…if one is servant or leader, one is always searching. –Robert K. Greenleaf

Consider that Greenleaf’s concept is inherently moral-ethical.  There are few leadership concepts that are; most are amoral (neither inherently moral nor immoral).  Given, this, Greenleaf is clear: Power must be used ethically-morally (remember Greenleaf’s first center was ‘The Center for Applied Ethics’).  Let’s explore this concept: Power.

Consider this first definition from an unabridged dictionary: Power = one’s ability to act.  This is an amoral definition.  It is also a definition that challenges many of the definitions of ‘power’ that we generally hold (think: coercive power, for example).  Given Greenleaf’s concept that power must be ethically-morally grounded I have emerged the following definition for power.

Power = the extent to which one chooses to link an outer capacity for action with an inner capacity for moral reflection.

Given this, consider the servant-first and the servant-leader and his/her Moral-Ethical Use of Power: to purposefully do no harm; to serve others’ highest priority needs; to act at all times rooted in integrity; to be motivated by ‘love-care;’ to commit to serving so that self and others grow as persons; to embrace the paradox that at our best we humans are living paradoxes of ‘good and evil’ (Greenleaf’s words; others soften these with ‘virtue-vice’ or ‘light-darkness’ or ‘light-shadow’).

A Moral-Ethical Use of Power also means that one will choose to be unconditionally response-able and responsible; to prepare in order to be able to appropriately respond.

A Moral-Ethical Use of Power also means that one will intentionally and purposefully prepare in order to be able to appropriately react.

A Moral-Ethical Use of Power also means that one will, at specific times, choose to be faithful to… rather than choose to be effective.  For example, one will choose to be faithful to acting rooted in integrity even if this ‘acting’ might put ‘being effective’ at risk (remember, J&J chose being faithful to their ‘Credo’ and experienced, as a consequence, the loss of profit and market share.  J&J did recover…however, when J&J made the decision there was no guarantee that they would recover).

Before we explore four ways leaders use their power let’s stop and reflect a bit on the concept of Powerless.  Consider the following:

  • Powerless = devoid of resources
  • Powerless = lacking the authority or capacity to act
  • One is Powerless When:
  • One chooses ‘Not to Act’
  • One chooses not to act with ‘Moral Reflection’
  • One choose not to develop the ‘Outer Capacity to Act’
  • One chooses not to develop the ‘Inner Capacity for Moral Reflection’
  • One’s position-role limits or prohibits one from ‘Outer Action’

We become our habits. –Aristotle

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Responsible people build; they do not destroy.  They are moved by the heart. –Robert K. Greenleaf

This morning, Gentle Reader, we will explore a number of ‘Disciplines’ that I have found helpful when it comes to the servant-leader preparing without knowing what he or she is preparing for.  I have also experienced that these ‘Disciplines’ help servant-leaders become more unconditionally response-able and responsible so they are more capable of living into and out of Greenleaf’s ‘Responsible people build; they do not destroy.  They are moved by the heart.’


  • Being Present = being awake and aware, intentional & purpose-full in the ‘now.’ Bringing all of one’s self to the ‘now’ – how many times do we physically show up but are intellectually ruminating about the past or anticipating the future; how many times are we focusing on an emotion or two and hence not fully available to the other?  Greenleaf does remind us that being awake and aware does not necessarily bring comfort – often they bring disturbance.
  • Reflection = experience PLUS reflection supports our learning. Consider that the servant-leader embraces three roles at the same time: reflective-participant-observer.  Some common ‘blocks’ to the ‘Discipline of Reflection’ include, but are not limited to, the following: hyper-stimulation, hyper-noise (both internal and external noise), hyper-busyness,’ distractions and ‘addictions.’
  • Listening Intently & Receptively = listening first in order to seek to understand & empathize (consider that ‘caring’ is rooted in ‘empathy’). Listening in this way also requires the servant-leader to invite and honor all voices.  Greenleaf also challenges us to hold this question: When I speak, how will that improve on the silence?
  • Framing Effective Questions = these are questions that arise from a place of not-knowing’ (Thanks Parker Palmer). These are questions that probe, challenge, and help one ‘go deeper.’  These questions are framed and offered with the belief & attitude that the one receiving them has the potential to respond intelligently, creatively & truthfully.
  • Framing ‘Aching’ Questions = ‘Aching Questions’ might be, for one person, life-after-death questions; for another they might be ‘problem of suffering’ questions. These questions are personal and are to be held not only by individuals but by ‘teams’ (think: departments, divisions, etc.) and by the organization (it is crucial to remember that for Greenleaf ‘organizations’ are living entities; they are communities).  These questions are also ‘profound’ and ‘immediate’ (think: a profound ethical-moral dilemma or a challenge that involves the ‘direction’ a person, team or organization is considering taking).
  • Balancing ‘Being Faithful’ with ‘Being Effective’ = it is crucial for a person, a team and an organization to be effective’ (Greenleaf speaks of choosing to act with distinction rather than to embrace mediocrity). It is also crucial for a person, a team and an organization to embrace being faithful.  I learned about the importance of being faithful in 1995 when I heard Mother Teresa respond to a young reporter’s question with: ‘Young man, I am not called to be effective, I am called to be faithful.’  What is the servant-leader called to be faithful to?  Consider: Acting at all times, rooted in integrity.  Or, serving so that others grow as persons.  There are ‘core values’ and ‘core guiding principles’ that the servant-leader and the servant-first and the servant institution must remain faithful to even if they might risk being ineffective.  Consider, the Tylenol poisonings in the early 1980s.  The President of Johnson & Johnson, James Burke, chose to follow J&J’s ‘Credo’ and risk a big financial hit rather than seek to choose for effectiveness (by the by, J&J did take a financial hit).

