Responsible people build. –Robert K. Greenleaf

In his 1988 iteration of his essay, ‘Servant: Retrospect & Prospect’ Greenleaf writes: …let us look past the individual to the institution in which he or she serves: what (or who) makes that institution strong?

As I see it, the strongest, most productive institution over a long period of time is one in which, other things being equal, there is the largest amount of voluntary action in support of the goals of the institution.  The people who staff the institution do the ‘right’ things at the right time – things that optimize total effectiveness – because the goals are clear and comprehensive and they understand what ought to be done.  They believe they are the right things to do, and they take the necessary actions without being instructed.  No institution ever achieves this perfectly.  But I submit that, other things being equal, the institution that achieves the most of this kind of voluntary action will be judged ‘strong,’ stronger than comparable institutions that have less of these voluntary actions. 

Let’s unpack this a bit – not fully for we are limited by space.  Again, Greenleaf takes the ‘long view’ when he writes that he is concerned that an institution should commit to taking a ‘long period of time.’  Thus, the short-term, quick-fix attitude that our current culture is enamored with will not suffice.

Those within the institution ‘do the right things at the right time.’  What are the ‘right things’ to do?  The ‘right things’ are those things that ‘optimize total effectiveness.’  ‘Optimize’ helps the institution avoid mediocrity – One of Greenleaf’s major institutional criticisms is that too many settle for mediocrity rather than seeking to be distinctive.

‘Total effectiveness’ is directly related to Greenleaf being a ‘student of organizations – how things get done.’  ‘Total’ means ‘all-encompassing’ not just focused in one department or division or product or. . .   Folks can embrace this because the ‘goals are clear and comprehensive’ – a real challenge for institutions of all sizes and types and for-profit and not-for-profit as well.  AND these goals are ‘understood’ by all – another daunting challenge for it takes an investment of time, energy and effort in order to ensure that ‘all’ understand the goals and ‘what ought to be done.’  What is a major outcome for an organization?  Is it employee compliance, adaptation, buy-in or is it ‘emotional ownership’?

Given all of this, folks come to ‘believe’ (is ‘belief’ enough?) that these are the ‘right things to do’ and given this they will then ‘take the necessary actions’ to ensure success and to take the ‘actions’ without being ‘instructed’ to do so.  Folks need to have the skills, abilities, resources and support in order to take the initiative; they also need a structure and policies and procedures that create the safe space/environment for them do so.  Folks are capable of doing this – check out the Harley-Davidson story of the early 1980s and the on-going stories at Southwest Airlines and Johnsonville Meats for good examples of this.

These ‘actions’ are ‘voluntary.’  You cannot ‘purchase’ this.  I call it giving ‘discretionary energy’ – the energy that cannot be bought but is freely given (you cannot coerce or manipulate folks to give you this energy).  Again, there are examples on both ends of the continuum – no matter the ‘industry’ (airlines, hospitals, educational institutions, foundations, financial institutions, and ‘professional’ organizations of all types – religious, engineering, law, etc.).

Greenleaf’s observations and challenges continue to be relevant today – what does this say about us?  What does it say about those of us who for two generations continue to espouse Greenleaf’s concept of the servant (leader and follower)?  Why do we continue to refuse (or is it ‘resist) to learn from institutions of all types that successfully live out what Greenleaf espouses above?  I am not talking about ‘replicating’ or ‘cloning’ them – that does not seem to work; I am talking about truly ‘learning’ from them and then taking the time, energy and effort to emerge ‘our own way’; the way that will work for us?  Perhaps Greenleaf was correct: We are too satisfied with being mediocre.

What have you done with the garden entrusted to you? –Machado


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