Greenleaf writes: Who is the enemy?  Who is holding back more rapid movement to the better society that is reasonable and possible with available resources?  Who is responsible for the mediocre performance of so many of our institutions?  Who is standing in the way of a larger consensus on the definition of the better society and paths to reaching it? 

 Not evil people.  Not stupid people.  Not apathetic people.  Not the ‘system.’ 

 …The better society will come, if it comes, with plenty of evil, stupid, apathetic people around and with an imperfect, ponderous, inertia-charged ‘system’ as the vehicle for change.

 …The real enemy is fuzzy thinking on the part of good, intelligent, vital people, and their failure to lead, and to follow servants as leaders.  …too little preparation for and willingness to undertake the hard and high risk tasks of building better institutions in an imperfect world, too little disposition to see ‘the problem’ as residing in here and not out there.

Greenleaf wrote these words during the turbulent period of the late 60’s – unrest on college and university campuses, social-racial unrest, a growing unrest with our nation’s involvement in Vietnam.  Many folks were attempting to seek out and name the ‘enemy.’  Today, more than fifty years later, we are experiencing similar dynamics and we are also seeking to name the enemy (for some it is our elected officials, for others it is racially-focused, for some it is the ‘stranger,’ or it is a faith-tradition or it is China).

I find Greenleaf’s words to be, as they were in the 60s, important words to ponder – especially for those who espouse to be servant-leaders (or servant-first folks).  He continues, fifty plus years later, to challenge those of us who espouse his concept.  He held up to us the two keys: institutions and society.  How are servant-leaders impacting each of these today?  This is the challenging, if not disturbing, question.  To what extent do those of us who espouse his concept contribute via our ‘fuzzy thinking’?  To what extent have we intentionally prepared ourselves to serve and to lead?  To what extent are we continuing to prepare ourselves?  To what extent have servants emerged as ‘action-takers’?  How many of us seek to follow servant-first leaders?

How are we helping ‘natural servants’ to develop so that when they are called to lead – or when the opportunity to lead presents itself – that they are able to respond affirmatively with conviction and strength?  How are we helping those who are not servants-first by ‘nature’ develop their ‘second nature’ – so serving-first becomes ‘second nature’ to them?  We seem to be enamored with ‘leader-first’ — even those institutions who espouse ‘servant-leadership’ seem to emphasize ‘leader-first’ rather than ‘servant-first.’

The question, of course, is not what is happening ‘out there’ but is: ‘What is happening IN HERE – inside of each of us who espouse Greenleaf’s concept?’  This is the challenging and the disturbing question, I think.  How does our clear and/or our fuzzy thinking affect our response to this question?

In desperate times, much more than anything else, folks need perspective.  For perspective brings calm. Calm leads to clear thinking. –Andy Andrews

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Greenleaf writes: A king once asked Confucius’ advice on what to do about the large number of thieves.  Confucius answered, ‘If you, sir, were not covetous, although you should reward them to do it, they would not steal.’  This advice places an enormous burden on those who are favored by the rules, and it establishes how old is the notion that the servant views any problem in the world as in here, inside oneself, not out there.  And if a flaw in the world is to be remedied, to the servant the process of change starts in here, in the servant, not out there.  This is a difficult concept for that busybody, modern man. 

I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have had to be reminded of this simple idea.  Even as I sit here this morning I ask: ‘Does it really begin in here and not out there?’  Oh, there are events that begin ‘out there’ – that are initially external to who I am.  I then have choice – I am, after all unconditionally response-able; I can choose to react or to respond (either one can be ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’).

From his example of the king and Confucius, it seems as if Greenleaf is focusing on the relationship between the servant and the person(s) served.  The leader and the led, the manager and the employee, the supervisor and the supervisee, the mentor and the mentee, the king and the subject, etc.  Any ‘problems, paradoxes, polarities, and/or dilemmas’ that exist between me and the other(s) challenges us to consider (if not embrace and follow) Greenleaf’s admonition: to view any of these as beginning in here – inside of the ‘I’ and not out there – inside of the ‘other’. 

