Greenleaf writes: Most of us…would really like to…get through to a significant level of meaning. …The best test of whether we are…is to ask ourselves, first, are we really listening?  Are we listening to the one we want to communicate to?  Is our basic attitude, as we approach the confrontation, one of wanting to understand?  Remember that great line from the prayer of St. Francis, “Lord, grant that I may not seek so much to be understood as to understand.”

One must not be afraid of a little silence.  …It is often a devastating question to ask oneself – “In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?”

How many of us truly seek to ‘get through to a significant level of meaning’?  One key word here appears to be ‘significant’.  We all seek to make ‘meaning’ out of anothers words, attitudes, actions, emotions, choices, etc.  To commit to getting to a ‘significant level’ requires that I am awake, aware and intentional and purpose-full.  This commitment takes time, energy, focus and an openness to the other that might well challenge me beyond what/where I want to be challenged.  It also requires a certain ‘attitude.’ 

Greenleaf says that one key is to seek first to ‘understand.’  What are the ingredients that must be in place for me to actually ‘seek to understand’ the other – at this time, in this place?  One block to our seeking to understand is that too often we equate ‘understanding’ with ‘change.’  That is, if you truly understand me you will behave differently, you will make a different choice, you will do what I want, you will change your approach, goal, your decision, etc. 

How many times do parents hear their adolescent sons and daughters say: ‘If you really understood you would….’  Or, ‘You don’t really understand!’ — meaning, that if you did you would allow them to do what they wanted to do).  How often do we adults hear these same words from other adults at home, in the workplace, in our places of worship, during board meetings, etc.?

Greenleaf also ups the ante again when he says that in listening our goal is to seek to understand first – it is not to seek to be understood.  I cannot begin to count the number of times I focused on attempting to get the other to understand me first.  If the other did then, of course, the other would support ‘me.’  On my better days I am able to seek first to understand.  I also admit that when I do so all goes more smoothly (generally).

Greenleaf concludes this little piece with ‘silence.’  How many of us fear a little silence?  How many times do we sit with others and when a bit of silence emerges someone quickly fills the void with movement or noise or words.  The longer folks sit in silence the more the room fills with a feeling of anxiety.  Why does silence ‘breed’ and ‘nurture’ anxiety?   

Finally, Greenleaf strikes again when he asks the question that continues to haunt many of us: “In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?”   

As I, once again, read this question I a smiling as I am imaging Clint Eastwood, in his role as ‘Dirty Harry,’ giving me that ‘look’ and asking: ‘Well, punk, when you open your trap do you really improve on the silence?’  Similar question, different person and different attitude offering up the question. 

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Greenleaf writes: I have a bias…only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first.  …this disposition causes him to be seen as servant first.  …a non-servant who wants to become a servant might become a natural servant through a long arduous discipline of learning to listen, a discipline sufficiently sustained that the automatic response to any problem is to listen first.  …true listening builds strength in other people.

Greenleaf offers us his guiding belief concerning the ‘true natural servant’ as one who ‘automatically responds’ ‘by listening first.’  Even today, his guiding belief seems to run counter to our cultural belief that a leader responds or reacts by ‘intervening’ (by acting) first.  Greenleaf chooses his words carefully (this is my experience in reading his many essays and letters) and so here he uses the word ‘responds’ and does not hint at the leader ‘reacting.’ 

The true servant leader is one who is unconditionally response-able (that is, he/she is always able to and always chooses to ‘respond’ rather than react).  For Greenleaf the servant-first leader’s response is ALWAYS to listen first [AN ASIDE: I am thinking of the leader of a large organization that counseled his direct reports with: ‘When there is a crisis, don’t just do something…sit there!’  Listen, first!]. 

The servant-first leader listens to what is emerging from within self (the various ‘voices’ that are speaking to the self) and at the same time – at the same time – is listening to the voice of the other(s).  This also means that the servant-first leader consciously seeks out and invites the voice of the other(s) – especially the voices that the leader does not want to hear.  This, as most of us know, is no easy feat for us who are rooted in a culture of ‘doing,’ ‘reacting,’ and ‘immediate need satisfaction.’ 

The ‘natural’ servant is born with a tendency to listen first.  This ‘natural tendency’ must also be cultivated and developed; the ‘natural tendency’ alone is not enough.  This development does require one to be disciplined.  So it is with the person who is not born with this ‘natural tendency.’  One can learn, via ‘a long arduous discipline’ journey to listen so that over time listening-first becomes ‘second nature’ to the person (anyone who has learned to ride a bike or swim or drive a car knows the power of developing a second-nature). 

