Leadership is a serious meddling in other people’s lives. –Max De Pree

Greenleaf writes: The requirements of leadership impose some intellectual demands that are not usually measured by academic intelligence ratings. . .  The leader needs three intellectual abilities that may not be assessed in an academic way: one needs to have a sense of the unknowable, to be prepared for the unexpected, and to be able to foresee the unforeseeable.  The leader knows some things and foresees some things which those one is presuming to lead do not know or foresee as clearly.  This is partly what gives the leader his ‘lead,’ that puts him out ahead and qualifies him or her to show the way.

Talk about a daunting challenge!  As if leaders don’t have enough challenges already; Greenleaf ups the ante again (he really likes to up the ante) by telling us that it is important for leaders to develop three intellectual abilities.

The Leader needs to have a sense of the unknowable.  The leader does not have to ‘know’ the unknowable; he/she ‘simply’ needs a ‘sense’ of the unknowable.  A definition might help us to embrace this idea with less anxiety: ‘Sense’ = a feeling or perception.  How might one begin to develop this ‘sense’ of the unknowable?   Greenleaf notes that if one is awake and aware – open to having a sense of the unknowable, for example – one might well be disturbed.  Is the leader open to stating that he/she does not ‘know’?  Is the leader willing to become ‘disturbed’?  I have found that one way to obtain a sense of the unknowable is to frame questions from a place of not knowing.  These questions are then to be held or to be ‘lived’ (my thanks to the poet, Rilke, for the idea of ‘living the questions’).  A question might also be explored by a ‘good thinking team.’  The goal of the ‘good thinkers’ is not to ‘know’ but to inquire more deeply, to consider, to engage in searching via conversation.  My experience is that the good thinking of a team of folks will help provide a sense of the unknowable.

The Leader needs to be prepared for the unexpected.  Greenleaf notes that the emerges the leader will be able to engage it.  One way of preparing is via imaging what might occur.  Another way of preparing involves a team that is charged with scenario planning (Greenleaf was an advocate of scenario planning).  Greenleaf relates how he prepared for an emergency – over a ten year period – so that when it presented itself he was able to respond (he was not sure that this emergency would ever occur; given the circumstances, however, he did have a ‘sense’ that it might).  The combination of ‘imaging’ and ‘scenario planning’ can help the leader and those led prepare for the unexpected (which, as we all know, will happen).

The Leader needs to be able to foresee the unforeseeable.  In a number of his essays Greenleaf writes about developing ‘foresight.’ The ability to foresee the unforeseeable is partly rooted in one’s ability to ‘perceive’ and to ‘be open’ to possibilities and to be ‘awake and aware.’  One also develops one’s intuitive ability/capacity.  How many folks truly develop their intuitive ability and enhance their intuitive capacity?  How many trust their intuition?  The ability to foresee can also be enhanced by imaging and by scenario planning.  As Greenleaf notes there is always a gap between what we can see, what we can know, and what is unforeseen.  This gap can be ‘filled’ by an ‘intuitive leap’ (a ‘leap of faith’).

Of the three, this last one presents the most challenge for the leader; especially for the leader who is a strong when it comes to operations and is not as strong when it comes to conceptualization.  As I reflect upon it, the person who able to conceptualize is more likely to develop these three capacities.  People whose strength is ‘operations,’ and who are leaders, will do well to ensure that they surround themselves with folks whose strength is conceptual – and that they learn to utilize and trust their conceptual strength.

We become our thoughts. –Aristotle

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Few are guilty, but all are responsible. –Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Greenleaf writes: . . .any influence or action that rebinds or recovers alienated persons as they build or maintain serving institutions, or that protects normal people from the hazards of alienation and gives purpose and meaning to their lives, is religious..

 The challenge to contemporary religious leaders. . . is to establish, in contemporary terms, through rational inquiry and prophetic vision, beliefs that sustain those actions and influences that do in fact rebind, heal alienation in persons, and render institutions more serving. 

 . . . an urgent need for our times is for beliefs that unify rather than further fragment society.

I resonate with and embrace Greenleaf’s definition of ‘religious.’  It challenges me, it stimulates my thinking, and it provides one way of living into and out of his ‘Best Test’ for the servant.  It is also ‘servant’ focused and not ‘leader’ focused; any of us can embrace this definition for it is not role defined nor personality defined.  It also provides a test that any one of us can actually live out for it is rooted in the ‘influence’ and ‘action’ that is available to each of us.  It also reinforces Greenleaf’s idea that an important ingredient is ‘serving institutions.’

