Greenleaf writes: The most important qualification for trustees should be that they care for institution, which means that they care for all of the people the institution touches, and that they are determined to make their caring count.

I was first invited to become a member of a board for a not-for-profit organization in 1984.  I remember being interviewed by the Chair of the Board and two board members.  Their first question was the most significant: Why this organization?  That organization served children and I have a passion when it comes to serving children in ways that promote their safety and development.

I learned from these three people that the first requirement for all board members was that each of them have a ‘passion’ for the institution, it purpose, its vision and its mission.  They believed that without this passion that the board member could not – in fact, would not – care for the institution (think: for all of those they serve).

Since 1984 I have found that Boards that have this as their first requirement tend to function at a higher level than those who do not.  In fact, I am now thinking of a not-for-profit that was begun after our Civil War (1865) and evolved so that in the mid-1990s it was still an organization that served children in wonder-full ways.  Then, in the late 1990s a shift began to occur.  The ‘old guard’ had left the board and the new members did not have the passion for the organization that was required.  In fact, many of them were there to ‘build up their resumes.’

By 2000 the organization had ceased to exist – the need it served did not cease, however.  Sadly, I know of too many organizations that began to compromise this first question.  The result has been uniformly the same – the organization ceased to ‘be’ the organization it was founded ‘to be.’

What happens?  The primary goal of caring for all of the people the institution touches is compromised.  And, the board is no longer determined to make their caring count.  The consequence: the organization dies in many ways and, eventually, the organization itself dies.

How often do boards actually invest the time and energy into an evaluation process that focuses not only on their ‘performance’ but also focuses on the ‘passion’ for the organization’s purpose, vision and mission and to what extent their ‘caring’ touches all and to what extent their ‘caring counts’?

The Board truly ‘holds in trust’ for all stakeholders.  How many organizations engage in an evaluation process that confirms or disconfirms this ‘holding in trust for all’?  Sadly, especially when it comes to ‘all volunteer’ boards where the board members are not willing to give the time and energy to an in-depth evaluation process – one that is all encompassing and one that begins with the question of ‘passion for…’.

Gentle Reader, what is your experience?


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Greenleaf writes: Reinhold Niebuhr’s intriguing theme, ‘Moral Man, Immoral Society,’ stems from our willingness as individuals to qualify as moral by caring only for persons.  If we are to have a more moral society, then moral man must also care for institutions.  We need to criticize the impersonal system; but it is our attitude and our level of caring, not the ‘system,’ that needs criticism and improvement.  How much we care depends somewhat on our estimate of the need for our caring. 

 Niebuhr wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics in 1932.  Given all that is unfolding/infolding in our democracy today Niebuhr’s book is a ‘must read-study.’  By the by, Gentle Reader, Niebuhr is not an ‘easy read’ AND I believe if you take the time to read it and reflect upon his ideas that you will find that it is still relevant today.

Greenleaf is clear, in order to qualify as moral we are to care for persons.  He, once again, as is his wont, ups the ante when he then writes: If we are to have a more moral society, then moral man must also care for institutions.  What is an institution?

Consider that an institution (think: any organized group of two or more folks) is first composed of individuals and relationships writ large.  Therefore, moral people care about and for both individuals and relationships (think: teams, departments, divisions, and the institution).

Secondly, consider that institutions are ‘hybrids.’  Part of the institution is ‘organic’ and ‘developmental’ – the ‘human part’ of an institution.  In addition, part of the institution is ‘non-organic’ and ‘strategic’ – the ‘inhuman part’ of an institution.  BOTH must be attended to so that both survive, thrive, and are ‘healthy’ (I always find it interesting that we view the inorganic part as needing to be ‘healthy’).

How much time do the people in institutions – including the institution’s boards of directors – invest in the ‘caring for the organic’ and how much time do they spend focusing on the ‘inorganic’?  How often is there an imbalance – with more emphasis on the ‘inorganic’?

Greenleaf is clear when he writes: it is our attitude and our level of caring, not the ‘system,’ that needs criticism and improvement.    

One of the ways those in an institution can begin to assess all of this is to emerge and become clear about the major metaphors that have been integrated.  The Culture and the Sub-Cultures emerge and integrate major metaphors.  Sometimes the major metaphors complement one another and sometimes they conflict with one another.  The major metaphors also reveal which of the two – organic or inorganic – are dominant.

For example, I had the privilege and opportunity to work with a large healthcare system located in the Northwest and at the same time with one located in the Midwest.  Both were considered in their industry to be ‘successful.’  The major metaphor for one was the banking metaphor and so people were assets, commodities and resources (inorganic metaphors).  The major metaphor for the other was the community metaphor and so people were fully human beings who need to be cared for so they could care for those they served (one another and those who came to them for healthcare).

