It begins in here, not out there. –Robert K. Greenleaf
Greenleaf writes: Very soon…we may know how many determined builders there are who can move creatively with these times in which powerful new forces for integrity are operating. I wager that in American business we have a few leaders who will rise to the challenge. But they will not choose to announce, with great fanfare, a new ethic to deal with the new conditions. If they are wise they will not announce ‘anything.’ There is an ancient moral injunction which tells us to ‘practice what we preach.’ A few…have learned the hard way to follow the modern version of that advice which says: ‘Don’t practice what you preach; just practice!’ Consequently the wise businessmen will simply start the slow process of converting the large numbers of people within the institution who must share this view if it is to be viable. It will be noticed only in practice, and that gradually.
From all of Greenleaf’s writings that I have read (which is no small sampling) it seems clear that he believed that the number of folks who would actually integrate his ‘servant-first’ concept (such that it would become second nature to them) would be small. This would happen partly because the concept would not resonate with many folks and partly because the rigorous discipline required to integrate it is so demanding that many folks will abandon the effort. This would, then, also be true for relationships (e.g. teams, departments, dyads, etc.) and for organizations (who are simply individuals and relationships writ large). As I scan these past forty years I think he was correct. Greenleaf also noted that it would not be ‘large numbers’ that would influence; it would be a small number of individuals, relationships and institutions. I think this observation of his continues to also be correct. After all, Greenleaf was a hopeful gradualist; not a fiery revolutionary.
‘Just Practice!’ I am thinking of the general manager of a large hotel. When he became the general manager the employees were immersed in low morale and the hotel showed many symptoms of this: poor customer service, dust everywhere, dirty dishes, unkempt uniforms, sour-attitudes, fear, and mistrust. The general manager did not preach. He practiced. He modeled the behavior he wished the others to embrace. He spent the majority of his time helping out. He dusted, he helped by washing dishes, he helped by cleaning rooms, he picked up trash in the lobby, he greeted customers, he helped park cars – he practiced, he did not preach. Within fourteen months changes and transformation occurred. The hotel became known for its great customer care (more than simply service). The employees also demonstrated ‘self-care’ and care for their colleagues. ‘We Care!’ became their mantra and their guiding principle.
Sitting here this morning I am still in awe of this general manager – and I am in awe of those who freely chose to follow his lead. He lived Greenleaf’s idea of the servant-first leader – he went out ahead, he showed the way and by his behavior he invited others to follow. Their story gives me hope especially when I think of all the individuals, relationships and organizations that have dipped their toes into Greenleaf’s concept and found the water too cold, too deep, and too challenging. To keep the metaphor, Greenleaf’s concept requires more than a walk on the beach to view the water, it requires more than a wading in the shallows, or even a riding of the waves (remember, all waves crash). Greenleaf’s concept requires us to take a deep dive and experience the slow moving currents that over-time produce the changes and the transformations.
Aristotle reminds us that what we think and what we do each day becomes our habits and we, in many ways, are our habits. Gandhi also reminds us:
‘Become the change you want to see.’