How many of our institutions are ‘religious’ in Greenleaf’s sense?  How many who espouse to embrace Greenleaf’s concept actively seek to help institutions to become more serving?  How many of our institutions are rooted in an organic rather than an inorganic metaphor (remember, Gentle Reader, that the ‘Banking Metaphor’ has become our primary Cultural and Institutional Metaphor – people are assets, resources, and commodities).

I also resonate with Greenleaf’s idea about ‘theology’ as ‘rational inquiry’ plus ‘critical reflection’ regarding ‘communal concerns.’  The question: ‘What do we want our institutions to rebound into?’ is crucial.  What is our response to this question?  How does our response help frame what we will choose to influence and what action we will choose to take?  How many of us have developed our capacity for ‘rational inquiry’ and for ‘critical reflection’ and for ‘critical thinking’?  How might we develop these given our current culture that appears to be ‘anti-intellectual’ (the intellectual vs anti-intellectual topic is another crucial topic for us today)?

What are the ‘beliefs’ that might help us ‘unify’ rather than ‘fragment’ our society?  As citizens we continue to elect folks who are to represent us who appear to be committed to ‘fragmentation’ rather than to ‘unification’ – George Washington warned us that ‘tribalism’ and ‘sectionalism’ would put democracy at risk of failing.

Although the wisdom of our Founding Fathers demonstrated – over and over – that democracy is rooted in compromise we continue to put our democracy at risk by electing those who seem to abhor compromise.  Have we lost our way?  Greenleaf wrote the words ‘an urgent need’ in the 1980s and here we are in 2019 with his ‘urgent need’ still at play (perhaps it has moved from ‘urgent’ to ‘critical’).

Greenleaf believed that ‘servants’ – individuals and institutions – were the hope for our society (remember that our elected officials are our servants; we are not their servants).  I don’t think Greenleaf was wrong in his thinking.  The question, the ‘Challenge,’ remains, however: ‘What are we doing to help individuals and institutions develop more fully their servant natures?’

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

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The task of the prophet is not to smooth things over but to make things right. –Eugene Peterson

Greenleaf writes: Prophet, seeker, and leader are inextricably linked.  The ‘prophet’ brings vision and penetrating insight.  The ‘seeker’ brings openness, aggressive searching, and good critical judgment – all within the context of the deeply felt attitude, ‘I have not found it yet.’  The ‘leader’ adds the art of persuasion backed by persistence, determination, and the courage to venture and risk… Both prophet and leader are seekers first. 

I continue to find Greenleaf’s ‘Prophet, seeker, and leader’ definitions to be stimulating, challenging and intellectually stretching.  They are also affirming (we all like to have our views of the world affirmed).  I have known folks who have integrated all three and I have known folks who have integrated two (seeker and prophet or seeker and leader).  I have known ‘seekers’ who were neither prophets nor leaders; I have never met a leader or prophet who was not also a seeker (what they ‘sought’ varied greatly).

How do leaders nurture seekers?  There are intended and unintended consequences of nurturing others to be seekers.  There are some who do not want to become ‘seekers’ – ‘Just tell me what to do and I will do it!’ is their mantra.  Folks who are developing as ‘seekers’ need to have their ‘spirit’ sustained; it is too easy to become ‘ends’ focused and, as we know, folks who are ‘ends’ focused tend to give up when the ‘ends’ are not achieved.  We also know that folks who are committed to a process over time – such as the process of developing one’s ‘seeking’ capacities – that ‘ends’ are more likely to be achieved (they often emerge as a by-product).  The ‘means’ do determine the ‘ends.’

How many of us truly believe that prophets exist today?  How many of us truly believe that we need them today?  How many of us are seeking them?  How many of us are holding an intention so that a prophet will ‘show him/herself’?

The great Chinese sage thousands of years ago noted that ‘When the student is ready the teacher will appear.’  So it is with the prophet.  How many of us are ‘ready’ for the prophet to appear?

It is also important to remember what the great Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, noted: ‘We cannot always tell the true prophet from the false prophet.’  Only time will reveal one or the other.  Perhaps this idea alone hinders one from becoming a seeker of prophets.   Perhaps we are not open to Prophets because we are fear-full of what they will call us to or remind us of; we might be full of fear because the Prophet will challenge our thinking, beliefs, or assumptions.

A prophet is someone blind to most of what others see. –Nassim Taleb

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Did I offer peace today?  Did I say words of healing? –Henri Nouwen

Greenleaf writes: . . .Religious Leadership, these two words are used here to describe actions taken to heal, or build immunity from, two serious contemporary maladies: (1) widespread alienation in all sectors of the population, and (2) the inability or unwillingness to serve on the part of too many of the institutions, large and small, that make up our complex society.  Each of these maladies is seen, in part, as a cause of the other, and neither is likely to be healed without coming to terms with the other.  The test of the efficacy of religious leadership is: does it cause things to happen among people, directly or indirectly, that heal and immunize from maladies like these two?