I leave us today, Gentle Reader, with several questions that I invite you to reflect upon.  These questions might also help you emerge additional questions.


  • At this time in your life which discipline do you need to develop, or develop more fully? What is your motivation for doing so?
  • Specifically, what are you willing to commit to in order to develop this discipline, or to develop it more fully?
  • How will you know that you have developed it, or developed it more fully?
  • We all have ‘favorite’ ways of hindering or blocking our own development – what are some of your favorite ways that you might ‘call upon’ in order not to help yourself develop or develop more fully one or more of these ‘Disciplines’?


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Anyone who has been a leader or anyone who has chosen to follow a leader knows that some of the most impactful and memorable experiences are not the big events but are, literally, the ‘moments.’  At this ‘moment’ the leader must act or appropriately react.  Greenleaf reminds us that we must prepare for these moments AND YET we do not really know what we are preparing for (Think: We can often prepare for the ‘big event’, the ‘moment,’ by definition, surfaces in an instant – we cannot ‘see it coming’).

The servant-leader is charged with preparing for the ‘leadership moment’ without knowing what he or she is preparing for.  In addition to ‘preparing without knowing what one is preparing for’ the servant-leader must also be open to ‘the moment.’  It is easy to miss ‘the moment’ if one is not prepared, if one is not awake and aware and if one is not intentional and purposeful.  Even an ‘in your face’ moment can be missed.

A STORY:  For years Greenleaf and his family lived in New Jersey.  Each day he would take a train and a subway and travel to his office in New York.  Each morning and each evening he would, upon entering the train or subway, look for the emergency cord.  He would take a few seconds and imagine himself in a situation where he would have to jump up and pull the cord.  He emerged a number of different scenarios that would require his jumping up and pulling the emergency cord.  He repeated his ‘preparation’ each morning and evening for years.

One morning, after he had settled in his seat on the subway, he noticed a man trying to get into the subway car by blocking the door with an arm and leg.  The door did not open.  The subway started to move.  Greenleaf immediately knew that the man would be crushed if the subway was not stopped.  There were others on the subway who also saw the man’s dilemma.  In fact, a number of them were standing right below the emergency cord.  No one pulled the cord.

Greenleaf, in the ‘moment’ jumped up, reached over people, pulled the emergency cord.  The subway stopped just short of where the man would be crushed between the subway and the concrete wall.

This was a ‘leadership moment.’  Greenleaf had prepared himself without knowing what he was preparing himself for.  When the moment presented itself Greenleaf was, indeed, prepared AND he was able to appropriately react; he did not have time to ‘respond,’ he needed to react.  Although there were others standing within reach of the emergency cord none of them thought of pulling the cord.  A number of folks missed the moment.  They had not prepared themselves for the moment.

Gentle reader, in what ways are you preparing yourself for ‘the moment?’  In what ways have you already prepared yourself for ‘the moment?’  Are there ‘leadership moments’ you have missed?  Are there ‘leadership moments’ that you have prepared yourself for and appropriately reacted to when they presented themselves?

I refer you, gentle reader, to Jan Carlzon’s little book: ‘Moments of Truth.’  It is still a classic today.

