I concluded my last entry with: ‘Who is the Enemy?’ 

Greenleaf writes: The real enemy is fuzzy thinking on the part of good, intelligent, vital people, and their failure to lead, and to follow servants as leaders.  …There is…too little preparation for and willingness to undertake the hard and high risk tasks of building better institutions in an imperfect world, too little disposition to see ‘the problem’ as residing in here and not out there

In short, the enemy is strong natural servants who have the potential to lead but do not lead, or who choose to follow a non-servant. [Emphasis is Greenleaf’s]

Fuzzy = blurred, muddleheaded [that is, confused in one’s thinking], and/or incoherent [lacking logical or meaningful connection or lacking unity or harmony].  How many of us would ‘own up to’ being a ‘fuzzy thinker’?  What needs are met when one chooses to be a ‘fuzzy thinker’?  

How many ‘good, intelligent, vital people’ fail to step up and lead or fail to say ‘yes’ to an invitation to step up and lead?  How many folks fail to follow servants as leaders?  How often do organizations who espouse Greenleaf’s concepts spend time engaging these questions?

Greenleaf does not let we who espouse to live into and out of his concept to be off the hook – he makes sure the hook is deeply set. 

Another way Greenleaf keeps the hook deeply set is by offering us his next statement.  ‘There is too little preparation’ and there is ‘too little willingness.’  There are now a number of centers located throughout the world that espouse being ‘Servant-Leadership Centers’ and many of them tell us that they are rooted in Greenleaf’s concept.  How many of these Centers intentionally and purpose-fully help prepare servants and servant-leaders for the ‘hard and high risk tasks of building better institutions’?  Remember, for Greenleaf a main purpose for an institution is to help co-create a more just and more caring society – talk about ‘high risk’ and ‘hard work.’ 

How many of us are still disposed to see the problem as residing ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’ – in the person, in the relationship, in the institution? 

Greenleaf then expands his focus: ‘…the enemy is strong natural servants who have the potential to lead but do not lead.’  I have known such strong natural servants who have refused to lead; the risk, it seems, is too high and/or the task, it seems, is too daunting. 

How many choose to follow a ‘non-servant’?  Perhaps the flip of this is easier to uncover: How many today choose to follow a servant-first leader?  How many who espouse Greenleaf’s concept continue to hedge their investment with the words: ‘Oh, it is a nice romantic theory but it won’t work in the real world!’   

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Greenleaf writes: Who is the enemy?  Who is holding back more rapid movement to the better society that is reasonable and possible with available resources?  Who is responsible for the mediocre performance of so many of our institutions?  Who is standing in the way of a larger consensus on the definition of the better society and paths to reaching it? 

Not evil people.  Not stupid people.  Not apathetic people.  Not the ‘system.’ …The better society will come, if it comes, with plenty of evil, stupid, apathetic people around and with an imperfect, ponderous, inertia-charged ‘system’ as the vehicle for change.  …The healthy society…is the one in which the internal health building forces are in the best shape.

Greenleaf reminds us that his ‘big dream’ also involves our co-creating a ‘better society’ – one that is ‘more just and caring’ and ‘more serving.’  He is not looking for us to co-create the perfect society; he is inviting us and challenging us to co-create a society that is ‘reasonable and possible with available resources.’  He often asks us: Are you using your current resources fully and wisely?  How many individuals, teams, departments, divisions and organizations are using their current resources fully and wisely?  Not many, I think. 

How many institutions settle for being mediocre?  Too many, I think.  How many organizations seek to be high achieving?  A good question, I think.  Well, I do think that many organizations espouse to be high achieving and fall far short of their goal – the gap between what they espouse and what they live is large. 

Greenleaf then asks: ‘Who is standing in the way…?’  When I offer folks in organizations this question they respond that it is the ‘stupid people’ and the ‘evil people’ and the ‘apathetic people’ and the ‘system’ itself that is standing in the way.  Greenleaf simply dismisses these entities as being the culprits.  There will always be some of these folks around and there will always be systems that are dis-eased and dis-functional, mediocre-seeking and mediocre-accepting.  

Prior to directly responding to the question, Greenleaf notes that: ‘The healthy society is the one in which the internal health building forces are in the best shape.’  Who are the ‘health building forces’ in a society?  For Greenleaf these ‘health building forces’ are large institutions (for-profit businesses, large universities, large foundations, and seminaries).  He also believes that the individual can also be such a force – he does believe that ‘one person at a time’ over time can and will make a difference.  In addition, small groups of committed people can make a difference (historically, they have – both for health and for dis-ease). 