A while back, I had several searching conversations with a leader.  He was faced with a harm-harm dilemma (which, by the by, is the most daunting challenge a leader can encounter for it appears that no matter which side of the dilemma the leader chooses harm will, indeed, occur).  Part of the leader’s dilemma involved the relationship between the leader and another.  Throughout our initial conversation the leader kept the focus on ‘the other’ – it was because of the other that the dilemma existed.  During our first searching conversation the leader was able to ‘see’ and ‘understand’ that the system itself contributed to the dilemma.  During our second searching conversation the leader ‘saw’ and ‘understood’ the ways the leader contributed to the dilemma.  In fact, the leader was able to see that prior to the ‘other’ even coming on the scene that both the system and the leader were making contributions that would support, if not ensure, that this dilemma would emerge and thrive.  The leader did see that this dilemma did begin ‘in here’ – in the system and in the leader.

This acceptance enabled the leader to dramatically change how the other would be approached.  The leader practiced with me leading with naming the dilemma and then ‘owned’ that the dilemma began ‘in here’ – in the leader and in the system.  When the leader and the other met the leader ‘owned’ the leader’s ‘in here’ and the systems ‘in here’ and the response of the other was then to also own ‘the in here’ that was in the other.  Together they began to dissolve the dilemma; their goal is to avoid the ‘either-or’ choice that will cause harm.

The combination of ‘owing’ it – beginning ‘in here’ – and ‘seeking to understand’ created a pathway that increased their chances of dissolving the dilemma.  For me, their experience, once again, confirms Greenleaf’s observation that it does begin In Here, Not Out There.

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Greenleaf writes: For those who follow – and this is everyone, including those who lead – the really critical question is: Who is this moral individual we would see as leader?  Who is the servant?  How does one tell a truly giving, enriching servant from the neutral person or the one whose net influence is to take away from or diminish other people?

…If there were a dependable way that would tell us, ‘These people enrich by their presence, they are neutral, or they take away,’ life would be without challenge.  Yet it is terribly important that one know, both about oneself and about others, whether the net effect of one’s influence on others enriches, is neutral, or diminishes and depletes. 

For Greenleaf, the servant is a ‘moral individual.’  It might be helpful to remember that after he retired from AT&T Greenleaf co-founded ‘The Center for Applied Ethics.’  He was passionate about individuals and organizations behaving ethically and morally.  This passion continued to emerge in his writings for the remainder of his life.  His idea of the servant as a ‘moral individual’ is consistent with his passion.  If one were to study the history of ethics one would soon learn that there is no single definition of what constitutes a ‘moral individual.’

For Greenleaf a moral person seeks to do no harm.  The moral person also seeks to serve others’ highest priority needs so that these others grow as persons. The moral person also seeks to help co-create a society that is more just, more caring and more loving.  The moral person seeks to insure that others are not diminished or depleted by his/her serving (‘others’ includes the person and the society).  The moral person ‘enriches’ others simply by his or her presence ( I can, with great fondness, recall such people who enriched me simply because of their presence – I am now thinking of a morning when I walked across a courtyard in silence with the Dali Lama.  We never did speak and I left the experience enriched; I feel enriched now as I re-live the walk).

I am not sure that our effect on others is ever ‘neutral.’  It seems to me that my effect on others and their effect on me is a nurturing one or a depleting one (perhaps the nurturance or depletion is so subtle that only upon reflection do I become aware as to which one occurred).

I do believe that it is crucial that I know how I impact the other(s).  This requires that I choose to be awake and aware and intentional and purpose-full; this requires that I choose to be fully present ‘now.’  Because I am an imperfect human being my watch-word becomes ‘consistent’ not ‘perfect.’  I strive to become more consistent and I know I will never be perfect.