Next time we will begin to explore some ‘Helpful Disciplines.’  These are some of the disciplines that will help you prepare without knowing what you are preparing for.

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A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. –Lao Tzu

The servant-leader – especially by situation – at times chooses to exceed his or her authority as he or she embraces the challenge; this is often disturbing to others (a mild under-statement I know).  When folks are disturbed they push back; they resist in all manner of creative and unexpected ways.  The servant-leader is at risk of being marginalized or of being ‘removed’ from the process or of being undermined, shunned or betrayed.

No wonder folks choose not to serve/lead; even servant-leaders by role hesitate.  On one hand it is wise to hesitate; only ‘fools rush in’ – Aristotle reminds us that ‘rashness’ is not the same as ‘courage.’ On the other hand, no matter how careful you are, how gentle you are, how invitational you are, how collaborative you are choosing to serve/lead is risky at best and at times it is truly dangerous.

Given all of this, why would anyone choose to step out ahead and serve/lead?  What’s in it for them?  What’s in it for the other(s)?  Well consider this: Because each of us is unique and because each of us have certain skills, talents, abilities and capacities and because we, for the most part anyway, espouse that we care for the other(s) – all of those stakeholders we serve; we are called to serve/lead and we respond to the call by choosing to do so.  We have knowledge and experience that others need and in choosing to offer these up we choose to serve/lead.

To be a servant-leader requires the courage (i.e. heart) to choose, to act, to experience, to reflect and to learn.  It requires embracing doubt more than surety.  As Lincoln reminded us: It involves trusting the ‘better angels of our nature’ and the ‘better angels’ of the other(s).  To be a servant-leader requires that one believes that ‘we really are in this together’ – interdependence rooted in trust is required.

Being a servant-leader is risky if not dangerous. Yet, there is hope. There is hope for the person who chooses to serve/lead because for the most part those who freely choose to follow are capable of embracing both the ‘good’ news and the ‘disturbing’ news; they are capable of engaging the burning questions and they are capable of thinking together in ways that tap the wisdom of the collective (which, for the most part, is more impactful than the wisdom of the individual).

Gentle reader, it is crucial to remember that being a servant-leader is rooted in a desire to serve first and to serve the highest priority needs of the other(s) so that the other(s) grow as persons. As I conclude this morning I am recalling the words of John Quincy Adams:

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.



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

For those of us who espouse Greenleaf’s concept of the servant-as-leader, almost every day each of us encounters an opportunity to serve and to lead.  For example, at work one might sit in a meeting and watch folks avoid the undiscussables (the ‘elephant’ in the room) and then this person might embrace the opportunity to serve and to lead and name the undiscussables and invite the others to engage them; more often, however, the person chooses not to embrace the opportunity and remains silent (people have a variety of justifications for choosing ‘silence’ so the ‘why’ – as in ‘why’ does one choose to remain silent – is crucial).

Each day presents us with opportunities to frame one or more ‘burning questions,’ or to invite folks to live into and out of ‘higher’ values or virtues, or to challenge folks to surface and engage unresolved conflicts.  Each day we have an opportunity to make a difference by choosing to serve and to lead.

Each day we must decide whether or not to serve and to lead – to put our contribution ‘out there’ or keep it to one’s self.  Why does one choose to ‘hold back’?  Perhaps one holds back because one does not want to offend the other(s) or upset the other(s) or ‘make waves.’

On one hand, folks are right in choosing to be cautious.  Prudence is, after all, a virtue.  If we have paid any attention at all we know that folks are disturbed when one offers unpopular initiatives or suggests provocative new ideas or names the ‘elephant in the room.’  People can become quite irate when one questions the gap between their values and their actions (‘irate’ might be too soft – ‘rage-full’ might fit as well).  Folks don’t like it when another invites them to name and face tough realities; such awareness, Greenleaf reminds us, does not bring folks comfort or solace; this type of awareness, more often than not, brings disturbance..

When one chooses to serve and to lead one chooses to risk the ire of the other(s); one chooses to become vulnerable.  Being vulnerable means that one is willing to take the risk to serve and to lead; it means that one is willing to be transparent – i.e. to be an imperfect human being who will more often stumble the mumble rather than walk the talk.