 Alienate = to make indifferent, or hostile; to turn away.  How do we make the other(s) indifferent?  Consider the following: We marginalize them, we categorize them, we de-humanize them, we ignore them, we shun them, we isolate them, and/or we silence their voices (by not inviting them or by denying them the right to speak or by judging them to be unworthy).

Some go quietly and some do not; they become angry, if not hostile, and let us know that they are [‘are’ meaning ‘they are hostile’ and ‘are’ meaning ‘they exist’].  We also alienate by ‘turning them away.’  We are struggling with immigration today; one response is to ‘turn them away’ (or send them away).

This is ironic in that we are a nation founded on immigration (to the detriment of the natives that were here first).  This turning away is also immoral, given Greenleaf’s definition of ‘religious leadership.’  Sadly, some of the most vociferous ‘turning away voices’ emanate from the mouths of ‘good Christians.’  How ironic is this: If a Christian is to ‘see’ Jesus in each person how can a Christian, in good faith, choose to turn another away.  Jesus, as I recall, invited all to come along.

Greenleaf’s second point is also a powerful one: Institutions of all sizes are unable or unwilling to serve.  Too many are self-serving.  It is crucial for an institution to be ‘selfish,’ but to be ‘self-serving’ is potentially immoral (to answer a question Greenleaf asks: ‘When is serving potentially immoral?’).

How many of us – individuals and institutions – that espouse Greenleaf’s concept live out the two maladies he describes above?  How many of us – individuals and institutions – truly embrace Greenleaf’s ‘Best Test’?  How many of us truly seek to ‘rebind’ those who have been, who are being, alienated?  How many folks in our institutions are alienated?  What are we doing to keep them alienated?  What are we doing to help them become ‘part of’?   My mother reminded me, over and over and over: ‘Your actions speak louder than your words!’

The highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them. –JFK


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Any action that rebinds…is religious. –Robert K. Greenleaf

Greenleaf writes: All but the crude and insensitive live under the constant threat of coming unbound, alienated.  ‘Alienated’. . .designates those who have little caring for their fellow humans, who are not motivated to serve people as individuals or as institutions, and who, though able, do not carry some constructive, society-supportive role, or who miss realizing their potential by much too wide a margin. 

 Any influence or action that rebinds – that recovers and sustains such alienated persons as caring, serving, constructive people, and guides them as they build and maintain serving institutions, or that protects normal people from the hazards of alienation and gives purpose and meaning to their lives, is ‘religious.’ 

Ever since I first read these two paragraphs many years ago I have been deeply moved by Greenleaf’s definition of ‘religious.’  It is also a powerfully challenging definition.  How many of us – either as individuals, or as collectives of individuals – intentionally embrace his definition and the challenge that is imbedded within it?

Who are the alienated today?  How do we treat others so they end up becoming alienated?  Why do some choose to be alienated?  I know some folks who experienced being betrayed (trust was broken, for example) – either by another or by a group or by an organization – and have then been alienated or have chosen to become alienated.  The result is that they do not care for others nor do they care for themselves.  They see no point in ‘serving.’  They appear to be apathetic as they have little, if any energy (their energy is turned inward and they are depressed by it); their ‘inner fire’ has been extinguished and they are full of smoke and are suffocating from within.

Individuals, relationships and organizations (which are individuals and relationships writ large) can become, have become, alienated.  Alienation nurtures depression, cynicism, anger and at times rage.  It drains the energy so that the potential inherent in the individual and/or the collective is stifled if not destroyed.

Greenleaf is not without hope.  ‘Any influence or action that rebinds’ is important when it comes to helping the alienated reconnect.  There is healing power in caring for others, in serving others (so they grow as persons), in protecting others (in keeping others ‘safe’).  This healing power emanates from individuals, from relationships and from organizations.  The response-ability lies with those who are not alienated; they are called to reach out to those who are alienated and help them re-bind so they are reconnected – to themselves and to the other(s).

There is no guarantee that if servants reach out to the alienated that re-binding will occur.  If a servant becomes focused on the outcome he/she will soon give up (I know this one only too well).  In this case, like Mother Teresa, the servant is committed to being ‘faithful’ rather than to being ‘effective.’  The servant is faithful when it comes to caring, to supporting, to reaching out, to serving those who are alienated; the servant may or may not be effective (i.e. re-binding might not happen).   Do we, who espouse to be servants, have the courage (i.e. heart) to be faithful even though we might not be effective?