We become our habits. –Aristotle

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Greenleaf writes: The first order of business is to build a group of people who, under the influence of the institution, grow taller and become healthier, stronger, more autonomous.  …An institution starts on a course toward people-building with leadership that has a firmly established context of people first

When Greenleaf wrote these words in the late 1960s they were truly counter-cultural.  Today, more than fifty years later, they continue to be counter-cultural.  How many organizations continue to be ‘people-users’ (Greenleaf’s term) rather than ‘people-builders’?  More organizations today espouse ‘people-building’ yet the lived reality continues to support ‘people-using.’  One major shift has occurred, however, and that is that more people are ‘institution-users’ than ever before.

How many organizations do you know of, gentle reader, where their ‘first order of business’ is to build people?  The organization influences people so that they ‘grow taller and become healthier, stronger, more autonomous.’  A challenge for organizations is to clearly define each term: ‘grow taller,’ ‘become healthier,’ ‘become stronger,’ and ‘become more autonomous.’ 

 I find it easier to define ‘healthier’ and ‘stronger’ than I do ‘taller’ or ‘autonomous.’  When I consider four dimensions that help define who a person is then ‘becoming healthier and stronger’ is easier to define.  The four dimensions include the Physical, the Intellectual, the Emotional, and the Spirit(ual) – for some, ‘Spiritual’ resonates and for others ‘Spirit’ resonates.  With some reflection we can discern in what ways each of these dimensions is nurtured or depleted such that one becomes ‘healthier’ (or more dis-eased or depleted) and ‘stronger’ (we talk of physical strength, intellectual strength, emotional strength and spirit(ual) strength) or ‘weaker’.

Again, many organizations espouse that ‘people are our most important asset or resource.’  What we tend to forget is that being an ‘asset’ or a ‘resource’ does not equate with being ‘fully human.’  These two terms, in particular are part of our culture’s dominant metaphor – the banking metaphor (this metaphor has replaced the dominant mechanical metaphor that we integrated during the industrial revolution; the mechanical metaphor is not ‘dead,’ however – it is continues to be a dominant metaphor for many organizations and is still operative in many others).

I am not sure what ‘grow taller means’ is it akin to ‘growing up’ – that is, is it akin to becoming more mature?  I do have some sense of what become ‘more autonomous’ might mean.

Autonomous involves ‘self-governing,’ ‘independent’ and ‘free’ (as in ‘free-to-will’).  I am familiar with some organizations that help folks develop so that they are ‘self-managers’; they also help teams develop into ‘self-managing teams’ (these teams actually hire, develop, evaluate and even fire team members).  Being ‘independent’ can also be a trap for in order for work to get done (whatever the ‘work’ is) ‘inter-dependency’ more than ‘independency’ is needed.  In our culture working in teams is still a challenge for we are deeply rooted in ‘individualism’ and ‘being independent.’  Students (Junior High through Graduate School) resist working in teams – the reasons for their resistance are legion.  This ‘resistance’ is carried over into the workplace.

Organizations also espouse that members are ‘free-to-choose’ (free-to-will) and, again, what is espoused is not what is lived-out.  With ‘freedom’ comes response-ability, accountability, and consequences-of-choice (some folks, like some adolescents, want the freedom without the response-ability, accountability, or consequences-of-choice).

How many organizations truly put people first?  It seems that Greenleaf’s counter-cultural challenge remains both a challenge and counter-cultural for us today (‘us’ = those of us who espouse a commitment to his concept of servant-first (leader, institution, trustee, follower).

The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership. –Harvey Firestone




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You see persons and things not as they are but as you are. –Anthony de Mello

Greenleaf writes: Awareness has its risks… When one is aware, there is more than the usual alertness, more intense contact with the immediate situation, and more is stored away in the unconscious computer to produce intuitive insights in the future when needed.

…A qualification for leadership is that one can tolerate a sustained wide span of awareness so that one better ‘sees it as it is.’

…The cultivation of awareness gives one the basis for detachment, the ability to stand aside and see oneself in perspective in the context of one’s own experience… Then one sees one’s own peculiar assortment of obligations and responsibilities in a way that permits one to sort out the urgent from the important and perhaps deal with the important. 

