During the past fifteen years or so I have listened to more and more folks not only question whether Greenleaf’s concept of ‘Servant, first’ is not only ‘Practical’ and ‘Realistic’ and ‘Possible’ but is actually ‘Relevant’ today. 

There are a number of ways I might respond to the ‘Relevant’ question.  Rather than using my words I have decided to use Greenleaf’s words.  In 1969 Greenleaf wrote his seminal essay, ‘The Servant as Leader’ (his seminal essay was addressed to college/university student leaders – he then edited this for the general public; this second iteration has become known as ‘the little orange essay’).  Gentle Reader, as you read and reflect upon the words that Greenleaf wrote in 1969 I invite you to decide whether what he writes about is ‘Relevant’ today.  Greenleaf writes:

Ours are revolutionary times.  Not so much for the extent of turbulence and disruption as because of the emergence of a significant number of thoughtful and aware people who see more clearly the world as it is and are not satisfied with it.  They challenge both the pervasive acceptance of injustice and the sharp disparity between the quality of society that they know is reasonable and possible with our available resources…

Many are taking a fresh look at the issues of power and authority, and some are beginning to learn, however, haltingly to relate to one another in less coercive and more creatively supporting ways.  A new moral principle may be emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant nature of the leader…

Moral principles do not emerge from theory, but from testing and experience.  Theories are later built to encase and explain the working principles.  The new principle of the servant as leader is more likely to emerge in practice in those segments of society where the concern is most intensely felt for justice (rather than order), for the performance (rather than the form) of our institutions, and for the appropriateness (rather than the result) of power and authority…

[The Servant-Leader] is trusted because he chances losing his leadership by taking the initiating risks to venture for the common good, because he insists on the hard choices required to build and rebuild institutions within a social framework of radically expanded justice, and because he helps others sort out the destructive influences (the nihilistic, the hedonistic, the pathological) from the sane, the moral, the building forces and attitudes that ennoble human life.  Effective servant-leaders who move in these ways emerge strong and speak with authority when the values and goals of those who go with them are truly served by their actions…

Greenleaf quotes a student leader who, in her 1969 Commencement address, said the following: ‘…if the experiment in human living doesn’t work in this country, in this age, it’s not going to work anywhere. . .The goal of it must be human liberation, a liberation enabling each of us to fulfill our capacities so as to be free to create within and around ourselves. . .We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us understands, and attempting to create within that uncertainty.’

So, Gentle Reader.  What do you think?  Is Greenleaf’s concept ‘Relevant’ and ‘Realistic and ‘Practical’ and ‘Possible’ today? 

Responsible people build, they are moved by the heart. –Robert K. Greenleaf

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