Greenleaf writes: Beginning in 1970, I started to write on the theme of servant…  the servant theme evolved out of close association with several colleges and universities [Note: Prescott College and Harvard University, to name two] during their disturbed period in the 1960s.  This was a searing experience…when the hoops came off the barrel. 

 My first servant essay, ‘The Servant as Leader,’ was prompted by my concern for student attitudes which then…seemed low in hope.  One cannot be hopeful, it seems to me, unless one accepts and believes that one can live productively in the world at it is – striving, violent, unjust, as well as beautiful, caring, and supportive.  I hold that hope, thus defined, is absolutely essential to both sanity and wholeness of life.

Folks have taught me for more than forty years that I cannot emphasize Greenleaf’s ‘theme’ often enough: the theme of servant.  The person who is ‘servant-first’ is, at times, called to be a leader by role and/or by situation.

Greenleaf’s conclusion in the 1960s was that students were not being served well (if at all).  Given this, the students were not developing their ‘servant nature.’  Some of the questions I hold today: To what extent are our educational institutions serving the highest priority needs of their students?  To what extent are our educational institutions structured to serve the needs, wants and desires of the instructors more than the needs of the students?  To what extent are students helped to nurture their ‘servant-nature’ (how many educational institutions emphasize ‘leadership development’ rather than ‘servant-ship development)?

Greenleaf’s first essay, addressed to college and university student leaders – the essay that, for me, was his inspired essay – was re-written/edited in order to appeal to a larger audience.  I do not have one of the original essays, however, I do have a copy of this essay.

Greenleaf’s theme of ‘hope’ was a theme he returned to year after year as he wrote his essays and his letters and his notes and his keynote addresses.  ‘Hope’ must be nurtured and must find a way of flourishing in the world as it is – a world of paradox.  As he notes in his writings, we human beings are living paradoxes.  Thus, it makes sense to me, that all of our institutions are also living paradoxes (institutions are simply individuals and relationships writ large); it also makes sense that nations, then, are also living paradoxes.

At our healthiest, Greenleaf notes, we are BOTH good and evil (his words) or virtue and vice or light and darkness.  We are, as Greenleaf notes, capable of doing great good and of inflicting great harm; we are capable of great injustice and we are capable of great justness.  We are capable of great egocentricity and we are capable of great compassion and care for the ‘other.’  We are capable of ‘building walls to keep the other out’ and we are capable of inviting and accepting all who seek to come in.  We are capable of ‘being our fear’ and we are capable of ‘being our courage’ (think: ‘being heart-full’).

As far as I know, Greenleaf never abandoned his vision for his theme of servant to put down deep roots, to be nurtured into life and to be sustained by ‘hope.’  Because of his commitment to ‘stay the course and run the race’ my ‘hope’ has been sustained.

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