 Awareness is not a giver of solace – it is just the opposite.  It is a disturber and an awakener.  Able leaders are sharply awake and reasonably disturbed.  They are not seekers after solace.  They have their own inner serenity.

My experience is that leaders who are conceptual find it easier to maintain a ‘wide span of awareness’ than are the leaders who are operational.  Operation-focused leaders find comfort in focusing on the short-term; they tend to gravitate to what can be engaged or accomplished ‘now.’  Conceptually-focused leaders love the ‘big picture’ and tend to be ‘visionaries’ – the long-term stimulates their thinking; the short-term is something to be tolerated (or the short-term is for others to attend to).

Awareness supports the leader as he or she strives to become a ‘reflective-participant-inquiring observer.’  As Greenleaf notes, ‘awareness gives one the basis for detachment (the ‘observer’).’  As one participates one is able to also stand aside and ‘inquire-observe’ and as one does so one also ‘reflects.’  This triple effort requires time, energy and practice in order to develop the discipline and the skill/ability to embrace and live all three roles at the same time.

One of Greenleaf’s ‘over-time’ themes is: ‘Awareness is not a giver of solace!’  Leaders who are aware, and ‘sharply awake,’ are more often than not disturbed by what they see.  They feel the anxiety that accompanies this type of awareness and they learn to use the energy of their anxiety in positive ways.  How many leaders pass on their anxiety to others (so they feel relief) rather than discipline themselves to use the energy of anxiety in positive ways? [How many of us do the same thing – pass our anxiety on to others so we feel relief?]

Greenleaf also reminds us that leaders who are aware (and hence anxious as a result of what they see) also have developed the discipline of ‘inner serenity.’  I have been privileged to know a few leaders who actually become calmer when they are in the midst of a crisis – they truly become serene.

There are stories of airline pilots who, amidst a crisis, are serene and calm.  I have observed fire-fighters who were serene and calm amidst a roaring house fire.  Many years ago I saw a state trooper calmly approach a burning car – he walked slowly and seemed to take in the entire scene and even as he was pulling the person from the car he was talking calmly and slowly to the person.  I remember looking around at other bystanders and I could see the anxiety running amok among us.

As Greenleaf notes in his writings, awake and aware leaders prepare themselves without knowing what they are preparing for so that when the opportunity to lead presents itself they are response-able – that is, they respond or react appropriately.

Greenleaf is also clear: in order for one to appropriately respond or react one must prepare one’s self and often to prepare without knowing what one is preparing for (talk about a paradox).

Why should we look to the past in order to prepare for the future?  Because there is nowhere else to look. –James Burke



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Greenleaf writes: The servant always accepts and empathizes, never rejects.  The servant as leader always empathizes, always accepts the person but sometimes refuses to accept some of the person’s efforts or performance as good enough.

 …Acceptance of the person…requires a tolerance of imperfection.  Anybody can lead perfect people – if there were any.  But there aren’t any perfect people.

 …It is part of the enigma of human nature that the ‘typical’ person – immature, stumbling, inept, lazy – is capable of great dedication and heroism ‘if’ wisely led.  …The secret of institution building is to be able to weld a team of such people by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be.

People grow taller when those who lead them empathize and when they are accepted for what they are, even though their performance may be judged critically in terms of what they are capable of doing.  Leaders who empathize and who fully accept those who go with them on this basis are more likely to be trusted.

Greenleaf states the challenge simply and clearly: ‘The servant ALWAYS accepts and empathizes, NEVER rejects.’  He also notes that we humans are, by nature, imperfect.  So, the servant is, by nature, incapable of ‘ALWAYS.’  An irreconcilable conflict or a paradox — It seems to me the servant-human seeks to be more and more consistent when it comes to accepting and empathizing and not rejecting.  This requires the servant-human to also ‘seek forgiveness’ when he or she stumbles.  The servant as leader has an additional challenge: to empathize and accept AND at times the servant-as-leader ‘refuses’ to accept some of the person’s ‘efforts’ or his/her ‘performance.’ How to communicate both to the person is the daunting challenge.  How many of us only hear the criticism or how many of us personalize the criticism (i.e. in questioning my efforts or performance you are questioning my ‘identity’ as a good person).

