Responsible people build; they are moved by the heart. –Robert K. Greenleaf

Greenleaf writes: The ideal organization structure would probably be one that is redesigned each time there is a change in the conditions the institution confronts – which may be every few days.  Therefore, the need for stability suggests that the best that can be hoped for is a ‘best fit’ for a range of conditions.  This is not likely to be optimal for any one of them.  The dilemma of all leaders of institutions is to accept that structure, no matter how well designed, will be awkward and inhibitive.

 …it suggests to those who act as trustees that they should focus their energies on…designing a structure that is least inhibiting to good leadership.  …Leadership is the prime concern! …Preoccupation with structure could be a gimmick! 

Talk about a daunting challenge.  Do you know, gentle reader, even one organization that is so flexible that their structure is redesigned with every ‘change in the conditions the institution confronts’?  How many organizations actually design their structure so that it is flexible enough to respond to (not react to) a ‘range of conditions’?  This requires ‘foresight’ – scenario planning, for example.

Organizations tend to seek to design the ‘optimal structure’ and the type of flexibility that Greenleaf is writing about will result not in the ‘optimal’ but, at best’ will result in the ‘best fit’ (i.e. at this time, this is the structure that is the best fit for the challenges and opportunities that we will soon be facing).  How many organizations are able to accept that ‘no matter how well designed’ the organizational structure will be ‘awkward and inhibitive’?

Greenleaf invites us to consider that ‘Leadership’ not ‘Structure’ is the ‘prime concern.’  How many organizations become focused, if not obsessed, with structure?  How many emerge structures that are rigid rather than flexible?  How many of these organizational structures actually inhibit the Leader and the Led?  I am thinking of Nordstrom’s first employee handbook.  As I recall, it contained two sentences: (1) Use your common sense.  (2) When in doubt ask.  Talk about a flexible structure.  They also sought to hire folks who demonstrated ‘common sense’ (whatever that is).

I am also recalling the Marriott structure (the one that existed during the Marriott brothers’ life-time).  Their mantra was: ‘Make things right for the guest and we will talk about it later’ (the talking about it later did not involve ‘punishment’ for making it right by the by – which was one reason it worked so well – they also hired ‘good people’).

I believe Greenleaf was (continues to be) correct: ‘Leadership is the prime concern!’  And, gentle reader, you might remember that ‘Leadership’ is the by-product of the relationship between the Leader and the Led (i.e. those who freely choose to follow).  The type of flexibility required also means that at times the Leader will choose to follow and, given the situation, the Led will be called to Lead.    This also means that ALL need to develop both capacities – the capacity to Lead and the capacity to Follow.  How many organizations develop both capacities in ALL?

Leadership is a serious meddling in peoples’ lives. –Max De Pree

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There are days when the old ways seem easier. –James Autry

Greenleaf writes: One of the most common responses to institutional pain is to tinker with the structure.  …the most common explicit structure is hierarchical.  …the authoritarian bias that supports it is so entrenched that it is difficult even to discuss alternatives.

 …Standing alongside most formal structures are informal ones whose function is to patch up the inadequacies of the formal ones.  …they couldn’t function without them.

 The assumption here is that if an institution is well-led, the nature of the formal structure is much less important that if it is poorly led.  If leadership is exceptionally good, an institution sometimes operates without much reference to formal structure, even though it may have a well-defined one.  …in a well-led institution the need for structure may be minimal.  …even exceptional leaders sometimes falter and an understood structure serves as a ‘safety net.’ Also, able leaders may be succeeded by mediocre or poor ones, that contingency needs to be provided for.

To Tinker = to busy oneself with a thing without useful results.  During the past 49 years of observing organizations, including their structures, the number of organizations I observed ‘tinkering’ with their structure is legion.  The size of the organization didn’t matter nor did it matter whether the organization was a for-profit, not-for-profit, public, private, governmental, military, religious, educational, health care-oriented, or even if it espoused Greenleaf’s concept.

The main reason ‘tinkering’ ran (runs?) amok among all of these organizations is the one Greenleaf notes: ‘the authoritarian bias…is so entrenched…it is difficult even to discuss alternatives.’  The most common refrain I have heard in response to the suggestion regarding exploring alternatives has been (continues to be): ‘it is not realistic to do so.’  I cannot even begin to count the number of times Leaders have said to me: ‘Get Real!’ when it came to even suggesting a conversation that might explore alternatives.  Another common response was: ‘We tried that and it didn’t work!’  Another is a common refrain we all know (perhaps have even uttered): ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!’

