Greenleaf writes: The interest in and affection for his followers which a leader has, and it is a mark of true greatness when it is genuine, is clearly something the followers haven’t to deserve. . . deep down inside the great ones have an unqualified acceptance of those who go with their leadership. . . .Acceptance requires a tolerance of imperfection. Anybody could lead perfect people. . . the ‘typical’ person. . . is capable of great dedication and heroism if he is wisely led. . . The secret of institution building is to be able to weld a team of such people by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be. . . . Men grow taller when they are accepted for what they are and are led by the ablest and strongest and ethically soundest people. (Ethical in the sense of being sensitive to what helps people grow taller and more autonomous and disposed to act on that knowledge.) Leaders who fully accept those who go with them are more likely to be trusted. [The Servant as Leader, circa 1969, p. 18]
In this passage, Greenleaf offers us a number of ideas to consider: interest in, affection for the followers and these are freely given, they do not have to be earned. In what ways might a servant-leader demonstrate/show interest in a follower? In order for the ‘interest in’ to be efficacious must it be affirmed by the recipient (the message received is the message)? To what extent should the follower define ‘interest in’? Then, of course, as is his wont, Greenleaf ups the ante and adds, ‘affection for.’ When I consider this concept, ‘affection,’ I think of demonstrating empathy, compassion, mercy, caring and love (as a follower of Jesus-the-Christ I strive to adhere to his directive, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’).
Then there is the challenge for the leader to have an unqualified acceptance of the led; talk about a challenge for most of us. The challenge is to unconditionally accept the other as a fully human being. In order to be able to do this the servant-leader must first be able to accept him/herself unconditionally – no easy task for most of us. It is possible to unconditionally accept the other AND hold the other accountable. I am thinking of the owner of a company who fired an executive who had been with him and the company for more than 20 years. I can still see the pain that engulfed the owner as he struggled with the decision.
This is followed by an equally stretching challenge: a tolerance of imperfection. Greenleaf reminds us that at our healthiest we are living paradoxes of good and evil (his words). We are at our best imperfect beings. A challenge is to define both tolerance and imperfection. I am thinking of the CEO who told a project leader that he had just spent 20 million dollars educating him (rather than firing him for a, to say the least, big mistake). The CEO followed up with: If you make this type of mistake again I will fire you. . . I will also fire you if you stop taking risks. Now get out there, learn from this mistake and do your best work! This project manager ended up becoming, twenty-five years later, the CEO and helped the organization successfully weather its greatest storm.
But Greenleaf doesn’t leave it simply with ‘tolerance;’ he says the genuine leader will lift people up so they can become greater than they believe they can. This leader is more likely to be trusted. The story I just related to you is an excellent example of both – lifting people up and engendering trust in the servant-leader. It seems to me that each of us is charged with seeking ways of lifting others up. A trap here is that we might also help the other to become dependent upon us (how many leaders seek their followers to become dependent (think: becoming loyal to the leader rather than committed to the organization – there is, Gentle Reader, a difference between ‘being loyal’ and ‘being committed’). Servant-leaders seek to be trust-builders, trust-repairers, trust-nurturers, and trust-sustainers. They demonstrated being trust-worthy.
Coercion and manipulation in order to get compliance will work if the ingredients for these are in place; but if a leader wants to live into what Greenleaf offers above, then these two favorite leader tactics won’t work. Implied in this is that the leader must know him/her self and must also come to know those who choose to follow. It can quickly become over whelming for a leader to become aware of those who have placed their well-being and their trust in him/her and yet, as Greenleaf notes: Leaders who fully accept those who go with them are more likely to be trusted.