Responsible people build; they do not destroy. They are moved by the heart. – Robert K. Greenleaf

For more than 40 years now folks have been asking me: ‘What are the Essentials of Servant-Leadership?’  This, I think, is a common question that all who espouse to embrace Greenleaf’s concept are gifted with.

My experience is that what we deem to be the Essentials depends upon the person.  I have never seen a list that everyone agrees with.  Given that – Here is my list.  Gentle Reader, I invite you to consider my list and, if you have not already done so, I invite you to emerge your own list.

Greenleaf was a practical man. He was rooted in ‘practice.’  He was also a ‘reflective’ man. My belief is that he would agree with Charles Handy that Experience plus Reflection is the Learning.  Greenleaf’s ‘concept’ of the Servant-Leader emerged into his consciousness as a result of his being practical AND reflective.  It is essential to remember that Servant-Leadership moved from ‘Practice to Concept;’ it did not move from ‘Concept to Practice.’

Greenleaf was also a self-proclaimed ‘Gradualist.’  He believed that it would take a generation or two for his concept to become a ‘wave’ (if, indeed it would ever become a ‘wave’).  He was correct.  The Servant-Leadership ‘Wave’ began to form in the early 90s, more than a generation after Greenleaf first wrote and published his seminal essay, The Servant as Leader.  So, an Essential element of Servant-Leadership is that it is rooted in Gradualism; transformation occurs incrementally and generationally.

Greenleaf’s writings are a blend of the ‘Practical’ and the ‘Conceptual’ and the ‘Philosophical.’  It is helpful to remember that Greenleaf’s first ‘center’ was The Center for Applied Ethics.  Applied Ethics combines the practical, the conceptual and the philosophical.  All three are required – they are Essential.

In addition to being a combination of ‘Practice-Concept-Philosophy’ Servant-Leadership also espouses a certain ‘attitude’ – a serving attitude.  It is, therefore, Essential to note and remember that Servant-Leadership is a way of being in the world.  This Being precedes and supports-nurtures the Doing.  The Doing also supports, reinforces and affirms-confirms the Being (Think: Servant-First).  This Way of Being (Servant-First), then, is also a Guiding Principle.

As a Way of Being and as a Guiding Principle, Servant-Leadership is then Counter-Cultural.  It is Essential that we continue to understand this.  Our Culture is ‘leader-focused’ and the idea that one might choose to be ‘servant-first’ cuts against our Cultural grain.  Even those who espouse to embrace Greenleaf’s concept too often emphasize ‘leader’ rather than ‘servant-first.’

It is also Essential to remember that the servant-first and servant-first leader is motivated by caring.  The servant-first person/institution is called to serve/care so that those served – individuals, institutions and the society – become more caring, more loving and more just.

We convince by our presence. –Walt Whitman

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