I have known/experienced exceptions.  Bill Bottum (Townsend & Bottum Family of Companies) was successful in seeking out alternatives and then implementing them.  Bill Turner (who owned a number of very successful companies) is another who embraced searching conversations focusing on alternatives to the traditional model.  There have also been Divisions within large multi-national organizations who have dramatically re-structured and moved away from the traditional model – and were even more successful as a result (I had the privilege of serving several of these).  There have also been Departments who have done so; the University of Michigan Housing Department became distinctive and high achieving after their restructuring.

A common theme, by the by, with all of these was that they made the commitment because they believed it was ‘right’ not because of the bottom-line.  I have also known organizations that have attempted to change in order to increase their bottom line (whatever that was for them) and they ALL failed; they were like the over-weight person who embraced a diet in order to lose weight rather than ‘change their life style’ with weight-loss being a by-product (many of us are intimately aware of the weight-loss one).

There are many reasons why Leaders hang on to the traditional model, two of the most powerful are ‘fear’ and ‘love of power’ – often these go hand-in-hand.  I remember sitting in on a not-for-profit organization’s Board Meeting; the E.D. was present.  The Board Chair asked me what I thought would help the Staff, the E.D. and the Board.  Among other things I invited them to consider a 360 degree evaluation of the E.D. The Chair appeared as if he liked the idea as we spoke about what it would entail.  After the Board Meeting the E.D. – whom I had known for a five or six years – stopped me, looked me in the eye, and stated: ‘This idea of yours will never happen; I will see to it!’  He turned and walked away.  As I type these words, I can still see his fear-filled eyes.  The 360 never happened.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and learn to Love the questions. –Rainer Maria Rilke

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Servant-Leadership could become a gimmick. –Robert K. Greenleaf

Greenleaf writes: When I wrote the first essay on ‘Servant as Leader,’ I discovered that I had given that piece a catchy title.  I am grateful that the title gave the piece some circulation, but I am also aware of the danger: servant-leadership could become a gimmick.  The top person of some ailing institution might try to insert servant-leadership as a procedure, as a general management idea, as a means whereby the institution might do better.  Such a move might have a short-lived aspirin effect, but when that effect wears off, it might leave the institution more ailing than it was before, and another gimmick would need to be sought.  The surer way for the idea to have a long-term good effect is for the top person to become a servant-leader.  What that person is and does then speaks louder than what is said.  It might be better if nothing is said, just be it.  This, in time, might transform the institution. 

The ‘wave’ that caught Greenleaf’s concept powerfully emerged during the early 1990s.  More and more folks began to ride this wave (and as we know, ALL WAVES CRASH).  I became aware of a number of organizations that brought a version of servant-leadership inside as a result (often noted by cynical employees as the ‘flavor of the month’).  For twenty-six years (1993-2019) I have experienced firsthand, or I read about, organizations in a number of countries that were living out Greenleaf’s ‘danger’ – Servant-Leadership had, indeed, become a gimmick.

As far as I can discern today, many of these organizations have moved on to the next gimmick.  I am thinking of an educational institution where the top designated leaders had become enamored with the concept of ‘servant-leadership.’  I had a number of conversations with them.  The Head of the school remarked one day to me that: ‘I am not a servant; I am a leader.’  The school made several attempts to embrace Greenleaf’s concept and they finally settled on ‘The Leader as One Who Also Serves.’  Their focus became ‘Leader-First,’ not ‘Servant-First.’

In 1991 a mentor of mine, Mike Vance, introduced me to the General Manager of a very successful hotel in Las Vegas.  When the GM had taken over the hotel it was noted for its lack of customer service; it was also noted for its being unkempt (an understatement).  This GM had read Greenleaf’s essay, ‘The Servant as Leader.’  He told me that because of this essay he decided to ‘model’ being a ‘servant’ to the staff.  He spent months modeling being a servant.  He dusted.  He greeted customers.  He changed sheets in rooms.  He was not sure whether folks would respond positively but he did believe that the old way of judging and shaming and disciplining and firing folks would not work (it never had).

He was faithful to his belief that modeling behavior would be more helpful than directing and telling.  After 9 months he noticed that others were ‘serving’ as he was.  After 12 months he began to have conversations with folks and together they emerged an image of the service they wanted to provide.  Now they were ready to embrace and live into and out the servant-image.  I had the privilege of staying at this hotel during one of my visits with my mentor.  I was deeply impressed and became more impressed after I heard the story and after I spoke with the GM and some of the staff.  Simply put: They lived into Greenleaf’s concept.