Learning to listen-first and learning to respond by listening first requires a disciplined commitment that will last a life-time.  How many non-listeners or how many leaders who have integrated the habit of responding or reacting first by ‘action’ (by doing something) are actually willing to be disciplined enough, or long enough, in order to become leaders who listen first?  

Greenleaf concludes this short paragraph with a ‘throw-away-line’: …true listening builds strength in other people.  I cannot recall the number of times folks who have read this essay have missed this sentence.  It is a sentence that loops us back to Greenleaf’s ‘Best Test’ for the servant: ‘Do those served grow?’  Listening with undefended receptivity and listening first and listening in order to understand does, indeed, build strength in the speaker.  Listening in this way is also a gift given both to the one who speaks and to the one who listens (the one who listens also grows as a result of his/her listening first). 

The psychologist Karl Menninger supports Greenleaf’s idea of growth through listening; he offers us to consider the following: ‘Listening…is a creative force. Those who listen to us are the ones we move toward.  When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.’

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Greenleaf writes: Why is there so little listening? 

How often do we listen to what is emerging from within ourselves?  How often do we listen to what is ‘speaking’ to us from our physical dimension – our body ‘speaks’ to us constantly.  Right now, for example, I am listening to my body tell me that my posture is contributing to discomfort in my neck and shoulders. Gentle Reader, if you pause right now and if you focus and pay attention you too might hear your body speaking to you. 

On the other hand, how often do we listen to what is ‘speaking’ to us from our intellectual dimension?  I am pausing to reflect on what my intellect is saying to me.  I am aware that I am thinking about the sunshine that is emerging and I find myself being distracted from my writing to focus on the future.  How often are we distracted from the present by our ruminating about the past or by our anticipating the future? 

How often do we listen to what is ‘speaking’ to us from our emotional dimension?  How often are we aware of the range of emotions that are constantly present and that ‘speak’ to us moment to moment?  In what ways do we respond to the emotions that are currently ‘speaking’ to us?  Do we listen for them?  Do we listen to them?  Do we respond to them?  Do we react to them? 

How often do we listen to what is ‘speaking’ to us from our spirit(ual) dimension?  For some, this speaking emanates from what Greenleaf calls ‘entheos’ – the spirit that sustains us or the spirit that animates us.  For some God’s Spirit speaks to us – generally via whispers rather than through a loud voice so we really have to pay attention and be open to this Voice. 

To complicate all of this internal listening even more, it is not uncommon for these ‘voices’ to not agree; at times they are actually conflicting voices.  In addition, we develop ‘habits of the heart’ which often times determine which of these internal voices we will actually listen to and follow.  Aristotle reminded us a few years ago that we are what we habitually think and do.  How often do we discern our habitual responses to these discrete and diverse voices from within?  How often do we seek to silence some and increase the volume of others? 

Of course, these are not the only voices that speak to us.  Throughout our life-time we integrate other voices into our inner life.  The voices of our parental figures, the voices of our siblings, the voices of the myriad authority figures that influence us (and that we pay attention to), the voices of spiritual leaders or spiritual guides, the voices of friends and foes, etc.  We carry these voices within ourselves and too often they do not speak in harmony but are dissonant voices; they cause us no small bother as a result. 

Given all of this, it is truly a miracle that we pay any attention to the voices of others that we hear day-to-day.  Which of these external voices do we ‘listen to’ and which ones do we ignore?  Which of these external voices influence us and which do we dismiss out of hand? 

How often do we engage in A Sustained Focus of Listening in response to these many voices speaking to us?  How does listening affect, influence, guide and direct the servant-first follower or leader? 

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I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why Not?’ –George Bernard Shaw

Greenleaf writes: Every achievement starts with a goal.  But not just any goal and not just anybody stating it.  The one who states the goal must elicit trust…because those who follow are asked to accept the risk along with the leader.  A leader does not elicit trust unless one has confidence in his values and his competence (including judgment) and unless he has a sustaining spirit (entheos) that will support the tenacious pursuit of a goal.

Not much happens without a dream.  And for something great to happen, there must be a great dream…  Much more than a dreamer is required to bring it to reality; but the dream must be there first.

Gentle reader, consider the following ‘model’ for ‘Big Dreams’: Walt Disney.  Disney Land in California was a response in great part to a desire Walt Disney’s daughters had: to go to a theme park that was focused on the visitor, that was clean, that was safe and that did not ‘rip off’ the visitors.  After Disney Land had become successful there emerged within Walt Disney a ‘big dream.’ 

When I read Greenleaf’s words I think of Walt Disney.  His goal was not just any goal; it was indeed a ‘big dream.’  Not just anybody held this dream – Walt Disney did (he had already proven his ability to bring a big dream to reality).  Those who joined him in this risky venture – turning a swamp into Disney World – trusted Walt Disney.  Many folks embraced his big dream and were willing to risk with him for they trusted him.  Those who chose to follow him trusted his values and his competence (including his judgment).  Walt Disney demonstrated a sustaining spirit (entheos); a spirit that supported his tenacious pursuit of his big dream. 