Greenleaf’s last sentence provides us a guideline and an implied question: How much we care depends somewhat on our estimate of the need for our caring. 



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Robert K. Greenleaf tells a story that took place in 1974.  He was providing counsel to a chief executive of a large and influential organization.  The executive was stuck.  He had been attempting solve a vexing problem.  After speaking for some time about the problem the executive asked Greenleaf to respond.  Greenleaf responded with these words: I have no answer to your dilemma and from what you have told me, you have exhausted every avenue open to you to deal with it.  In such a situation, with the problem still urgently needing a solution, I see no course open to you but to set in motion an inquiry to get a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the problem, in the hope that out of this larger understanding will emerge the clue to a new course of action that you haven’t thought of [italics are mine].

Greenleaf noted that as he spoke the executive was becoming more and more agitated.  Greenleaf then noted that he glared at me as he pounded his desk with his fist and literally shouted. “…damn it!  …I don’t want to understand anything.  I just want to know what to do about it.

A Sufi, Yunus, who was a Syrian who died in 1670 wrote: ‘…a man gets an answer to his question in accordance with his fitness to understand and his own preparation [italics are mine].

Greenleaf also noted in the early 1970s that it is crucial that leaders seek first to understand.

What hinders our preparation and hence limits or hinders our fitness to understand?  Why do we choose not to seek to obtain a deeper and more comprehensive understanding?  Why do we, too often, insist on embracing the executive’s position: …I don’t want to understand…  I just want to know what to do about it?

I have no answers to these vexing questions.  I do, however, have some considerations and I invite you, gentle reader, to reflect upon my considerations and I also invite you to emerge some of your own.

First, our culture is one rooted in ‘action-first.’  For example, organizations love to ‘roll out’ the latest idea and then strive to ‘fix it later.’  In our culture we take pride in being able to ‘fix’ stuff.

Second, in order to seek first to understand I must be curious enough to engage a deeper inquiry process.  I must, among other things, be open to being influenced by what I learn.  This is not easy for many of us.  One of the reasons that this is not easy is that too often we equate understanding with agreement.  Anyone who has had the privilege of having an adolescent in his or her life – or has ever been one of these interesting creatures – knows of what I speak.  One of the adolescent’s repetitive refrains is: If you really understood me you would agree with me!

Third, in order to seek first to understand I must not be rooted in ‘surety.’  ‘Surety’ blocks me from being curious, from being open to being influenced and thus from seeking to understand and hence it blocks my ability to understand.  If I am ‘sure’ I have no need to ‘seek.’

Finally – ‘finally’ for this entry – in order to seek first to understand I must develop the skill, capacity and discipline for inquiry.  The questions we frame will dramatically impact our searching and seeking.  Questions open pathways to other questions not necessarily to answers.  Questions tend to promote both deeper and broader searching.  Too often, it seems, once we hit upon an answer we cease the process of inquiry, thus, questions help us to engage the process of seeking to understand.

As Greenleaf notes, the search might not lead to an answer – with vexing problems (or paradoxes or dilemmas) it seldom does.  The search, however, might well reveal a clue.  The clue will also be a pathway that reveals more questions and more clues.

Sometimes a solution will emerge.  However, if the vexing problem is not really a ‘problem’ but is a paradox or a dilemma a ‘solution’ is not likely to be found.  You might recall, gentle reader, that paradoxes require ‘embracing’ a ‘both-and’ and dilemmas require resolution or dissolution.

Thus, seeking to understand first might well help us determine whether we are encountering a problem to be solved, a paradox to be embraced or a dilemma to be resolved or dissolved.

One more consideration.  There is a ‘shadow side’ or a ‘dark side’ to seeking to understand.  I am thinking of the executive who had difficulty making crucial decisions and he put off making them by saying that he was still seeking to understand.  The process of seeking can actually hinder our ability to make a decision.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


Recently I had a brief conversation with a person who is the Chairperson of a large non-for-profit organization.  A few hours later I began to think about what Greenleaf offered us when he wrote about trustees and about organizations.  I opened Greenleaf’s essay, ‘The Institution as Servant’ and my eyes were drawn to the following.  I have decided to type out the entire paragraph and then offer a few reflective comments.  Greenleaf writes:

The concept of trustee is used here for members of the governing boards of both profit and not-for-profit large institutions.  It includes the accepted sense of fiduciary trust which, in the absence of malfeasance or threatened collapse of the institution, is usually a somewhat passive role.  The trustee role advocated here goes far beyond this limited view and implies a dynamic obligation, an insistent motivating force originating with trustees that obliges the institution to move toward distinction as servant.  By this is meant that an institution makes a contribution, at least proportional to its opportunity, toward building a society that is more just and more loving, one that offers greater opportunities to its people.