As a number of other organizations know so well, servant-leadership does not have to become a gimmick, a wave to ride – as a ‘deep-current’ it has ‘staying power’.  And yet the danger of it becoming a gimmick always remains.  As Greenleaf noted, it is more likely not to become a gimmick if what each ‘person is and does’ speaks louder than what the person says.  As one CEO told me: We continue to embrace Greenleaf’s concept because it is right for us to do so – not because we will be more successful.  They continue to experience success as a by-product of who they are – they are servants, first.  And, this is no gimmick.

Responsible people build; they are moved by the heart. –Robert K. Greenleaf



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What we see is what we bring to the seeing. –George Nelson

Greenleaf writes: The opprobrious label ‘gimmick’ is applied to any organizational procedure that is introduced with the hope of accomplishing what only better leadership can do, or that will not be effective, long term, because it is not in harmony with the prevailing quality of leadership.  Such nostrums. . .are abundantly available.  Too often the result is an ‘aspirin’ effect – not the path to long-term health for either person or institution.  . . .exceptional institutions either evolve their own procedures, or they learn from other well-led situations.  They are not in the market for aspirin. 

 I hear the protest: ‘What does one do when the organizational pain is intense?’  My response is, ‘Attend to the quality of leading, unless you want to spend the rest of your organizational life living on ‘aspirin!’ 

 Even though I am not a researcher I am familiar with organizations that have spent millions of dollars on the expert and his/her ‘gimmicks;’ I have even been invited to work with a few of these (picking up the pieces, if you will).  The great W. Edwards Deming (the ‘father of the quality movement’) went to his grave frustrated because organizations in our country only embraced two of his three ‘Cs’ and experienced a near-perfect failure rate because they did so (at least this was his belief as to why these organizations failed in their attempts to bring his quality improvement concept into their organizations).

It was easy for organizations to embrace two of his ‘Cs’: Counting and Customer.  In doing so they embraced ‘gimmick’ – seeking the quick fix.  By the by, the ‘C’ they ignored (and my experience is that most organizations ignore this ‘C’ even though they might espouse it) was: Culture.  Deming knew from direct experience, ‘Culture Matters!’

Leaders and Organizations are not, I don’t think, ignorant.  So ‘Why?’ do Leaders and Organizations continue to be seduced by the ‘expert’ and his/her ‘gimmicks’?  Sadly, Greenleaf’s concept has also taken on a ‘gimmick’ quality (but I digress).  How many Leaders continue to say ‘We are not interested in the quick fix!’ and then they embrace a quick fix (sometimes they embrace a quick fix to fix the quick fix that was not a fix).

Greenleaf suggests that Leaders embrace ‘gimmicks’ because of a lack of leadership.  Could be.  I invite us to consider another possibility.  Leaders and Organizations continue to embrace ‘gimmicks’ (the ‘gimmick’ market continues to flourish in our country) because they see almost everything as a ‘problem to be solved.’  How many role-defined leaders were given the role of leader because they were good problem solvers; many I think.  Today, more than ever before, Leaders and Organizations are greeted with Paradoxes, Polarities and Dilemmas more than Problems.  The technical, quick fixes that might work well when it comes to Problems will not be effective when it comes to Paradoxes, Polarities, and Dilemmas (a ‘Dilemma,’ by definition, involved a ‘forced-choice’; there are two types of Dilemmas: Right-Right & Harm-Harm).

Problem-solving gimmicks will continue to flourish because they, like aspirin, provide short term relief.  As a corollary, how many folks are hooked on a type of aspirin in our country today?  How many Leaders and Organizations are also hooked on – addicted to? – ‘THE’ Gimmick Aspirins’ that are abundantly available to them?

Greenleaf provides us an answer, one many Leaders also espouse: ‘Attend to the quality of leading!’  This prescription does not involve swallowing a ‘gimmick’ aspirin – not even close.

Knowledge is often easily procured; understanding only rarely so. –Stephen Hudson


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Be faithful in small things…-Mother Teresa

Greenleaf writes: …faith might be viewed as communicated confidence that a mutually agreed-upon goal can be reached and is worth achieving, and that builds the sustaining will to persevere…

…part of the religious leader’s own faith is trust in his or her own inner resources.  If one is to take the risks of leadership (and all significant leadership entails venturing and risk-taking), one needs to trust one’s inner resources, in the situation, to give the guidance one needs to justify the trust of followers.  …One has confidence that after one is launched in the venture, the way will be illuminated. 

