This short piece by Robert K. Greenleaf was published in the May, 1976 issue of Friends Journal: Quaker Thought and Life Today.  I find his words to be timely, thought-provoking and challenging.  This morning, Gentle Reader, I offer Greenleaf’s words for your consideration.  Greenleaf writes:

  Late in January of 1976 I attended an International Symposium on Leadership Development that was held in Indianapolis under the auspices of The Center for the Exploration of Values and Meaning which is based there.  In the course of the conference I had occasion to say some of the following things.

 …we Americans are arrogant.  It hurts; but I accept the charge.  Our arrogance stems, I believe, from the fact of our great power.  In the years that the British were the great power, they were seen as arrogant.  When the next shift comes, the nation that emerges into the unfortunate spot will quite likely be seen as arrogant.  Civilization, it seems, has not advanced to a point where, as a natural gift of grace, either individuals or institutions, or governments are likely to be both powerful and humble without some basic changes in public thinking that are not yet evident.  Some may make it but the odds are against it.

 In this conference I have learned from Father Benjamin Tonna of Malta that humility in the more powerful is ultimately tested by their ability to learn from, and gratefully to receive the gifts of, the less powerful.  It is in my experience to know this, but sometimes one needs to be taught before one understands one’s own experience.

 When I retired from my active business career twelve years ago I was asked by an American foundation to take an assignment for them in India.  I found the top cut of Indian society with which I dealt, both in and out of government, to be highly sophisticated.  Yet I was treated as if I had a level of expertise far beyond what my old colleagues at home who knew me well would concede. 

 This is heady stuff, a fertile breeding ground for arrogance, and the several thousand who participated in aid programs in India, both private and governmental, in the heyday of technical assistance were all exposed to some measure of it.

 In 1971, when I signed off on this foundation relationship, I had some things to say in my report that have a bearing here in this conference on the question of how those in a position to lead can best lead, and why Americans who try so hard at it are seen as arrogant by so much of the world.  This is what I wrote:

 ‘Anyone who has spent even as little time as I have in India cannot help having views about the whole aid-giving/aid-receiving relationship. . .  It does not seem to me to be a sound basis for a relationship for one nation to be aid giver and another aid receiver for a long period of time.  A one-way flow of aid is all right for an emergency or a short period of readjustment. But not as a long term thing. . .’

 ‘I believe, further, that, on balance, the Indians have as much to give us as we have to give them (different things, perhaps, but just as much).  And it seems presumptuous, over a long period of time, for us to assume that because we happen to have a surplus of money, the giving should be one way.  Therefore, I believe that if we want to continue to be useful to the Indians, we should use our resources as much to learn from them as to facilitate their learning from us.’ 


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Good morning Gentle Reader.  I have decided to share with you the post I entered this morning on my other blog.  This, for me, is an example of a servant, servant-leader, and servant-team member.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to have connection, conversation and coffee with my daughter, Rebecca.   Rebecca is the Senior Event Planner (my title for her role) at the Alexander Hotel here in Indianapolis (check it out on-line, it is a wonderful hotel – for many reasons).  She had had a challenging week with a client that she had ‘inherited’ – the client had asked that the person they were working with be ‘replaced’.

Rebecca loves her work and one of her many strengths, and gifts, is her ability to connect with folks and ‘partner with them’ (her words) and work with them so they have an experience that more than satisfies their needs.  She has a gift of healing strained and broken relationships with clients and she has partnered with a diverse number of ‘team’ members and together they have co-created a high performing team.  Did I mention that she loves her team members, her clients and her work?

For me, Rebecca is a living testimony to the counsel I received from a mentor more than 40 years ago: What you do should be worthy of your attention and dignity, and affirm and demonstrate the respect you have for yourself.  I have learned, and Rebecca has learned, that if you love what you do, then you will do it beautifully.  The deeper, more light-filled side of your soul will help you bring the light of love to what you do, to how you serve.  What you do, rooted in love, will be creative and transforming.  Because Rebecca is who she is, the client experienced the person, Rebecca, and the professional.  They worked together to create and a broken relationship was transformed into a partnership.

Here is a ‘Blessing’ written by John O’Donohue; I find it fitting for today.

