During the past 47 years folks have been asking me, ‘What are the essentials of Servant-Leadership?’  I have held this question, I have attempted to respond to it and delineate them, and I have edited my list of ‘essentials.’  Recently I was, again, asked for my list of ‘essentials’ and so Gentle Reader I have decided to share a few of these with you today. 

1.  Robert K. Greenleaf: He did not begin with a theory or a concept; he began with ‘practice’ [many years of practice beginning during his teen years].  He called himself a ‘gradualist’ and a ‘student of how things get done’ and yet his writing is more philosophical and conceptual.  Greenleaf moved from ‘practice’ to ‘concept.’

2.  Servant-Leadership is a concept, a philosophy, an attitude, a way of being & doing, a guiding principle.  It is counter-cultural [e.g. it is basically an organic, developmental metaphor]; it is motivated by love and friendship (‘In the end,’ Greenleaf wrote, ‘all that matters is love and friendship’].  It is rooted in the belief that at our healthiest we are, as Greenleaf noted, living paradoxes.

3.  Servant-Leader is a purposeful paradox to be embraced; it is not a problem to be solved.  Greenleaf was clear that as challenging as these two words are (individually and when combined) they are the best words to describe what he intended. 

4.  Servant, first:  Greenleaf was clear that he was writing on the ‘servant theme’ and this directly challenges those who attempt to put his emphasis on ‘leader first.’  The ‘servant-as-leader’ is quite different conceptually and practically from the ‘leader as servant.’ 

5.  The Servant seeks to serve others’ highest priority needs.  ‘Seeks to serve’ does not equate with ‘meeting the needs.’  The servant is not called to meet another’s needs but to serve them; what does this mean?  Greenleaf helps us with his ‘Best Test:’ What needs are being served?  The ‘highest priority needs’ are being served; these are not ‘wants’ (there is an important difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ and too often we forget the difference — or we just neglect the difference).  Of course, the servant needs help in naming and understanding the ‘highest priority needs’ of the other; therefore, a ‘searching conversation’ is often required. 

6.  ‘Begins in here’:  The servant begins his/her searching and seeking by looking inward first. 

7.  ‘Listen, first’: One way to ‘begin in here’ is to listen and to listen, first.  The servant listens intently and with undefended receptivity.  The servant listens with a goal of ‘seeking to understand.’ 

I like the number ‘7’ – it has a mystical quality about it — so I think I will stop here today.  As a reminder, here is Greenleaf’s ‘Best Test’ (the 1980 version, which I believe was his ‘final version’ of this test).  Greenleaf writes: The Best Test: Do those served grow as persons; do they while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will she or he benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?    

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Below you, gentle reader, will find a photo of Bob and Esther.  Of Esther, Bob said: ‘She taught me about love and friendship.’  Throughout these past many years I have been blessed with folks who have ‘taught me’ and perhaps you, too, have also been so blessed.  First, the photo of Bob and Esther and then some questions to hold, if not reflect upon today.

[My deep gratitude to Newcomb Greenleaf for this photo]

Who was a person that called forth gifts-talents-abilities that you did not know you possessed?  Mentors see in us gifts-talents-abilities that we do not know we possess.  They name them and they call them forth.  They challenge us to demonstrate the courage (from the French for ‘heart’) to become aware of them and to develop them so they can help address the needs that exist in our world.

What did he/she call forth?  How have you developed these more fully in your life?  In what ways have these made a difference in your life? 

How did this person serve your ‘highest priority needs’?  Greenleaf was clear that the servant does, indeed, serve others’ highest priority needs.

When did you thank this person?  I am now thinking of several mentors that I did not thank during their life-time.

Greenleaf wrote about ‘Life’s Choices as Markers.’  What was one choice you made in your life that has deeply affected the person you are today?  What other life-choices might you consider to be ‘markers’ in your life? 

The Chinese have a saying: ‘When the student is ready the teacher will appear.’  Are you ready for a ‘teacher’ to appear at this time in your life?  How do you know if you are ready?  How do you know if you need a teacher to appear at this time? 

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Servant-Leadership is one way of serving and leading.  Servant-Leadership is a generational and transformational approach to life. 

