A recurring question I continue to receive is ‘What is a servant?’ This is a crucial question, for a deep current for Greenleaf was/is his ‘servant theme’ – his primary theme (as a reminder, ‘leader’ was not his primary theme, ‘servant’ was/is). Greenleaf was wise in many ways and he wisely chose to define ‘servant,’ as he wrote, as ‘the consequences of the serving on the one being served or on others who may be affected by the action.’ As a guide, Greenleaf offered us his ‘Best Test’ for the servant (one that is difficult to administer – as anyone who has attempted to do so knows only too well). As far as I am aware, Greenleaf offered us his final iteration of ‘The Best Test’ in his 1980 essay, ‘Servant: Retrospect and Prospect.’ For me, his ‘I believe’ and his ‘Best Test’ are the bookends that hold together his other deep current themes. So, gentle reader, here is Greenleaf’s 1980 iteration of his ‘Best Test.’
Do those being served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will she or he benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived? No one will knowingly be hurt by the action, directly or indirectly.
Because Greenleaf embraces an organic metaphor (for individuals, relationships, and organizations) ‘growth’ becomes significant. Do folks ‘while being served’ – not afterwards but during the process itself – ‘grow as persons’? People are not cogs in the wheel, nor are they assets, or resources or commodities – people are organic beings (human beings) who are capable of growth. Growth takes time and is cyclical in nature (the seasons remind us of this). By its nature, organic growth, is a deep current process (there are ‘waves’ of growth – ‘growth spurts’ – that do occur during the growth process; but they are not primary). What are the dimensions of this ‘growth’? Those served are ‘healthier.’ Consider, if you will, gentle reader that there are a number of dimensions that comprise ‘growth’: physical growth, intellectual growth, emotional growth, spirit(ual) growth, and social growth (for an organization there is also cultural growth).
People also become wiser. There are a number of definitions of ‘wise,’ this is one that might fit well with Greenleaf’s idea of ‘becoming wiser’: Wise = having the power of discerning and judging properly as to what is true or right; possessing discernment, judgment, or discretion.
People are also ‘freer’ (free = able to do something at will); more ‘autonomous’ (autonomous = functioning as an independent organism) and people are ‘more likely themselves to become servants.’ Being served is so impactful that folks will seek to become servants themselves (talk about having an impact). I am thinking of the story of the ‘healer.’ This person was given the gift of healing; a gift he could freely give to another if he chose – and if he did so choose he would then lose the gift himself. One day he was stopped by a person known to be very greedy. He asked the healer if he would give him his gift of healing. The healer looked at the greedy person and said, ‘Sure, why not.’ And he said the words and the gift was given. A week or so later the now ex-healer was walking along and over the hill came the greedy man, now healer. He ran up to the ex-healer and said. Now I want to know what enabled you to freely give me this gift. The now ex-greedy man became a disciple of the ex-healer and they traveled together teaching and healing and learning. To be continued next time. . .