I first began to work with boards of directors/trustees in 1984; this was also the first year that I served on a board.  I found that the boards that I served on and the boards I was working with were, as Greenleaf noted, too passive.  Even today, 34 years later, too many boards continue to be passive.  What does this mean?

First, too many boards have too many members.  The numbers alone contribute to board passivity.  Because of the number of members these boards delegate the ‘work’ to committees and then, again because of the numbers, they end up rubber-stamping the committee’s work.  This is a major form of board passivity.

Is there an ‘ideal’ number?  I believe so.  The board needs to have enough members so that if 2-3 members are not able to attend a board meeting that there will still be a quorum.  The board needs to be have enough members so that in-depth conversations can be held during a board meeting.  Consider that the ideal number is ‘nine.’  I consulted with a board that was stuck and it had 38 members.  One of the boards I served on had 21 members.  Both were too passive (an understatement to be sure).

Second, too many boards are actually ‘run’ by the organization’s CEO/President.  In fact, too many of these boards are made up of members chosen by the CEO/President.  Too often the board becomes loyal to the CEO/President and does not fulfill its obligation of ‘holding in trust’ for ALL stakeholders.  Again, the board tends to put a rubber stamp on what the CEO/President wants.  Furthermore, the board finds it difficult, if not impossible to ‘hold the CEO/President ‘accountable.’  One board I worked with had never in more than ten years evaluated the CEO.

As is his wont, Greenleaf ups the ante again and again.  He ups the ante the first time by writing that a major charge of trustees is to oblige the institution to move toward distinction as servant.  I have had the privilege of working with two boards that embraced this obligation and I had the privilege of serving on two other boards that embraced this obligation.

Greenleaf then ups the ante again when he writes that a board is charged with helping the institution serve in such a manner that one major outcome is that a more just and loving society will emerge.  Talk about a big dream.

But Greenleaf is not finished upping the ante.  He ups it one more time (in this paragraph).  The trustees are to insure that the institution offers greater opportunities to its people.

‘Opportunities’ to be or to do what?  This question leads us back to Greenleaf’s ‘Best Test’ for the servant (in this case the ‘servant’ is comprised of the trustees, the employees, and the institution as a living entity).  Greenleaf’s opening question is enough, given our limited space this morning.  Greenleaf writes: Do those served grow as persons? 


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


I saw the immensity of the task before me and I fled its summons. –Tolstoy

Servant-Leadership is concerned with Problems, Paradoxes, Polarities and Dilemmas.  The distinctions are crucial and so are the ways we respond to each of them.  We could spend a great deal of time addressing each of these, but our space is limited so I will offer us a ‘short-version’ of each to consider.

Problems.  Problems exist.  Problems are to be solved.  The ‘problem’ with ‘problems’ is that too often too many of us ‘see’ only ‘Problems.’  Too often we miss the reality that what we are encountering is one of the other three AND YET because we ‘see’ a ‘problem’ we believe that we can ‘solve it’.  Then, we wonder why our solutions did not work; we become quite perplexed.  The other three ARE NOT ‘problems’ to be ‘solved.’  Period.

Paradoxes.  Paradox = a proposition that seems self-contradictory.  For our purposes consider that a ‘paradox’ is simply a BOTH-AND proposition.  For example, an organization must embrace BOTH the short-term AND the long-term at the same time; it must embrace BOTH the short-view AND the long-view at the same time.  Consider that a servant-leader is challenged to embrace BOTH justice AND mercy at the same time.  Consider that the servant-leader is also challenged to embrace BOTH the needs of the individual AND the needs of the community/organization/division/department or team at the same time.

Polarities.  Polarities and Paradoxes are similar AND they are not the same.  Aristotle (yes, that guy) helps us when it comes to engaging polarities.  He offered us the ‘Golden Mean’ – the ‘Golden Mean’ by the by does not indicate the ‘middle’ or the half-way point or the ‘center.’  Let’s take one example.  The paradox ‘Individual-Community’ can also be a polarity.  Imagine a continuum; a straight-line if you will.  At one end resides the ‘Individual’ and at the other end resides the ‘Community.’  At a moment or two in time the organization might find that the ‘Golden Mean’ favors the ‘Individual’ and at another moment or two in time the organization might find that the ‘Golden Mean’ favors the ‘Community.’

