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.’


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

Greenleaf writes that the new ‘Business Ethic’ is that serving is more important than being served.  Greenleaf continues: …it is important that this principle be embraced as an ethic and not simply as a ‘device’ to achieve harmony or increase productivity or reduce turnover.  Some popular procedures, such as participation or work enlargement or profit sharing, may be manipulative devices if they do not flow naturally out of a comprehensive ethic.  …just removing the evidences of manipulation will not produce meaning and significance in individual lives.

How many organizations have embraced and adopted Greenleaf’s ‘Business Ethic?”  How many of us who espouse to embrace his concept of ‘servant-leadership’ and the ‘servant as leader’ have embraced and adopted his ethic?

I have known a few organizations that have taken the time, spent the energy and committed the resources to embrace and integrate his ethic; I have known many more who have espoused to do so and ended up attempting to integrate a ‘device’ or a ‘gimmick’ or a ‘technique.’  Some of these were able to maintain the ‘device,’ or ‘gimmick’ or ‘technique’ for a short period of time – when the pressure was on they quickly abandoned the ethic.  As one Leader in an organization that committed to embracing and integrating Greenleaf’s ethic wisely noted: ‘We sought to integrate Greenleaf’s ethic because it is the right way to behave.  We found it to be even more crucial during times of challenge or during the times when we stumbled.’ 

This is more than simply a ‘way of being’ – it is ‘the right way to be.’  It is the right way to be especially when the pressure is on.  Few organizations have been willing to live into and out of Greenleaf’s ethic.

One of the things I have always liked about Greenleaf is that he never (as far as I know) said: ‘My way is THE WAY!’  He always invited folks to consider his way and to adopt it if it resonated with them.  He was clear that he believed his way was inherently ethical and growth producing (see his ‘Best Test’ for the servant to understand what ‘growth’ meant to him).  He believed that ‘serving,’ as he understood it, would help folks find meaning in their work (i.e. that the work itself would be meaning-full) and that those served (as he understood serving) would grow as persons (again, see his ‘Best Test’).

Although it seems as if Greenleaf’s concept has ‘staying power’ I continue to be concerned for it also seems that fewer and fewer folks are immersing themselves in his writings.  Greenleaf gifted us with a range of writings that continue to be inviting, challenging and intellectually stimulating.  Some of his writings are now available in collections and some are only available as stand-alone essays.  All of these are available to anyone searching and seeking to immerse themselves in his writings.

As individuals and/or as organizations we can embrace Greenleaf’s ‘Business Ethic’ as a ‘device,’ or ‘gimmick’ or ‘technique’ or we can embrace and integrate his ethic as a ‘way of being’ in the world.  Greenleaf invites us to do the latter – and as always, we have choice.

Responsible people build. –Robert K. Greenleaf

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We convince by our presence. –Walt Whitman

Greenleaf writes: I have confidence that…a new business ethic will emerge.  …What might the new ethic be? …Looking at the two major elements, the work and the person, the new ethic, simply but quite completely stated, will be: the work exists for the person as much as the person exists for the work.  Put another way, the business exists as much to provide meaningful work to the person as it exists to provide a product or service to the customer.  …The business then becomes a serving institution – serving those who produce and those who use.

Greenleaf’s ‘new business ethic’ is a theme that emerges throughout his writings.  For Greenleaf, the work one does should, in and of itself, provide meaning to/for the person.  To say that this is a daunting challenge is a bit of an understatement.  I have given this a great deal of thought these many years and I have sought to become aware of individuals who demonstrated Greenleaf’s ethic; they actually lived it.  My search for these folks has – and continues to be – rewarded.  And I have learned some things from these folks.

I am thinking of Mary Kelly, a waitress in a small diner in Wisconsin.  I am thinking of Phil Adelman, a doorman at a Marriott Hotel in Cambridge.  I am thinking of Absimil the taxi driver in Minneapolis (by the by, the Somali Name, ‘Absimil’ means ‘fearless’).  I am thinking of Jennifer, the night receptionist at the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C.  And I am thinking of a high school custodian – whose name I cannot recall, but his image is clear.  I am thinking of a doorman and a waitress who worked at my favorite hotel – the Furama Riverside Hotel – in Singapore.

All of these folks demonstrated that they found ‘meaning’ in their work.  A common element is that each of them ‘emotionally owned’ their role.  They did not view their role as a ‘job’ to be done or as ‘work’ to be done or even as a ‘call’ to be answered.  They had decided to act as if they were the ‘owners’ of their role – and each one of them acted as if they were, indeed, owners.

