[Serving] requires that a concerned individual accepts the problems he sees as a means of achieving his own integrity. –Robert K. Greenleaf

In his writings, Greenleaf offers us a number of ‘dominant ideas’ to consider, if not embrace, if not integrate.  His first dominant idea is about service.  For Greenleaf ‘service’ is a way of being and a way of doing; it is an attitude and a behavior.  It is an integrated and a lived value.  It is a ‘both-and.’

When combined with ‘leader’ – as in the servant-leader – it is a paradox to be embraced.  The leader (by role or situation) is ‘servant-first.’  This idea continues to be counter-cultural (not in what is ‘espoused,’ for more folks today ‘espouse’ the concept of ‘service’ but in what is actually ‘lived out.’  Don’t believe me, just take a good look at how leaders actually lead).

Greenleaf’s dominant idea has been encapsulated into the words: ‘servant-leadership’ or ‘servant leadership.’ For me, this wording misses the power of his dominant idea which is more powerfully stated in ‘the servant as leader’ or ‘the servant-as-leader’ (which, as we know is also the title of his seminal essay).

One is servant-first and one might or might not be called to be a leader (by role or by situation).  Also, ‘the servant as leader’ concept combines a philosophy with an activity.  As Greenleaf noted in a number of his writings, the ‘theme of servant’ is ‘the dominant theme’ – the dominant theme is not ‘leader’ or ‘leadership.’  This reinforces, for me, the true counter-cultural nature of Greenleaf’s idea.

The ‘servant’ and ‘service’ combine to create the ‘moral dimension’ of what a leader is about.  Sadly, for me anyway, Greenleaf’s dominant idea has been adulterated by many who ‘claim’ to be servant-leaders; they have shifted his focus from ‘servant-first’ to ‘leader-first’ or to ‘leader as servant’ or to ‘service-leadership.’  They have shifted (or is it changed?) the emphasis from ‘servant’ to ‘leader.’

Leadership (the by-product of the relationship between the leader and those who freely choose to follow) is, as Peter Vaill noted, ‘a special case of service. . . service (is not) a special case of leadership.’  Greenleaf is not challenging us (those of us who wish to embrace and live into and out of his concept) to ask ‘What service can I offer as a leader?’  Greenleaf is challenging us to ask ‘How will I lead as one rooted in the nature of a servant?’

Greenleaf does provide us with the ‘test’ for the servant; a test that continues to challenge us and to invite us into ‘being’ and ‘doing.’  ‘The best test…do those served grow as persons…’  There is more, as we know, to this test, but this opening idea continues to stop many of us short in our tracks; it gives us pause.  Indeed it does.

…what is the effect on the least privileged in society…–Robert K. Greenleaf

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