I also find it quite intriguing that in order for Walt Disney to live into and out of his big dream that others had to succeed.  For example, Walt Disney supported the Marriott brothers in their quest to develop and build the Six Flags theme parks; one important way he supported them was to provide them with one of his design teams (so the Marriott brothers would not have to ‘learn on the go’).  For Walt Disney it was crucial that the Marriott brothers’ vision became reality for he needed them to succeed in order for Disney World to succeed (talk about a paradox; a paradox rooted in high achievement not competition). 

Walt Disney was able to support the Marriott brothers because he was rooted in a value of abundance, not scarcity.  He also believed that ‘high achievement, not competition’ was a key – and a value for him.  Walt Disney World could succeed IF Six Flags succeeded.  Another paradox that many folks don’t understand.  Walt Disney was correct – if the Marriott brothers succeeded then his big dream could become reality; they succeeded and so did Walt Disney’s big dream: Disney World. 

We can learn a great deal from Walt Disney – if we have the courage (the heart) to do so.  There have been a few others that learned by Walt Disney’s example: Herb Kelleher, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  Like Walt Disney they went out ahead to show the way; they each had a big dream; they each attracted people who trusted them and who were willing to take the risk with them. 

Greenleaf also had a big dream.  The question remains today: Who has chosen to follow him and take the risk to live into and out of his big dream?  How many of us who espouse his concept know what his ‘Big Dream’ was/is?  Do you, Gentle Reader, know?  If not, ‘search and you will find.’ 

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Greenleaf writes: A mark of a leader…is that he is better than most at pointing the direction…he always has a goal…  The leader knows what it is and can articulate it for any who are unsure.   By clearly stating and restating the goal the leaders gives certainty and purpose to others…

The word goal is used here in the special sense of the overarching purpose, the big dream, the visionary concept…  It is something presently out of reach; it is something to strive for, to move toward, or become.  It is so stated that it excites the imagination and challenges people to work for something they do not yet know how to do…

In our culture we seek leaders who can ‘get things done.’  Greenleaf offers us, as is his wont, a view counter to our current view of the leader as a ‘doer.’  He offers us a concept of leader as one who names (the goal), as one who points us in the direction (the goal).  For Greenleaf the leader is clear as to the ‘goal’ and is able to clearly articulate the goal to others – especially to those who are ‘unsure.’  The naming and the pointing of the direction provides ‘certainty’ and ‘purpose’ to those who will freely choose to follow. 

Today, the world is certainly exponentially more complex than it was when Greenleaf wrote these words in 1969.  The world is also changing more rapidly and is significantly more complex than it was in 1969.  Greenleaf’s idea of a single leader providing the goal, naming it and indicating the direction is no longer viable.  Because of the increasing complexity plus the increasing rapidity of change, discerning the goal and indicating the direction now requires the wisdom of the collective.  The leader’s charge is to ensure that the collective is developed and that the collective’s wisdom is tapped.  This is a greater challenge than the single leader of 1969 could imagine (Greenleaf came close when he describes the ‘Council of Equals’ model for Trustees and in the 1990s a few organizations embraced his Council of Equals model for their leadership teams). 

Greenleaf’s definition of ‘goal’ is also counter to our conception, even today.  What is our organization’s overarching purpose (for example, for our existence: Why do we exist?)?  Does our organization have a ‘big dream’?  If we do, how well is it articulated?  Does our organization have a powerful ‘vision’ (not just a ‘vision statement’)?  How well is this articulated?   Because our culture values ‘doing’ and ‘achieving’ embracing a big dream that is always just out of reach is not seen as being ‘realistic’ (in our culture we love to dismiss ‘big dreams’ as not being ‘realistic’). 

How many organizations (that is the people who make them up) are truly ‘excited’ by a ‘big dream’?  How many folks respond with cynicism when a ‘big dream’ is presented to them?  How many folks actually ‘emotionally own’ the big dream (if there is one) – to focus it a bit: How many emotionally own the short-term goals?  How many folks are truly ‘challenged’ by the big dream, or the vision, or even the short-term goals?  To up the ante, as Greenleaf does: ‘How many folks are challenged to ‘work for something they do not yet know how to do’? 

In what ways does Greenelaf’s ‘Mark of a Leader’ hold for us today?  In what ways’ does it no longer hold?  If Greenleaf were to write these words today which would he keep and which would he change and which new words would he add?

The search is the thing. –Robert K. Greenleaf

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