When is serving potentially immoral? –Robert K. Greenleaf

I continue to be intrigued that so few folks have directly addressed the dark side of the servant, the servant-as-leader, the servant-leader and servant-leadership.  So, gentle reader, let us pause and briefly explore ‘the dark side.’

Greenleaf writes about being awake and aware, about being good and evil, about seeing things whole, and about healthy humans being living paradoxes.  Since the servant, at his or her healthiest, is a living paradox then the servant will be comprised of light and dark, good and evil, and virtue and vice.  And one of the challenges, then, for the servant is to become awake and aware of these — and as Greenleaf noted, this awareness will not bring comfort and solace but will be disturbing to the servant.

If a servant is going to live an undivided life, a life of being ‘whole,’ it is crucial for the servant to be able to understand his or her light side and dark side.  In addition to understanding these the servant is also called to develop the disciplines and capacities to live more out of the light than out of the dark, to be more virtue than vice, to be more good than evil.  Because the servant is imperfect he or she will always stumble.  For the servant, it is not a matter of walking the talk but, as Peter Vail noted, it is more a matter of stumbling the mumble.

Because the servant will stumble, he or she needs at times to heal (to make whole) and this requires forgiveness and reconciliation.  As Greenleaf also noted, it requires community — no servant is an island.  No servant can go it alone.

So, what are some of the dark side issues for the servant?  The first is dependency.  Because the servant is charged with serving the highest priority needs of others it is but a small step from serving to creating a dependent relationship.  The one served ends up being dependent on the servant.  One antidote for this is to make sure that the servant is also served by the other; the relationship becomes a mutual one of serving and being served.

Another dark side issue for the servant is for the servant to become self-sacrificing to the point of becoming a martyr.  A servant can become seduced by self-sacrifice; by depleting one’s self to the point of exhaustion.  One antidote for this is for the servant to commit to building his or her capacity for nurturing each of the five dimensions that help contribute to the person’s well-being.  These five dimensions are the Physical, the Intellectual, the Emotional, the Spiritual and the Social (think: Relational) – I call these our P.I.E.S.S. We all have our favorite ways of depleting these and we need to make sure that we also develop our favorite ways of nurturing them and then we can seek to live a life that is more nurturing than depleting.

There are people who believe, like Shaw, that life is no brief candle and that they need to be used up when they die and some interpret Greenleaf’s concept of the servant as a self-sacrificing model/concept.  Because Greenleaf was also a living paradox it seems to me that he holds both ideas up to us and we are challenged, or is it invited, to choose which to embrace and follow.

The third dark side that I invite us to consider is denial.  Denying, in this instance, the dark side of the servant or affirming its corollary that the servant, by nature, is all light.  If the servant is willing and able to discern his or her virtues and vices then the servant is more likely to avoid denial of his/her dark side.  It is crucial that the servant discern, name and embrace his or her virtues and vices and to become aware of when they choose to engage one over the other.  It is also crucial for the servant to strengthen his or her virtues so that their vices become less powerful in their lives.  Servants help themselves and others strengthen their virtues so their vices become irrelevant — at least this is one of their big goals.

Gentle Reader, as you continue to explore Greenleaf’s concept of the servant-as-leader I invite you to be awake of and aware of what else resides in the dark side of the servant and what lurks within your own dark side waiting to be called forth by you.

Excuse me, gentle reader, I must stop for now and go stumble some mumble.


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