We know the difference – if we pay attention.  We know those who approach their role as a ‘job’ to be done.  We know those who approach their role as ‘work to be completed.’  We know those who see their role as a ‘career’ (although there seem to be fewer of these).  If we are lucky we will meet a few others who see their role as a ‘call’.  The folks I am thinking of believe they have been called to serve in this way (or they decided to act as if they were responding to a call) – they, each of them, emotionally owned their role.  To say that each of these folks ‘took pride’ in how they served does not even begin to capture what was truly going on.  We cannot pay folks enough money to ‘emotionally own’ their role.  Each of these folks chose to do so.  It was important for each to so choose.  Folks loved to be served by these folks.  Their emotional ownership was so powerful that I still remember them today.  For some I can still see their faces and remember their names (I first met Mary Kelly when I was in the sixth grade).  Their commitment to serve as they did continues to deeply move me.

How many of us have chosen to find such meaning in the ‘work’ we do?  Their lesson for me: Any of us can choose to emotionally own our work, our role.  It is our choice.  What will I choose?  What have I chosen?

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

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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 ‘metaphors,’ ‘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.  By the by, Gentle Reader, Competition is rooted in a scarcity model-mentality and High Achievement is rooted in an abundance model-mentality.

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 live-experience – not many of us.

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?  Am I rooted in a scarcity model-mentality or am I rooted in an abundant model-mentality?  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?

First, think. Second, dream. Third, dare. –Walt Disney

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‘TRUST ME’. . .

Greenleaf writes: Can some manipulation be made legitimate? 

 …I cannot visualize a world without leaders, without those who better see the path ahead taking the risks to lead and show the way.  What reason is there for accepting the constraints of a society except that therein the more able serve the less able?  One way that some people serve is to lead.  And anyone who does this manipulates others because one literally helps shape their destinies without fully revealing either one’s motives or the direction in which one is leading them.  Leaders may be completely honest about their ‘conscious’ intent.  But the essential artistry in their leadership, that which makes them more dependable and trustworthy than most, is their intuitive insight which cannot be fully explained.  We have it from the great French jurist, Saleilles, that a judge makes decisions intuitively, and then devises the fine legal reasoning to justify them – after the fact.  …And so it is with the leader.

In our culture today, to what extent are the ‘more able serving the less able’?  To what extent are our role-defined Leaders (by election or by appointment or by inheritance) ‘more able’?  If they are more able to what extent do they actually serve us?  For Greenleaf, his ‘Best Test’ for the leader who is serving is: ‘Do those served grow as persons?’  He also wants to know that in serving, the others’ highest priority needs are being served.  These are two daunting challenges for those who espouse to be servant-leaders.

In this short passage above, Greenleaf also notes that the servant-leader will manipulate.  He or she will manipulate not simply because one is imperfect but because servant-leaders help shape the others’ destinies and do so without fully revealing their motives or at times without revealing the direction or the destination.  In the best case scenario, the follower freely chooses to follow for he or she trusts the leader.  The servant-leader is ‘standing out ahead’ and is inviting the potential follower to ‘come follow me’ – ‘Trust Me!’

What motivates one to give the servant-leader this type of trust?  What motivates one to freely choose to follow even when the path or the destination is unclear?  When do we deny our ‘freedom’ and our ‘response-ability’ and our ‘responsibility’ and ‘blindly follow’?  Why do we choose to ‘blindly follow’?

Greenleaf reminds us that the servant-leader is an artist; leading is more of an art than a science.  Many (?) of the leader’s decisions or choices are rooted in ‘intuition’ – in a ‘feel for’.  The leader is not able to explain his or her intuitive ‘niggle’ and yet he or she trusts the ‘niggle.’  How does the leader come to trust his or her intuitive ‘niggle’?

Servant-Leaders will manipulate the led.  They will manipulate because they are imperfect human beings and they will manipulate because leading others is an art rooted in intuition.  Trust is crucial; ‘Blind Trust’ is ill-advised.  The servant-leader will go out ahead and name and show the way and invite others to follow.  The would-be follower is charged with ‘freely choosing’ to follow – which means that the would-be follower will choose to be unconditionally response-able and will accept responsibility for his or her decision to follow.  This is the art of followership.

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

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Greenleaf writes: I recognize the problem…so much of business not serving well.  But the core of the problem…is in the attitudes, concepts, and expectations regarding business held by the rest of society.  People in churches, universities, government and social agencies ‘do not love’ business institutions.  As a consequence, many inside business do not love them either.  Business, despite their crassness, occasional corruption, and unloveliness, ‘must be loved’ if they are to serve better.  They are much too large a presence in the lives of all of us to have them in our midst and not serve them better.  …One loves only the people…the people are the institution!

Consider gentle reader that in a sense a business is a hybrid.  It is part inorganic-impersonal and it is part organic-personal.  Today in our culture the most powerful inorganic business metaphor is the banking metaphor.  People are assets, commodities, investments and resources.  During the early years of the 20th century the primary business culture was the mechanical metaphor – people were cogs in the great machine (often a type of time-piece, a watch).  Remnants of the mechanical metaphor are still operative today.  Business has also adopted a combination metaphor: war-sports (this remains one of our favorite cultural metaphors; a metaphor that organizations have adopted, adapted and integrated).

