As I have noted previously, Greenleaf’s experience with students and faculty at Prescott College (Prescott, Arizona) in 1968 was one of his motivators to reflect upon and respond to two concepts: ‘serving’ and ‘leading’. In 1969 Greenleaf wrote his seminal essay, ‘The Servant as Leader.’ His original essay was addressed to college and university student leaders; as I recall he printed 500 copies of this essay for distribution. In 1970 Greenleaf ‘edited’ his original essay for the ‘general public’ and this is the essay that continues to appear as the essay with the orange cover.
I have a copy of Greenleaf’s original essay – for me it is his ‘inspired’ essay – and several times a year I will once again pick up this essay, re-read it, re-reflect upon Greenleaf’s words, and re-experience (think, ‘savor’) its effect upon me. [In 1993-1994 I had the privilege of serving the Board, students and faculty of Prescott College and I had long conversations with two professors who were teaching at Prescott College when Greenleaf was lecturing there.] Beginning today, I will once again, be quoting from Greenleaf’s initial essay, ‘The Servant as Leader’ – the essay that I view as the ‘inspired essay.’
In his Introduction to this essay Greenleaf writes: [This essay is not] a final or complete statement [it is] a record of thinking in transition, drawn more from experience and searching than from scholarship, and with the hope that some who read it will respond with gleanings from their own experience with serving and leading.
In 1980 Greenleaf published an essay he titled: ‘Servant: Retrospect & Prospect.’ In this essay he reflected upon the ways his ‘servant theme’ had developed and evolved since he first wrote his first essay, ‘The Servant as Leader.’ He also ‘looked ahead’ and offered us some of his thinking as to the impact his ‘servant theme’ might have going forward. For me, his 1980 essay confirmed that his original essay was, indeed, a ‘record of thinking in transition.’ Greenleaf believed, it seems to me, that one way he viewed his writing was an invitation to engage with him in a search: What does it mean to be a servant-first and given this, what does it mean to be a leader – to be a ‘servant-first leader?’
I think that Greenleaf understood a major ‘trap’ for those of us who read and reflect upon his essays – particularly his first essay, ‘The Servant as Leader.’ The trap, which it appears a number of folks who espouse his concept, have fallen into is one Greenleaf continues to remind us about when he writes, over and over, that his theme is ‘servant.’ The trap is to reverse his emphasis. Instead of emphasizing ‘servant’ and ‘servant-first’ one emphasizes ‘leader’ – as in ‘the leader as servant’ or ‘the serving leader.’ Greenleaf consistently ‘leads’ with ‘servant,’ ‘servant-first’ and ‘serving’ first. This continues to be a counter-cultural approach for us in our culture.