I am called to be faithful, not effective. –Mother Teresa


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

Greenleaf writes: The central idea…is: work to increase the number of religious leaders who are capable of holding their own against the forces of destruction, chaos, and indifference that are always with us!  Those who are in the vanguard of this effort will find ways to strengthen the hands of the strong by helping them, while they are young, to acquire a vision of themselves as effective servants of society, plus an awareness of both the opportunities and the pitfalls for those who would be such servants, and a clear perception of what it takes to lead – in religious terms.

Gentle reader, please see my last posting for the context and for Greenleaf’s concept of ‘Religious Leader.’

How do we develop those who are called to be leaders, by role or by situation, to develop their capacities (and these capacities will vary depending upon the person and the context) so they can ‘hold their own’ against ‘the forces of destruction, chaos, and indifference?’ The ‘forces of destruction’ appear in many guises, some right in your face and some are subtle as they are hidden in sheep’s clothing.

‘Chaos’ comes with fear, instability or significant change.  ‘Indifference’ emerges when trust is betrayed (especially by the designated leaders) or when the passion (the inner fire) for one’s work is extinguished and the body fills with dense smoke.  In order to engage any of these (and all three appear in all organizations simply because we humans are imperfect) the leader must learn to be an artist for it is at these times that what is required is the art of being a leader.

How do we help the young prepare to put on the mantle of the leader?  Greenleaf is consistent in his response: a major way is to help the young develop their servant-nature first.  To serve others, to serve the organization and most importantly to serve society (I have a hunch that if Greenleaf were alive today he would add ‘to serve the global community’).

How do we help the young (and the rest of us who are no so young) develop their awareness of ‘both opportunities and pitfalls?’ In response to this question, Greenleaf is also consistent as he reminds us, over and over, that one must become awake and aware and intentional and purposeful.  One must also choose to be responsible and to be unconditionally response-able.

As a developing servant the young must also seek to serve so that others ‘grow as persons.’  Our culture continues to be enamored with the concept of ‘leader’ and so Greenleaf’s seminal idea of being a ‘servant-first’ continues to be    underemphasized; if it is acknowledge at all.  More and more those who espouse Greenleaf’s concept of ‘The Servant as Leader’ continue to invert his message so it becomes ‘the leader as servant.’

The ‘religious leader’ (the person who seeks to ‘bind’ and ‘re-bind’) is also called to develop his or her capacity for forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and ‘re-bind’ trust after it has been betrayed; the person must be trust-worthy.

All of the above provides a significant challenge for the person who seeks to develop his or her capacity for being a ‘Religious Leader.’ It is no wonder that so few of these leaders actually exist (I have known four in my life-time).  I still have some flicker of hope that those who espouse to develop servant-leaders will consciously and openly embrace the development of Greenleaf’s concept of the ‘Religious Leader.’

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

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

Greenleaf writes: A religious leader simply makes his or her best effort to build and sustain a good society.  The result will be whatever it is.  It is not within the power of any of us mortals to determine the outcome (fortunately).  A ‘good society’ is seen as one in which there is widespread ‘faith as trust’… that encourages and sustains ordinary, good people as constructive  influences in the world as it is – violent, striving, unjust as well as beautiful, caring, and supportive.

 Among many facets of a ‘good’ society that might be achieved with finite resources are: the opportunity for as many as possible to engage in useful and remunerative work…; children get good preparation for a life of service; …health is encouraged and the environment is protected; the needy, the aged and the disabled are cared for. 

 …This is the essence of religious leading as the term is used here: to bring people together and sustain them as an effective force for the building of faith as trust under conditions in which powerful forces may be operating to destroy that faith.

Greenleaf’s big dream was that servants and servant-leaders seek to build and sustain a good society.  How many of us who espouse to be servants and/or servant-leaders seek to live into and out of his big dream?  Do we have a big dream?  If so, what is it?  If not, why not?

Greenleaf was also a practical person, so, ‘The result will be whatever it is.’  Our charge and challenge is to do our best; that’s all we can do.  The question is: Are we really doing our best?  And how do we know?  In other essays Greenleaf asks: ‘Are we using our current resources fully and wisely?’  A powerful, challenging and disturbing question.

How many of the ‘facets’ of a ‘good’ society that Greenleaf enumerates are we seeking to, are we striving to, live into and out of today?  Greenleaf enumerated these challenges more than two generations ago and it seems we are still struggling with the question of: ‘Who is to serve in this way?’ Some say, the individual, some say NGOs, some say the local communities, some say the States, some say the Federal Government, some say the Global Community and some say a combination of – if not all – of these.

Greenleaf’s ‘essence of religious leading’ presents us individually and collectively with a challenge that few of us who espouse to be servants and servant-leaders have embraced.  This is Greenleaf’s view of ‘religious leading’ – what is your and our view?  And, given your and our view, what and how are you and we doing?

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

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