…For faith as trust to be real…it suffices that the inner resources of the leader are known by both leader and follower to be dependable.    

Given Greenleaf’s first statement today, consider how many leaders you know (perhaps including yourself as ‘leader’) who communicate confidence?  How many have joined with those who have freely chosen to follow a ‘mutually agreed upon goal;’ one that they believe is truly ‘worth achieving’?  How many ‘communicated confidences’ actually sustain the individual and collective will to persevere?   How often do leaders and those who freely choose to follow lack the ‘will to persevere’?  Now, how many leaders and followers embrace all of these aspects at the same time?  Greenleaf suggests that ‘faith’ is rooted in the whole of the statement (this, for Greenleaf, is not ‘blind faith’).

Now, how often does the Leader ‘trust’ in his or her ‘own inner resources’?  How often does the Leader consciously develop and sustain ‘inner resources’?  Greenleaf does not ‘name’ these inner resources which means that each Leader must discern these for him/herself; this alone can be a daunting challenge.

Developing one’s inner resources is one step; learning to trust them is even more challenging.  These inner resources are to help the Leader ‘take the risks’ and take them in such a way that the ‘trust of followers’ is enhanced.  Leadership, as I view it, is a by-product of the relationship between the Leader and those who freely choose to follow AND this relationship is rooted in and is sustained by ‘trust.’  How many Leader-Led relationships do you know, gentle reader that are truly rooted in and sustained by ‘trust’?

At the time of writing these words Greenleaf was a Quaker.  One of the gifts the Quakers have given us is the gift of ‘way opening.’

This idea of ‘way opening’ surfaces when Greenleaf writes that ‘after the venture is launched, the way will be illuminated.’  That is, the ‘way will open.’  A key, of course, is for the Leader to be open to ‘way opening’ and then to be able to discern ‘the way.’  ‘Way does not stay open’ for a long period of time and this is where faith and trust enter – it often requires faith and trust to not only discern ‘way opening’ but to then take the risk of stepping into the way.

This is not a new idea; the Taoists thousands of years ago offered us a concept of ‘The Way.’  Almost all of the great faith-traditions have a concept of ‘the way.’  So, given all of the thousands of years and the many iterations of ‘the way’ it makes sense, to me anyway, to pay attention to this concept.

Greenleaf concludes this short piece with another challenge: the Leader shares his/her inner resources with those who freely choose to follow.  This helps build ‘faith’ and ‘trust.’  It also provides a ‘model’ for the led; a model of ‘faith’ and ‘trust,’ one that they might choose to embrace.

Faith is a state to grow into. –Gandhi

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Do those served grow as persons? –Robert K. Greenleaf

Greenleaf writes: ‘Why would anyone follow…unless one has confidence that the other knows better where to go?  And how would one know better where to go unless one has a wider than usual awareness of the terrain and the alternatives, unless one is well armored for the unexpected, and unless one’s view of the future is more sharply defined than that of most?  Also, one’s confidence in a leader, rests in part, on the assurance that stability and poise and resilience under stress give adequate strength for the rigors of leadership.  All of the above stand on a base of intensity and dedication to service that supports faith as trust.

What motivates us to follow?  Some follow because they are coerced to do so.  Some follow because they are manipulated to do so.  Some follow because they are persuaded, via logic and reason, to do so.  Some follow because they are influenced to do so.  For each of these reasons there must be certain ingredients in place that promote and support one’s choice to follow.  For example: A person who is coerced to follow might be fearful of losing his/her job or might be fearful of being marginalized or shunned, or might fear for his/her safety.

Greenleaf suggests some ingredients that might be in place for a person to freely choose to follow via ‘influence.’  The potential leader discerns better than others ‘where to go.’  This means, for Greenleaf, that the potential leader has a better ‘awareness’ of both the ‘terrain’ ahead and of the ‘alternatives’ available.  In other essays, Greenleaf is also clear that the potential leader is able to clearly communicate both to the potential follower.

The potential follower also comes to believe that the potential leader is ‘armored’ for the ‘unexpected.’  For me, this is the most challenging aspect, for how will I know?  Oh, I might have heard stories about the leader that indicate that in the past he/she has been ‘well armored’ when it comes to the unexpected; but how often does one have access to this before choosing to follow?