A Blessing

May the light of your soul guide you.
May the light of your soul bless the work you do with the
   secret love and warmth of your heart.
May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul.
May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light, and
   renewal to those who work with you and to those who see
  and receive your work.
May your work never weary you.
May it release within you wellsprings of refreshment,
   inspiration, and excitement.
May you be present in what you do.
May you never become lost in the bland absences.
May the day never burden.
May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your
   new day with dreams, possibilities, and promises.
May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.
May you go into the night blessed, sheltered, and protected.
May your soul calm, console, and renew you.




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Greenleaf writes: As I look through my particular window on the world I realize that I do not see all. Rather, I see only what the filter of my biases and attitudes of the moment permits me to see.   

 …The world of practice in all fields, as I see it through my particular window, is, on the average, mediocre. No field does very well when judged by what is reasonable and possible with available resources. …How can we do better? We have the resources to do so much better, far better than the mediocre level that now prevails because so much leadership is poor.   

 The problem of doing better…as I see it, is: How can people perform better in, and be better served by, ‘institutions’?     

 How often do we remember that our view of the ‘real world’ is quite narrow? In addition, how often do we remember that our view of the ‘real world’ is powerfully influenced by our integrated ‘biases’ and ‘attitudes’? How often do we intentionally and purpose-fully challenge our integrated ‘biases’ and ‘attitudes’ – our beliefs, our core values, our stereotypes, our prejudices, our guiding life principles, our deep tacit assumptions, etc.? What is our response when the ‘other’ challenges any of these?

Greenleaf notes that when he observes the ‘world of practice’ through his ‘particular window’ what he sees is a commitment to being ‘mediocre.’ His charge that all institutions seem to be satisfied with being mediocre emerges over and over again, year after year, in his writings. His audience varies, his message is the same. He queries: Why do institutions continue to choose to be mediocre rather than to be ‘distinctive’ – that is, ‘high achieving’? Why do institutions refuse to use their current resources ‘fully and wisely’? In my experience, institutions that espouse Greenleaf’s concept of ‘servant-leadership’ are the most put-off by these questions. They tend to defend themselves rather than engage in a search in order to discern and to learn.

Again and again, Greenleaf returns to one of his major themes: Institutions as Servants. Institutions, large ones, powerfully formed and framed the lens through which he viewed the world. He continued to invite us to consider that institutions will continue to powerfully frame and influence our world – and we had better pay attention to them. How many of us can truly identify with Greenleaf’s experience?

We do, however, have a common experience – one that each of us can identify with: The Person. We can each embrace Greenleaf’s questions on the personal level: To what extent am I using my resources (my gifts, talents, skills, abilities, and capacities) fully and wisely? To what extent do I settle for being mediocre? How often can I say: ‘I do my best’ or ‘I have done my best’ – ‘I use my resources fully and wisely? What is my response when the other challenges me when it comes to my choosing to be mediocre?

What’s my motivation for choosing to be mediocre? What’s in it for me?

 It is astonishing what a different result one gets by changing the metaphor. –George Eliot (‘The Mill on the Floss’)





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It’s ‘in here,’ not ‘out there.’ –Robert K.Greenleaf

After 50+ years of searching and seeking I have come to one conclusion: Life is a mystery to be lived!  Life is not a problem to be solved.  The mystery.  Consider this: there is no explanation I can give that would explain away all the sufferings and evil and torture and destruction and hunger and dis-ease in the world.

‘Life is a mystery!’  My thinking, my mind, cannot make sense out of it.  Life – think: Reality – is not a problem.  If there is a problem then I am the problem.  All of the great faith and humanistic traditions tell us this: ‘I – the person – am the problem!’  I don’t like to embrace this idea – I know few folks who do.

The great faith and humanistic traditions counsel us, over and over and over, to act rooted in love.  Do not act rooted in ‘negative’ feelings.  As I sit here this morning I am holding two questions (and I invite you, Gentle Reader, to also hold them): How often do I act rooted in anger, guilt, spite, fear, rage, hate and envy?  Before I choose to act – or react – how often do I pause and reflect in order to ensure that I am awake, aware, intentional and purpose-full and that I am aware of ‘who I am’ and how this ‘who’ impacts my choice of action or reaction? 

