In 1969 Greenleaf wrote his seminal essay, ‘The Servant as Leader.’ This essay emerged after Greenleaf had spent time with the students and faculty of Prescott College (Prescott, AZ) in October, 1968. I call this essay his ‘inspired’ essay. This essay was addressed to college and university students and faculty. He edited this seminal essay and gave us, in 1970, the ‘little orange essay’ which most of us know as ‘The Servant as Leader.’
On page 8 Greenleaf describes who the essay is written for:
This is written for those who want to serve and are resolved to be led only by servants; and who will respond to the opportunity to lead, if given, to the end that an increment of trust will be put into an imperfect society that is currently very short of it. It is for those who see integrity not just as affirming right-thoughts and avoiding error but as requiring them to be inventive, venturesome, risking the initiative to find better ways and doing the hard and sometimes dangerous work that brings the impossible to reality.
Greenleaf’s first sentence continues to be one of a number of his statements that position his concept/theme of ‘servant’ as counter-cultural (in our culture in the United States at least). His emphasis/theme is servant while our culture’s emphasis/theme continues in 2021 to be leader. Greenleaf is clear in his writings, the leader is a role that can – and will – be taken away; the role is transient. Servant is who one is at one’s core; it is who one is (one’s ‘being’) either by first or second nature. Servant cannot be taken away for it is not a ‘role’ that one takes on [one can, of course, give up one’s ‘servant-nature’].
As is his wont, Greenleaf ups the ante by adding that ‘servants are resolved to be led only by servants.’ Greenleaf is a disturber; he does not offer us comfort and solace. He wants us to wake up and become aware and he reminds us over and over again that if we are awake and aware we will become disturbed – ‘Awareness does not bring comfort’ he reminds us over and over. His concept of ‘servant-first’ continues to be a ‘disturbing’ one for many.
Servants who accept the invitation and/or the opportunity to lead will strive to be trust-builders. Greenleaf was a ‘gradualist’ and so trust is built incrementally. Greenleaf was also a ‘realist’ and was able to acknowledge that at best our society is an imperfect society. Hence it is a society that is short of trust. Any of us in our country today knows just how short of trust we are as a society. If Greenleaf were alive today I think he would be holding a question up to us (‘us’ = those who espouse his concept): Where are the servant and the servant-leader ‘trust-builders’?
In his last sentence, Greenleaf again ups the ante. He expands the concept of ‘integrity’ to include risking the initiative to find better ways and doing the hard and sometimes dangerous work. Today our society is struggling to become a more just and caring society – for many it seems like an impossible challenge given the number of ways we are divided (economically, spiritually, emotionally, attitudinally, politically, philosophically, etc.). If Greenleaf were with us today he might well ask: Where are the servants and the servant-leaders who are helping us heal? [Another of Greenleaf’s major themes involved ‘healing’ and ‘making whole’].
Today, I hold a question: What is ‘required’ of us who espouse Greenleaf’s concept?