Greenleaf gives us a hint: the potential leader’s view of the future is ‘more sharply defined’ than most.  The leader does not rush off blindly into the good night.  Also, the leader actually goes out ahead and says, ‘come follow me’ –  in order for me to say ‘yes’ to the leader’s invitation I must put some faith and trust in the leader; and then, I freely choose.  This means, that if all goes south I do not blame the leader; I accept my response-ability for I have freely chosen to follow and to do my part along the way.  The leader and I are truly in this together – ‘leadership’ is thus a by-product of the leader-led relationship.

Greenleaf also gives us another guideline: How well does the leader respond when under stress?  Again, stories about the leader can help us.  We can also take the time to challenge the leader, via questions or scenarios.  How many potential followers ‘dare’ to engage the potential leader in this way?  How many potential leaders encourage the potential follower to do so?  Why would I freely choose to follow a leader who did not invite me to do so?  It is also crucial to remember that ‘distress’ reveals ‘character’ and, as any follower knows, ‘character counts.’

If ‘Leadership’ is rooted in the trusting relationship between the leader and the led then it seems to me that it is crucial for the potential leader and the potential follower to engage in this type of searching conversation; they engage the search interdependently.

To refuse to examine the assumptions we live by is immoral. –Robert K. Greenleaf

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Foresight has been a distinguishing characteristic of all great leaders. –John Mott

Greenleaf writes: Contingency thinking relates to things that might happen but rarely do. . .  Part of the confidence of followers in a leader rests on the belief that the leader will not be surprised by the unusual and will act promptly in response to it. . .   …contingency thinkers are a bit rare, but they need not be if the formative years of young people included some preparation for it.

I learned to be a contingency thinker from my father who was good at it and to whom I was very close. 

How do we help folks prepare for the unusual; the event that rarely occurs?  My experience is that when the unusual does appear its impact is challenging and triggers high anxiety in those who experience it.  One way to help folks prepare is buy using visualization.  In this case, the leader can develop a scenario that ‘might happen’ (say a fire in the building) and then the leader can practice visualizing a response.  The clearer the image, the scenario, the more likely the practiced response will actually be employed.

For example, police encourage folks to image a situation that would call for their calling 911 and then to practice the imaging and the calling over and over again.  Why?  They discovered that folks in a crisis actually forgot the number because their anxiety was so high.  Firefighters practice imaging because when they are in a fire they will more likely than not need to react and the inappropriate reaction might cause them to suffer severe injury or even result in their death.  Greenleaf developed such a scenario as he rode the train to work each day.  After many years of practicing, the scene he visualized occurred and he quickly responded (and saved a life because of his quick response).

We can use this type of imaging so we can either respond appropriately or react appropriately (again, firefighters prepare both in order to appropriately respond and appropriately react).  Both are more likely to serve us well because of our efforts to prepare without knowing exactly what we are preparing for.

Thirty-five years ago I was in a hotel in San Francisco; it was after midnight when the fire alarm screamed us awake.  I was on the 15th floor and I had imaged what I would do if the fire alarm sounded (one of my routines when I stayed in a hotel).  When I emerged from my room there was an elderly couple standing in the hall; frozen with fear.  She was in a wheel chair.

Two things then happened.  I guided them to the stairwell and upon arriving at the stairwell there happened to be a strong, burley young man standing there.  He looked at the woman.  He did not hesitate.  He gently lifted her up and carried her down the 15 flights.  Her husband and I followed; I brought the wheel chair down.  When we had settled in outside the young man said that he had mentally practiced saving someone by carrying them down a flight of stairs during a fire.  I had imaged helping folks get to the ‘escape route;’ I had not imaged helping another go down 15 flights.  The young man had imaged helping someone get down 15 flights; he had not imaged helping others find the ‘escape route.’  Together we were able to help others.

The more we develop a habit of planning for the unexpected, for the unusual, for the rare event, the more likely we will be able to respond and/or react in appropriate ways.  The event, we need to remember, can actually occur although it rarely does.  I have stayed in hotels in many different countries for many years and only twice has the fire alarm sounded – yet, each time I stay, I visualize what I might do if it does (I am still not able to carry a grown person down a few steps much less multiple flights; I therefore, also visualize a burly young man standing by to help).

Fear is the mother of foresight. –Thomas Hardy

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