The great mystic, Meister Eckhart, tells us, ‘It is not by your actions that you will be saved, but by your being.  It is not by what you do, but by what you are that you will be judged.’  I hold the following image: I am standing in front of St. Peter (or God) after I die and the question I hear is not the one I expect to hear; the question I hear is: ‘Were you the best Richard you could become?’  Being precedes Doing!

St. Paul adds to this with: ‘If I give my body to be burned and all my goods to feed the poor and have not love…’  It is not my actions, it is my being that counts.

How much energy do we put into changing others while neglecting to change ourselves?  For Christians, Jesus was clear as to who he was sent to comfort – not the righteous but the sinners.  Paradoxically, the righteous become the sinners and the sinners become the ones healed; the last shall become first.

I have learned that I ‘see’ people and things not as they are, but as I am.  This is true, it seems, for all of us.  This is why when two of us look at the same person we often see two different people and we have two different reactions to the person as a result (listen to how people view the refugee or immigrant, for example).  We see people not as they are, but as we are [psychologists call this projection].

In 1972 I had a mentor who looked at me and said: ‘All is good!’  Talk about being disturbed.  How often have I said in my life: ‘If only________ would change then I would be fine?’  How often have I said, ‘You made me feel____?’  Why do I continue to give this power to make me feel a certain way to the other(s)?  I have experienced that when I am able to be different the other will, miracle of miracles, become different – and I will perceive the other as different as well.  Someone who was ‘rage-full’ now seems ‘frightened’ and ‘vulnerable.’

How much time do I spend blaming the other(s) or society or ‘my lot in life’?

A mentor provided me, many years ago, with four steps.  He was clear: ‘Repeat these thousands of times’ (this, in itself was off-putting).  Here are the four steps: (1) identify the negative feelings in you – name each one; (2) understand and accept that these feelings are ‘in you’ – they are not in the world (think: external reality); (3) do not embrace them as essential to the ‘I’ that is you – feelings come and go; (4) understand that when you change then everything will change.

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

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What is ‘The Heart of the Servant?’  ‘Heart’ comes from the French word ‘Couer’ which is also the root of the English word ‘Courage.’  So in a real way, to have ‘heart’ is also to have ‘courage.’  Symbolically, our heart is also that which enables us to experience compassion, love, empathy, hope and sensitivity.

Our ‘heart’ offers a balance to our ‘head’ and allows us to blend the objective way we need to work in order to be effective with a subjective way of being so that we can serve others with a caring, empathic, compassionate, loving and welcoming attitude [in an organization, the ‘others’ include both our ‘internal’ and ‘external’ customers/stakeholders].

If you listen closely, Gentle Reader, you will hear folks say, over and over again, that they choose to return to certain businesses because of the feeling of warmth and welcoming they experience in addition to the high quality of service they receive.  Within an organization with ‘heart’ you hear folks talking about how great it is to work with so-and-so (seldom, if ever, do you hear folks speaking about ‘who they work for’).

Many years ago I had the privilege, on a number of occasions, of visiting a company that was consistently ranked as one of the 10 best to work for in America.  During one of those visits I was wandering around when I turned a corner and there stood the President; he was talking with a person who by his dress worked ‘on the floor.’  The President looked up saw me, smiled and reached out his hand to me.  After we greeted one another he said, ‘Richard, I would like you to meet______we work together.’  He then continued, ‘______helps me be a good President for he helps hold me accountable for my word.’  ______then turned to me, shook my hand and said, ‘Yes I do and ______supports me and helps hold me accountable for my work.’  The warmth, the genuine caring, the support and the power of their relationship came rushing forth during this brief exchange.  ‘Trust, Care, Commitment and Serving’ were the words that I wrote down later.

At that time there were 2,000 plus employees in this company and this story was ‘in the norm;’ it was not unique.  Stories reveal the true character – the heart and the head – of organizations and its members.  If you want to know what resides within the heart of an organization listen to the stories being told – by those within and by those without.

The ‘Heart’ feeds, nourishes and supports the person and the organization (like Greenleaf, I believe that organizations are organic – living entities).  Gentle Reader, how healthy is your heart and how healthy is your organization’s heart?

