly becoming less civil.  For those of us who espouse to embrace Greenleaf’s concept of servant-first what is our challenge…what is our obligation?

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Greenleaf writes:

Evolving as our society has from a very long era of despotic governments with their armies and police, it was natural, I suppose, that when other types of institutions began to evolve…that power-centered control, with a hierarchy and somebody as king, would be the accepted means of moving the institution toward some sort of goal  And we have lived so long with this assumption that, destructive of human spirit as it appears to be there is little capacity to think about a better, more spirit-nurturing, way for institutions to function. 

 When I wrote my essay the ‘Institution as Servant’ some years ago I sharply challenged the conventional wisdom of a single chief sitting atop a pyramidal bureaucracy and urged in its place a governing group of equals with a primus as their leader.  I was only able to take this modest suggestion because I knew of several large and successful European businesses that were organized that way…

 When framers of our government designed our present Federal structure, out of revolution rather than out of a gradual process of change, they had only the model of king as the primary leader.  To be sure they elected their king rather than allowing hereditary succession and they imposed some restraints on the office, but they left enough sovereign autonomy so that one person,  on his own, could get into a lot of trouble (at the expense of the nation) – as we have recently seen. 

 Clearly the concept was still a king with some quite absolute powers.  Other federal systems that have evolved more gradually have tended toward a parliamentary form in which the key leader is responsible to her or his peers – not perfect, but a superior idea as I see it…

 It seems an unrealistic pipe dream even to think about organized human activity without giving power to some people to push other people around, even though they do it benignly as they sometimes do.  But, heavy handed or benign, I suspect that both holding and using power as it is commonly accepted is destructive of human spirit – in the powerholder as well as in the subject. 

 If we are to move toward a more servant-led society, it is imperative that we find a better way to assign power (if we have to have it assigned at all) than what we have traditionally done and are doing.  Otherwise these institutions of ours will continue to grind down human spirit on a mammoth scale, we will not have many servants, and we will have a weaker society.

 How will we find a better way, a way that empowers fewer than at present to push others around?  A long term gradualist approach is suggested, one that will take at least a generation to make a slight dent on the problem.  The making of a less power-ridden society of the U.S.A. alone may take several generations of gradualist effort, one step at a time. 

 But the effort to take that first step may be a necessary thrust to preserve and enhance our free society and enable us to give some leadership to a faltering world.  A first step is suggested.  The course of next steps will emerge from a successful beginning. 


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This morning, Gentle Reader, I have decided to offer you a shorter entry.  I have offered this short passage to situational and role-defined leaders or those aspiring to be role-defined leaders.  For the past 30+ years I have found this passage to be helpful to me as I struggle with the ‘desire for power’ versus the ‘power of influence.’  Greenleaf writes:

I learned very early about power when I dropped out of college for a while to earn some money to go on.  For a few months I found myself, at age nineteen, jettisoned into a powerful, if small scale, management job, and I had a large enough dose of that virus to last a lifetime. 

 Later, at age twenty-two, when I entered AT&T, I quietly resolved that, whatever I did I would not become a manager.  It took some fast footwork in my early years to avoid being pushed into a manager’s job, clearly for my own good as well-meaning bosses saw it because it was the obvious path to a powerful (and lucrative) spot to which all able and ambitious young people were presumed to aspire. 

 I am deeply grateful that this huge power-centered company, without always understanding what was going on, allowed me to live my life the way I wanted to live it and to evolve ultimately into a position of great influence – without using power (that is, without holding in my hands the sanctions to compel others to do what I wanted them to do). 

 I managed a small staff of influence-wielders who likewise had no power. 

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