Generational: First, for a generation Greenleaf’s writings were spread primarily by word of mouth.  Greenleaf was not interested in becoming a guru. He was interested in providing us a deep current, not a wave [all waves crash at some point while deep currents move slowly and powerfully over time].  It took more than a generation for ‘the word’ to spread and for a ‘movement’ to occur [the ‘movement’ has generated a number of waves that folks have been riding for a few years now; some of these have crashed].  Currently there is a tension between the waves that continue to appear as a result of Greenleaf’s deep currents and the deep currents themselves. We appear to be losing our connection to the deep slow moving currents for we enjoy the ride on the waves and we are a culture that does not tolerate ‘slow and steady.’ 

How many ‘leadership waves’ have crashed during the past 40 years — there name is legion.  Why did they crash, why will they continue to crash?  They crashed and they will continue to crash because they are not supported by deep currents [although some have been generated by deep currents].  The wave that is servant-leadership will also crash if we lose our connection to the deep currents that Greenleaf provided us.  Moreover, it also takes an individual many years, frequently a generation, before he or she develops the ‘second nature’ of a servant and this requires commitment and patience and time and energy. [An Aside: few, it seems to me, are natural-born servants and even if one is born a ‘natural’ servant it will take one many years in order to fully develop one’s servant-nature.] 

Transformational: Consider that individuals, relationships, and/or organized groups of three or more folks can ‘shift,’ ‘change,’ or ‘transform.’  Many times we seek to or settle for a ‘shift’ [a movement from here to there].  We change jobs or spouses or putters or abodes or take on the newest technology or embrace the newest fad or the current wave (e.g. the leadership wave of the month).  Too often we discover that the ‘shift’ doesn’t get us what we want or that the series of shifts that I embraced didn’t get me what I wanted.  So, we decided to ‘change.’  ‘Change’ is a physical or social maneuver; it is an alteration or a passing from one phase to another in order to preserve the identity.  Too often the change(s), like the shifts, do not get us what we want. [An Aside: Many times we are not clear about what we want, or need.]  Then there is ‘transformation.’  A ‘transformation’ is a fundamental change in character or structure [requiring, at minimum, a change in one or more of our deep tacit assumptions].  Most individuals, relationships and organized groups of three or more spend a great deal of energy avoiding ‘transformation’ while using the term as if they were indeed involved in a transformational process.  Unless we have a ‘St. Paul’ (the man, not the city) experience a transformation requires significant time, energy, commitment, and capacity building. 

Life: ‘Servant’ is a way of being that supports and is supported by our ‘doing.’  ‘Life’ is ‘wholeness;’ too often we separate, fragment and categorize as we do when we speak of balancing ‘life and work’ — the implication is that our ‘work’ is not our ‘life.’  Too often we live a ‘divided life’ [the executive who is warm, caring and loving at home is not this way at work, for example].  The other phrase that indicates a separation is ‘the real world.’  It is all the ‘real world’ [although there are some who do seek to live in a fantasy world, most are not able to pull this off].  Greenleaf’s concept of the servant-as-leader calls us [requires us?] to live a life that is not divided; we are called to be fully human beings. 

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Many years ago as I was designing a worktreat [part workshop and part retreat] and what emerged into my consciousness was a number of guidelines for the session.  After I had emerged them and reflected upon them I realized that they might well be daily guidelines for servants.  The guidelines are rooted in what Greenleaf has to offer us in his writings.  So, Gentle Reader, I invite you to consider the following Servant Guidelines; perhaps you might choose to integrate one or more of them into your own life and/or perhaps you might identify other guidelines that would be more appropriate for you [keeping in mind that your focus is that of being/becoming a ‘servant’]. 


1.  How do you need to SHOW UP today so that will maximize a commitment to being a searcher, seeker, learner and servant (i.e. one who addresses others’ highest priority needs)?  How do you need to show up — physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually?  What are your favorite ways of ‘not showing up’ or your favorite ways that hinder you from ‘showing up’? 