So: ‘Who is the Enemy?’ 

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We convince by our presence. –Walt Whitman

Greenleaf writes: 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? …There is no way.  …If there were a dependable way that would tell us, ‘This 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 and about others, whether the net effect of one’s influence on others enriches, is neutral, or diminishes and depletes.

Greenleaf’s words, ‘There is no way’ puzzles me.  Why?  In a number of his essays he is quite clear about one ‘way’ – his ‘Best Test’ for the servant.  He admits that this test is ‘difficult to administer’ – ask anyone who has attempted to do so and you will probably find agreement with Greenleaf’s observation.  The servant will, according to Greenleaf, seek to live into and out of the ‘Best Test’ – this is one way of identifying the servant from the non-servant. 

In order to live into and out of Greenleaf’s ‘Best Test’ the servant must be ‘truly giving’ and by his/her very presence the other(s) will be ‘enriched’ not ‘diminished.’  If the servant lives into and out of Greenleaf’s ‘Best Test’ then the one being served will ‘grow’ as a person – he/she will become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous AND the person served will more likely choose to become a servant (if he/she is not already a servant). 

Greenleaf is also clear: if one lives into and out of the ‘Best Test’ then folks will not be diminished or depleted – even the least privileged will benefit or at minimum they will not be further deprived.  To up the ante even more, in 1980 (his first iteration for the ‘Best Test’ emerged in 1969) he added that no one will be intentionally or unintentionally hurt by a serving act. 

Greenleaf also states clearly that the servant is first a fully human being.  That is in Greenleaf’s words the person at his/her healthiest is a ‘living paradox’ – the person is both ‘good and evil’ (or if you prefer, gentle reader – the person is ‘virtue and vice’ or is ‘light and darkness’ or is ‘light and shadow’).  This idea of being a living paradox continues to challenge some who espouse (or claim) to be servants – they just cannot embrace the idea that they are BOTH ‘good and evil’ (or ‘virtue and vice,’ etc.)  Because the person is a living paradox, the person is imperfect and will ‘fail’ or ‘stumble’ – ‘consistency’ not ‘perfection’ is the goal. 

Thus, as Greenleaf notes, ‘healing’ becomes another necessary process for the servant (healing for Greenleaf involves ‘making whole’ again); healing involves forgiveness and reconciliation. 

So, I continue to sit with and explore Greenleaf’s question: ‘How does one tell…’ And I continue to hold and explore the second question: ‘Who is the servant?’

To refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral. –Robert K. Greenleaf

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Greenleaf writes: An institution starts on a course toward people-building with leadership that has a firmly established context of people first.

Greenleaf contrasts ‘people-using’ with ‘people-building.’  When people are dehumanized – which is one of the most egregious acts we do to people – it is easy to ‘use’ them and/or to ‘abuse’ them and to do so ‘guilt free.’  As I have mentioned before, the metaphors an institution integrates and lives into and out of plus the words they infuse as a result of the metaphors plus the questions that are then framed and responded to as a result of the metaphors determines how and to what extent an institution ‘uses,’ ‘abuses’ or ‘builds’ people.  The industrial-mechanical metaphor that remains integrated in some institutions is a prime example of how human beings are dehumanized ‘guilt-free.’ 

As I have often noted before a wide-spread, contemporary metaphor for almost all institutions today is the banking metaphor (more importantly, it is one of our Culture’s main metaphors today).  People are reframed from being fully human beings into being commodities, assets, and resources which institutions then ‘guilt-free’ use, abuse and use up. 

One of the most common statements institutions make today is: ‘People are our most important resource – or asset or commodity’.  This is said without a hint of puzzlement; in fact, it is often uttered with great pride.  Perhaps more disturbing – for me at least – is that I hear no voice (or few voices) pushing back.  To me this is an indication of how broadly and deeply we, as a Culture, have integrated the banking metaphor into our psyches; we accept the metaphor as ‘normal,’ as ‘real’ and as ‘true.’  If a person is a commodity, an asset or a resource it is impossible for them to be fully human.  At least with the mechanical metaphor people were, at times, framed as ‘cyborgs’ – part machine and part human.

