For more than forty years folks have been asking me to name the ‘Essentials of Servant-Leadership.’ This ‘naming’ has been and continues to be a challenge for me. Part of my challenge lies with the definition of ‘essential.’ My unabridged dictionary tells me that ‘essential’ means: absolutely necessary; indispensable. ‘Essential,’ then, is not number-limited. On the other hand, it has always felt to me that having a large number of ‘essentials’ belies the spirit of the definition. So, given this, I will, this morning, offer us a ‘Few Essentials’ – an incomplete list to be sure.

Greenleaf provides servant-first folks with the following guideline: ‘…manage your lives with attitudes and values and ways of initiating that will assure service with distinction.’ It is ‘Essential’ that the servant-first commit to ‘serve with distinction’ and that the servant-first embrace the attitudes and values and behaviors that ‘assure’ this type of service. Greenleaf provides us with his ‘Best Test’ for the servant as a guide; he also shares his ‘Credo’ with us (and by implication invites us to define our own ‘Credo’).

Here is Greenleaf’s 1980 iteration of his ‘Best Test’ for the servant-first (as far as I know this is his last iteration of his ‘Best Test’ – the first he wrote in 1969). Greenleaf writes:

Do those 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?

Greenleaf was also clear, over and over again, that his ‘theme’ was ‘servant-first’ – his theme was not ‘leader.’ Hence, his ‘Best Test’ was offered as a guideline to the ‘servant-first.’ The ‘servant’ is who one is at one’s core – either by first or second nature – it is one’s ‘being’ and therefore it is not a role that can be taken away (one can, however, give up being a servant-first).

The ‘servant-first’ serves the others’ ‘highest priority needs.’ This is another ‘Essential’ for Greenleaf. The servant-first does not necessarily ‘serve’ the wants, desires, hopes or wishes of the other. It is also important, then, that the ‘high priority needs’ are discerned and named; all needs are not ‘high priority.’ Finally, ‘serving’ these high priority needs does not equate with ‘meeting them’ – Greenleaf’s was diligent when it came to choosing his words: I can ‘serve’ your needs without ‘meeting them’ (in fact, it might be impossible for me to actually ‘meet’ your needs).

The servant-first ‘always’ begins in here. The servant-leader, in times of urgency or crisis or conflict, always begins in here – inside of the servant-leader – he or she does not begin out there.

The servant-first listens-first in order to understand. This is another ‘Essential.’

The servant-first uses his or her power ‘ethically’ – at minimum, the servant-first chooses to do no harm. The servant-first also chooses to minimize his or her use of coercion (there are times when ‘coercion’ will be chosen – the key is to acknowledge this ‘when’ and to provide a rationale for doing so). The servant-first will strive to avoid using manipulation (again, the servant-first is imperfect and so will choose to manipulate). The servant-first will strive to use ‘persuasion’ more than coercion or manipulation.

Finally, for our purposes this morning anyway, Greenleaf says that an ‘Essential’ for the servant-first is ‘Gradualism.’ Greenleaf was a ‘Gradualist’ and so it makes sense that he would promote ‘Gradualism’. He reiterates the importance of being a ‘Gradualist’ over and over and over in his writings. Greenleaf tells us story after story of the servant-first who combined ‘persuasion’ with ‘gradualism’ in order to reinforce the impact that this combination can have on a culture (society or organization).

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