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Greenleaf asks: ‘Who is the servant? How does one tell a truly giving, enriching servant from the neutral person or the one whose net influence is to take away from or diminish other people?’ 

In response to this, Greenleaf tells the story of the Rabbi who was asked how one tells the difference between the true and the false prophets.  The Rabbi’s answer was succinct and to the point, “There is no way!”. . . “If there were a way, if one had a gauge to slip over the head of the prophet, there would be no human dilemma and life would not be worth living.”                          

 Greenleaf then continued: ‘So it is with the servant…  If there were a dependable way that would tell us, “the man enriches by his presence, he is neutral, or he takes away,” life would be without challenge.  Yet it is terribly important that one ‘know,’ both about himself [emphasis is mine]and about others, whether the net effect of his influence on others enriches, is neutral, or diminishes and depletes.’

 One of the ways we can begin to discern the answer is to reflect upon our experiences.  Consider, Gentle Reader, that Reflection Plus Experience opens the pathway to learning.  Here is a question that I hold for myself: ‘What is the affect and effect upon my self and upon others?’

Affect = the emotional by-products.  Are we and/or others more ‘fearful,’ more ‘spiteful,’ more ‘angry,’ or more ‘anxious’ or are we/they more ‘content,’ ‘peace-full,’ ‘relaxed,’ joy-full,’ or ‘hope-full’?  Effect = are we and/or others more ‘productive,’ ‘trusting,’ ‘motivated,’ is our/their work ‘distinctive’ and ‘meaning-full’ in itself,’ do we and/or others freely give of our/their discretionary-energy (the energy that is freely given, the energy that money cannot buy).

Another way of responding is to examine the percentage of time we coerce, manipulate, persuade or influence others.  The more we coerce and manipulate the less likely others will be ‘enriched’ by our actions; more than not they will be diminished by them.  ‘Good parents’ who seek to live into and out of Greenleaf’s ‘Best Test’ and who seek to serve their children’s ‘highest priority needs’ will, at times coerce and manipulate their children.  The question is ‘why’ are they choosing to do so and how are they responding to the consequences of their coercing and manipulating. A parent might well coerce their youngster so he or she won’t play in the street.  They will also be aware of the emotional ‘fall-out’ and will seek to help the child understand the ‘why’ behind the coercion.

Another way is help folks develop healthy relationships (ones rooted in trust, compassion and caring, for example) between and among individuals and groups (teams, departments, etc.).  We know that folks are more accepting, tolerant, and forgiving of others in direct proportion to the quality of the relationships they have with them.

There are other ways and I invite you, Gentle Reader, to emerge them and reflect upon them and engage them (or modify and engage one of the examples I offered above).







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In his 1966 essay, The Search and the Seeker, Greenleaf writes: I never got theological notions when I looked through a telescope but when on one brilliant night I saw the fantastic image of one of the great nebulae in the 100-inch mirror on Mount Wilson I had a deep religious experience, I shook with awe and wonder at the majesty and the mystery of all creation.  

 This primitive unstructured feeling, the powerful sense of awe and wonder, is to me the source of religious feeling at its greatest depth.  Experimentally, I have found that my own sense of ethical sureness follows from an intensity of this feeling. (I submit as the ultimate test of the efficacy of religious feeling: does it nourish the insight and the resolve that are the root and ground of creative ethics?  Does one because of it act responsibly and with greater rightness and determination in the outside world?) [my unpublished draft, p. 3]

Gentle Reader, my response to Greenleaf’s words emerge as questions to hold rather than statements (observations, insights, declarations).  Here are a few of the questions that emerged for me as I reflected upon Greenleaf’s words.

  • When have I shook with awe and wonder at the majesty and mystery of creation?
  • From whence does my sense of ethical sureness flow?  How do I define and understand ethical sureness?
  • Do I have a religious feeling and if so, what stimulates this feeling in me and how would I describe it?
  • If I have a religious feeling, what does it nourish?
  • What is my motivation to act responsibly and with greater rightness and determination?
  • What motivates me to act irresponsibly and with less determination?

Gentle Reader: What are some others questions that emerge into your consciousness as you read and reflect upon Greenleaf’s words?

Here is the famous 1995 photo from ‘Hubble’ — for me, it captures the ‘awe and wonder’ of the universe.



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