The organic-personal part of an organization also has its metaphors.  Two common organic-personal metaphors for organizations are the ‘Family Metaphor’ and the ‘Community Metaphor.’  Both support a ‘growth-developmental’ metaphor and a ‘caring’ metaphor. The ‘nuclear family metaphor’ is still embraced by a number of ‘older’ institutions.  This metaphor promotes the ‘father’ as the ‘head of the family’ – it supports the paternalist hierarchy, the father-at-the-top.  The ‘community metaphor’ is more egalitarian – a variety of folks can lead, leadership is ‘shared’ and leadership diversity is sought and honored.

The inorganic metaphors dehumanize people – at best people become cyborgs (part human and part machine).  Growth and development are not issues, for inorganic elements are not capable of either.  The organic metaphors recognize and relate to people as ‘human beings’ – they are capable of growing and developing.

Greenleaf names the reality: ‘the people are the institution!’  Institutions are individuals and relationships writ large.  Still, the inorganic-impersonal metaphors are deeply entrenched and too often trump the organic-personal metaphors.  For example, a health-care system will espouse that ‘caring for our people is a priority’ and at the same time will treat people as assets, commodities, investments and resources (if not cogs in the great machine).  Folks who work within health care systems easily identify how they are treated as assets, commodities, investments, and resources (and in older health care systems as ‘cyborgs’ or cogs in the machine; surgeons are often referred to as ‘mechanics’ in these systems).

The metaphors we use, plus the words we infuse, plus the questions we muse will determine the paths we choose!  When there is a powerful alignment between the metaphors, the words, and the questions the paths chosen are easy to discern.  It is when the metaphors are mixed – which is more often the case – that confusion, chaos, and conflict emerges.

It seems to me that organizations might well benefit by taking some serious time and discern and name the metaphors that have been integrated.  Once this has been accomplished then other questions might be helpful.  I invite you, Gentle Reader, to emerge some of these ‘other questions.’

Did I offer peace today?  Did I bring a smile to someone’s face?  Did I say words of healing?  Did I let go of my anger and resentment?  Did I forgive?  Did I love?  These are the real questions. –Henri Nouwen


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Greenleaf writes: One would think that inspired and creative contributors to society would leave a liberating influence as their legacy.  In notable instances, however, a cult ensues that obscures the teaching.  It happened to Jesus of Nazareth two thousand years ago and to Kurt Lewin, the great experimental psychologist who died in 1947 leaving in his wake a succession of ‘groupy’ movements: sensitivity training, encounter groups, etc.  It even happened to a work that my wife and I originated twenty years ago.  A few years after we had let it in other hands it was brought to us for review.  It was codified, manualized, and ready for copyright, thereby to establish a jurisdiction.  I will never forget the startled, almost panicked, expression on the face of the person who brought it when I said, “Why don’t you just give this away and go do something else?”

I remember a consulting group who took Greenleaf’s idea that Boards of Trustees (think ‘Directors’) hold all of the organization’s stakeholders and the organization in trust and put a copyright on the phrase:  ‘holding in trust.’  I discovered this when I wrote a piece about Boards and noted that they are ‘holding in trust’ for others.  I did not know this group had a copyright on these words.  Instead of calling me, I knew the Director of this venture quite well, I was sent a letter from their attorney.  This group no longer exists and I am not sure that the words I put in quotations marks were the exact words – but, gentle reader, I think, you might get my point.

I have had the privilege of knowing two folks who, like Greenleaf, freely offered their writings to the world; their work was copyrighted and they never denied anyone access to freely offer to others what they had written.  As I recall, during his life-time Greenleaf never charged more for one of his essays than the cost of having it printed.  In 1977 Paulist Press published a collection of Greenleaf’s essays, ‘Servant Leadership.’  Greenleaf turned the rights to the collection over to Paulist Press (he did retain the rights to the individual essays).  For many of us, Greenleaf truly left us a ‘liberating influence’ as part of his legacy.

Greenleaf desired that each of us freely choose our values, our actions, our attitudes, our beliefs, our principles, our assumptions, etc.  I have captured his legacy of a liberating influence with three words: Consciousness, Character, Conduct.  Greenleaf gave us a gift, his legacy, and he challenged those of us who sought to, who seek to, embrace his concept of ‘servant-first,’ his ‘Best Test’ for the servant and his ‘Credo.’  For me, his liberating legacy is contained in the first sentence of his ‘Best Test’: ‘Do those served grow as persons?’ 

So, Gentle Reader, I leave this morning holding two questions: Do I serve?  If  I do, do those I serve grow as persons? 

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