2.  How do you need to be today so that you PAY ATTENTION?  In order to pay attention one needs to be awake and aware and intentional and purposeful and responsive and response-able.  One pays attention to what emerges from within one’s self, to what is emerging within others they come in contact with, to what is emerging ‘within the situation, experience, activity’ — NOW.  Thus one must be fully present, in the now.  What enables me to be able to pay attention in these ways?  What blocks me from paying attention?  What distracts me from ‘being in the now’?  What enables me to be fully present in the now? 

3.  How do you need to be today so that you choose to follow what has HEART and MEANING for you?  In order to live we must care for our hearts.  Given this, what nurtures you more than depletes you?  What do you need to do today that will nurture you more than deplete you (nurture you physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually)?  Greenleaf says that servants’ work is, in itself, meaningful.  How will what you choose to do today provide your life — provide you — with meaning?  How will you know? 

4.  One way of helping us to be awake and aware, intentional and purposeful and responsive and response-able is to consciously emerge an INTENTION that one will hold and live into and out of for that day.  The intention will help the servant SHOW UP, PAY ATTENTION AND FOLLOW WHAT HAS HEART AND MEANING for him or her.  At the close of the day, the servant will stop, step-back and reflect upon the intention and upon how well one consciously lived into and out of it.  Remember, reflection plus experience provides the learning.

5.  WHO are you choosing TO SERVE at this time in your life?  We all choose to serve something or someone.  Why are you choosing to serve this ‘something’ or this ‘someone’ at this time?  Are there other ‘somethings’ or ‘someones’ that need your gifts and talents and abilities and you are not responding to them? If so, why are you choosing not to do so?  

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For Greenleaf, ‘Being’ precedes ‘Doing’ [for some, ‘Consciousness’ precedes ‘Being’].  ‘Being’ is the servant, either by first or second nature [First nature is that nature we are born with]; some are ‘natural’ servants and it is a matter of developing one’s servant-nature.  Second nature is that which comes with rigorous discipline.  We discipline ourselves, for example, in order to learn to ride a bicycle and once we have developed the skill and built our capacity it becomes ‘second-nature’ to us.  So, if I do not ride a bike for five years and if I am not organically or emotionally disabled I can get on a bike and within a minute or two I will be able to ride the bike; riding the bike has become second-nature to me].  ‘Doing’ is the leader.  The leader is a role that we take on and that role will, at some point in ‘go away.’   

In a broader and deeper sense, who I am determines what I choose to do and this leads to the story I write, live and tell and to the story told about me by others.  Thus, I must be awake to and aware of the person I am and the person I am choosing to become; I must be intentional and purposeful about my development as a fully human being [and, as Greenleaf reminds us, at our healthiest we are living paradoxes].  For me, ‘Being’ precedes, informs and guides my ‘Doing’ AND my ‘Doing’ informs and guides/reinforces/supports/enhances my ‘Being.’  What is the story others are telling about me today?  What is the story I am choosing to live into and out of today?  What is the next chapter I am writing, or preparing to write, that is my life?  What is the story I want told about me in five years…in ten years?  What is the story I want to leave as my legacy? 

For Greenleaf, it begins ‘in here’ and not ‘out there.’  The ‘in here’ — my ‘being,’ my heart and soul and spirit — motivates and forms the ‘out there,’ my ‘doing,’ my head and hands activities.  Together, for me, this forms ‘Consciousness, Character and Conduct’ [which is also, I believe, Greenleaf’s Legacy].  

Greenleaf was clear: ‘Responsible people build; they do not destroy.  They are moved by the heart.’  Being ‘responsible’ means more than just being ‘accountable.’  We have a capacity for moral and ethical decision-making and we have an obligation to develop this capacity ‘fully and wisely’ so that we can be responsible and response-able [we are charged with always being response-able, if not responsible]. 

We must, therefore, learn and the learning must last.  What is the learning that lasts?  Charles Handy offers us this to consider: Experience plus Reflection is the learning that lasts.  I am challenged to choose/decide and act (experience) and I am also challenged to ‘withdraw’ (Greenleaf’s word) and take the time to reflect upon the consequences (intended and unintended) of my actions/experience upon myself and upon the other(s).  How often do I take the time to do this?  What hinders me from doing this?  What supports my doing this?      

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