How many of us espouse ‘tolerance of imperfection’ and act intolerantly?  It seems to me that in order to enact ‘tolerance of imperfection’ that we need to enact ‘being patient’ and we need to enact ‘being forgiving’ while helping the person develop his or her capacity for ‘doing better.’

Research continues to support Greenleaf’s idea that ‘people grow taller when those who lead them empathize and when they are accepted for what they are’ – fully human beings who are living paradoxes.  Research also continues to confirm that those who lead in this way are also trusted more than those who do not.  I continue to find it ‘interesting’ that when asked, leaders espouse the importance of ‘trust’ and yet they have not developed their own capacity as ‘trust-builders,’ ‘trust-enhancers,’ or ‘trust-restorers.’  The lack of ‘trust’ and/or the ‘betrayal of trust’ continues to be ranked in the top three of major concerns within organized groups of three or more folks – yet, the time and energy the organization devotes to ‘trust-building’ and ‘trust-repairing’ continues to be negligible.

Acceptance, Empathy and Trust: The BIG THREE that receive the least attention.  Again, knowledge does not equate with change – Research continues to confirm the importance of these three and this knowledge does not move the folks in organizations to change (or where needed, to transform).  How do we use our knowledge to help motivate us to change (or where needed to transform)?  How do we actualize Acceptance, Empathy and Trust?


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

 …The ability to withdraw and reorient oneself, if only for a moment, presumes that one has learned the art of systematic neglect, to sort out the more important from the less important – and the important from the urgent – and attend to the more important… 

 Pacing oneself by appropriate withdrawal is one of the best approaches to making optimal use of one’s resources.  The servant-as-leader must constantly ask: How can I use myself to serve best?

Each of the great wisdom figures and wisdom traditions speaks of the importance of silence – avoiding the external noise and quieting our internal noise.  Silence is a major tap root that nurtures the hungry heart.  Today, more than ever before in history, we humans are moment-to-moment being washed over by a tsunami of noise (external noise and internal noise).  Silence does not bring us comfort – or so it seems – sadly (or is it ‘tragically’?) we become more and more anxious when we experience ‘silence’.  Greenleaf’s question continues to challenge me, support me, and indict me for too often the silence is not improved when I speak.  When do you, gentle reader, seek ‘silence’?  How often do you seek ‘silence’?  When you speak, is the silence improved?

Silence and Withdrawal are intertwining tap roots for me.  ‘Silent-Withdrawal’ is a tap-root that I, again too often, fail to nurture so that they can nurture me.  When I do take the time to nurture these tap roots and when I then take the time to allow them to nurture me I find that I am able to develop more fully ‘the art of systematic neglect.’  More importantly, for me, I am able to withdraw from the external noise and to quiet my noisy heart (the internal noise that is more distracting and debilitating than the external noise).

I know that ‘pacing’ is crucial – and, again, knowing this does not mean that practice will easily follow.  When I choose ‘Silence & Withdrawal’ and integrate these with ‘pacing’ I find that I shoot less from the lip, I find that I am less likely to be distracted by noise (especially by my noisy heart), and that I am more likely to be able to separate the important from the urgent – and respond to the important rather than simply react to the urgent.

For me, one of the internal noises that hinders my pacing rooted in ‘silence-withdrawal’ is anxiety.  When I ‘give-in’ to my anxiety I am reactive not response-able.  My pacing dramatically increases as I shun silence-withdrawal in favor of ‘fixing’ and ‘doing.’

Greenleaf does provide us three tap-roots: Silence, Withdrawal and Pacing.  The rest is up to us.

Francis Bacon noted that: Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.


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