I am not without hope.  I have known – and I know – institutions that are striving to embrace a ‘fully human’ metaphor and let go of the banking metaphor.  This is no easy task – it calls not for a shift in thinking or a change; it calls for a ‘transformation.’  A ‘transformation’ is a ‘fundamental change in character or structure.’  At minimum, it requires identifying and letting go of the deep tacit assumptions that support and promote a banking metaphor.  These deep tacit assumptions have to then be replaced (with intention, purpose and commitment) so that ‘fully human’ metaphors – that is, organic metaphors – can take root and flourish. 

Until this happens, it will be nearly impossible for an institution to hold onto a ‘people-first’ view/concept.  When the pressure is on the institution will revert to what has been integrated – in this case the banking or mechanical metaphor; in dehumanizing people it will make it possible for institutions to guilt-free use, abuse and use up or discard or cash in their assets, resources and commodities. 

As an aside: In our Culture we have also integrated another powerful metaphor – the ‘war-sports’ metaphor.  We easily interchange the two – business is a war and it is a sport; winning is the goal (versus, say, ‘high achievement’).  We often describe ‘war’ using a ‘sports’ metaphor and we often describe a sporting event using a ‘war’ metaphor.  This easy exchange reveals how deeply integrated both have become in our Culture and how easily we can then move from one to the other – and most of us know what is being communicated. 

It is crucial for us to understand that metaphors are more, much more, than linguistic descriptions; they describe what we consider to be the ‘real’ and the ‘true.’  We forget that metaphors are not ‘real’ nor are they ‘true’ – thus we can change the metaphors we integrate; we have choice.  We can choose to develop people.

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Greenleaf writes: Love…begins with one absolute condition: unlimited liability!  As soon as one’s liability for another is qualified to any degree, love is diminished by that much.  …Institutions are designed to limit liability.  …any human service where he who is served should be loved in the process, requires community, a face-to-face group in which the liability of each for the other and all for one is unlimited, or as close to it as it is possible to get.  Trust and respect are highest in this circumstance and an accepted ethic that gives strength to all is reinforced.  Where there is not community, trust, respect, ethical behavior are difficult for the young to learn and for the old to maintain. 

In his ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that ‘love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.’  Rilke’s definition gets me as close as I can to Greenleaf’s concept of ‘unlimited liability.’  As I sit here this morning reflecting upon Rilke’s definition of ‘love’ and Greenleaf’s concept of ‘unlimited liability’ I shudder.  Talk about a challenge!  For me, the term ‘daunting’ does not begin to capture the immensity of the two challenges these two men invite me to engage. 

Greenleaf indicates the depth of the challenge when he continues with ‘Institutions are designed to limit liability.’  If this is so, then how can love emerge and flourish?  Greenleaf’s response is contained within the concept of ‘community.’  If an institution is committed to becoming a ‘working-learning-serving-loving-spirit filled’ community rooted in ‘trust and respect’ then perhaps ‘unlimited liability’ is within reach.  As if this were not enough, Greenleaf sneaks in another challenge: ‘ethical behavior.’ 

The metaphors that an institution has integrated will greatly determine whether Greenleaf’s idea is feasible – and possible.  If an institution has integrated a mechanical metaphor – that is, ‘We are the great machine and people are the cogs in the machine!’ then it seems to me that love and community are not possible – at best people are cyborgs, they are not fully human beings.  There are institutions today that have integrated the mechanical metaphor (a left-over metaphor from our industrial age).  More likely, today’s institutions have integrated a ‘banking metaphor.’  People are commodities, assets and resources to be used.  Just as in the Mechanical Metaphor, in the Banking Metaphor, people are not fully human beings. Consider, gentle reader, that the statement: ‘People are our most important resource or asset or commodity’ is a contradiction for resources, assets and commodities are not human elements and hence they cannot be fully human beings.   

It is crucial for us to remember that the metaphors we use, plus the words we infuse, plus the questions we muse will, together, determine the paths we choose. 

If an institution seeks to choose a path of love, of community, of ethical behavior then the integrated metaphors, plus the words chosen plus the questions framed become crucial.  Where these three are in alignment, congruency resides, as does ‘being authentic’ and ‘being consistent.’  How many institutions intentionally and purposefully discern, emerge and name their integrated metaphors (and the words and questions they use to support them)?  How many consciously decide that these are the metaphors, the words and the questions that best serve us?  

What does ‘best serve us’ mean?  Does it mean what Greenleaf means: Do those served grow as persons?  How many organizations have, as their bottom line the growth of persons? 

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