GREENLEAF ON GRADUALISM, PART I

On 1 June, 1987 Greenleaf finished the ‘rough first draft’ of an essay, The Servant as Gradualist.  This morning, Gentle Reader, I will begin quoting from this important essay.  Greenleaf died within three years of his completing this ‘rough first draft.’ 

Greenleaf writes:

I learned early to be a gradualist, and I was not aware that I was different from the norm.  It was just my natural way of working.  Only lately have I reflected on this very important tactic that I have been practicing for over sixty years.  Some of my reflections are shared here.

My career aim was set by a remark of a professor of sociology when I was a senior in college and without a vocational aim.  The professor was neither a great scholar or an exciting teacher but he had been around and he was wise in the ways of men and institutions, something beyond scholarship; and I was sensitive to this quality in him because, although only twenty-one, I had been around a bit myself.

One morning in the course of a rambling lecture he said something like this: ‘We are becoming a nation of large institutions, everything is getting big.  Nothing like it before in our history, And these big institutions are not serving us well.  Now you can do as I do and stand outside and criticize and flagellate, but nothing important happens until somebody who is established inside and has her or his hands on some of the levers of power and influence decides to change something.  My advice to some of you is that you make your careers inside of one of these big institutions, stay with it and acquire some influence, and become one who responds to suggestions that they change for the better.’

My doors of perception must have been open a bit wider than usual that morning because that advice came through, loud and clear.  A short talk with the professor and my career aim was settled: I would get inside of the largest business that would hire me, stay there if I could, and try to get into a position from which I could act on my professor’s advice. 

I quickly established that American Telephone and Telegraph was the largest and I chose it for that reason alone.  In a few weeks after graduation I was digging postholes with a line construction crew near Youngstown, Ohio.  I stayed with the company for thirty-eight years, mostly in the corporate office in New York. 

My last position was Director of Management Research in which I had a wide ranging commission, with the help of a professional staff, to study and advise regarding the management of this huge company. 

I never had the power to order anybody to change something, but I wielded a lot of influence, sometimes more than the people who had the power.  And I changed some things – with influence alone.  I believe I accomplished some of what my old professor advised.

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