Being vulnerable also means that as a servant-leader you will be wounded (on purpose or by accident) and thus you will be challenged to ‘carry the wound with grace’ (vulnerable is rooted in the Latin word ‘vulnus’ which means ‘to carry the wound with grace’); you will not seek revenge, you will not return ‘wound for wound.’  It is helpful to remember that one of the most difficult things for a servant-leader to do is to return love for wounds delivered.  For certain faith, humanistic and philosophic traditions this is the ‘turn the other cheek’ plus the ‘golden rule’ in action.

Simply put: One can get into a great deal of bother when one chooses to serve and to lead.

A quotation from Ron Heifetz sums it up quite well: “the word “lead” has an Indo-European root that means “to go forth, die.”

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As I was reflecting this morning on Greenleaf’s concept of servant-first a poem that emerged into my consciousness in 2009 called to me.  This morning, gentle reader, I have decided to share this poem with you.

[an incomplete reply]

A simple question I hold:
Must I serve?
It seems that
A fox Must hunt;
An eagle Must soar;
A searcher Must seek.
Must is housed in the
Who of each.

What resides in my Who?
My mind houses Should
and Ought;
My heart houses Perhaps
and Maybe;
My soul houses Hope
and Possibility.
There is no space in this home for
Will I choose to
make a room for Must;
to create a mind-space
or a heart-space or a
soul-space for Must?
Am I willing to intentionally invite
and warmly welcome Must into
my home?

Am I willing to accept
Obligation —
the clothes that cover Must?

Am I willing to sit quietly and
listen for the voice of Must
asking me to welcome her
and him into my home?

Am I fearful that Must is
lurking about outside and
that Should, Ought, Perhaps,
Maybe, Hope and Possibility
are busy guarding the door
with the bar of Distraction?    –Richard W Smith, 20 December, 2009


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From any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary. –Walt Whitman

Yesterday morning I was sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops savoring my coffee and the words I was reading.  I was engrossed in a passage, lost in thought, when I sensed that someone had settled in next to me.

I looked up and there was another regular, Ali.  His warm smile greeted me and invited me into connection-conversation.  He began to describe some things that were occurring with his youngest son, a college student who is trying to find his way; he described some of the challenges that were emerging with the employees at the company he owned.  And he described the on-going dramas that continues to unfold in our country.

After some time Ali looked at me and said: I am swimming in the sea of chaos and confusion.

Later, when I was settling in at home with a few books I remembered a Greenleaf quote.  I pulled out a few of his essays and paged through them.  On page 45 of Greenleaf’s essay, Advices to Servants I found the quote: ‘…all is confusion.’

Greenleaf wrote: all is confusion may be seen as describing an opportunity. It presents all an opportunity because it is a threat.  I have watched closely many able leaders… The best of them feel that a prolonged period of calm and stability is a greater threat to viability than is an occasional state of confusion.  …they will do something to deliberately create confusion… …struggle is of the very essence, it is life giving, therefore it is necessary.  I look upon the struggle to recover from confusion as a necessary condition for viability.

I have known a number of leaders like the ones Greenleaf described.  The ones I knew were all primarily ‘visionaries.’  They were constantly contributing to, if not directly causing, confusion.  They would, literally, wander around and ‘plant seeds of confusion’ by listening in on conversations and then as they were taking their leave they would offer a question that would invite ‘contrary’ thinking.

They believed that if they could help keep folks off-balance that these folks would become more creative – more options and possibilities would emerge.  Generally, they were correct.  Their companies were not only full of creative energy they were always on the ‘cutting edge’ of their industry.  One of these leaders told me that his job was to ‘stir the pot of complacency.’  And he was really good when it came to being a ‘pot stirrer.’

On the other hand, the leaders I knew who were gifted ‘operationalizers,’ not ‘conceptualizers,’ worked hard at maintaining ‘stability.’  They did not suffer visionaries well.  Intellectually they knew that it developing and integrating and embracing a vision was important they were more comfortable focusing on the ‘mission’ and the action-steps needed in order to live into and out of the mission.

Ironically, the operations-centered leader’s organizations experienced greater ‘threat’ from their competitors than the visionary-centered leader’s organizations did.  The op-centered organizations tended to be industry followers and were almost always ‘behind’ when it came to being on the ‘cutting edge’.  As one of these op-centered leaders said to me: ‘Richard, I don’t like to be on the cutting edge.  In fact, I like to be about 50 yards behind the plow.’

How about you, gentle reader, do you like to be on the cutting edge or would you rather be 50 yards behind the plow?

We are called to be architects of the future…—R. Buckminster Fuller



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