Dilemmas.  Dilemmas are the most challenging of the four.  One reason is that most of them create ‘forced choices’ for us.  If you, gentle reader, are like I am then you too will dislike being confronted with a ‘forced choice.’  When faced with a dilemma our challenge is to ‘resolve it’ or ‘dissolve it.’  There are two types of dilemmas.  There is a ‘right-right’ dilemma and a ‘harm-harm’ dilemma.

With the ‘right-right’ dilemma I/We are faced with two ‘rights’ and we must choose one of them (this is what is called ‘resolving the dilemma’); with some good thinking we might be able to ‘dissolve’ the dilemma, which means that we do not have to choose – we ‘make the dilemma go away.’  ‘Right-Right’ dilemmas are challenging.  ‘Harm-Harm’ dilemmas are exponentially more challenging because no matter which one we choose ‘harm will occur.’

Consider the following.  At times it is ‘right’ for a supervisor, manager, executive, or owner to choose in favor of the individual and not in favor of the community (team, department, etc.) and at times it is ‘right’ for them to choose in favor of the community. Each choice is ‘right’ – hence the dilemma.

Now, consider this one.  In order to keep the doors of the company open we must lay off 20 people.  If we lay them off they will be harmed.  If we keep them the company will be harmed.  No matter what we choose, harm will occur.  This is a classic ‘harm-harm’ dilemma.  We resolve the dilemma by choosing one of the harms.

Now, it might be that we can actually dissolve or dramatically minimize the harm by eliminating the dilemma.  How might we do this?  Here is an example, from ‘real life.’

In the late 1980s I was consulting with an organization that over-night lost 20% of its business (literally over-night).  The next day I sat in with the executive team as they struggled with what to do.  It appeared that they would have to lay off 15% of their employees.  The conversation concerned itself with the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ (‘who’ = a cross-section of employees and the ‘how’ = how can we do this in the most humane way).  The questions we ask dramatically determine the path we take.  Given this, I asked the following question: ‘What can you do, that would guarantee that you could keep everyone employed?’

They embraced this question.  Responded to it.  They found a way that would allow them to keep everyone employed.  By doing this they dissolved the dilemma (made it disappear).  Even though the ‘harm-harm’ dilemma was dissolved harm did occur – it was, however, minimal and it was embraced by, and affected, ALL.

The act teaches you the meaning of the act. –Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


The way to do is to be. –Lao Tzu

Servant-Leadership is concerned with how we choose to nurture and how we choose to deplete our P.I.E.S.S.  These five dimensions combine to ‘make-up’ who I am and who I am choosing to become.  Each day – many times each day – each of us chooses the ways we nurture each of these and we each choose the ways we deplete each of these.  We care constantly choosing and our choices are seldom, if ever, ‘neutral’ when it comes to these five dimensions.

What do I do each day that nurtures my Physical, my Intellectual, my Emotional, my Spiritual-Spirit and my Social (think: Relationships) dimensions?  What do I do each day that depletes each of these five dimensions?  Each of us has our ‘favorite’ ways of nurturing and depleting ourselves.  If one chooses to spend but a few minutes reflecting upon our ‘favorite’ ways we will soon discern them.  As Greenleaf noted, at our healthiest we are living paradoxes.  In this case we choose BOTH to nurture and to deplete ourselves.

Over time, each of us will then find ourselves more nurtured or more depleted when it comes to each of these dimensions.  In addition it seems that for each of us one of these dimensions is the ‘key’ dimension.  That is, when this dimension is nurtured more than depleted then it is easier for us to nurture more than deplete the other four.

For me, the key dimension is my ‘Spiritual-Spirit’ dimension.  Each morning I spend time nurturing my Spiritual-Spirit dimension.  Now, because I am a living paradox I will, on some mornings, choose not to attend to this dimension – I will not take the time to practice my spiritual disciplines and hence I will deplete my spiritual-spirit dimension.

When I do so, I find that it is more challenging for me to nurture the other four dimensions.  I have a good friend who must attend to his Physical dimension in the morning and if he doesn’t then the other four dimensions suffer as well.

Now, gentle reader, consider this:  This holds true for all of our relationships (think: significant other, teams, family members, etc.).  Each relationship will choose to nurture or deplete each of these dimensions (e.g., for a ‘team’ think: low morale, diminished ‘team spirit’).  How often do we consciously choose to be awake and aware of what we choose to do each day that nurtures and depletes our many relationships?  How intentional and purpose-full are each of our relationships when it comes to discerning the ways we choose to nurture and deplete each of these five dimensions.

Now, gentle, reader, if you believe that each organization is simply individuals and relationships writ large (that is: each organization is a living organism) then the same holds true.  Each day the organization nurtures or depletes each of these five dimensions.  Each organization has its ‘favorite’ ways of doing so (think: the healthcare organization that contributes to the ‘burning out’ of its members).

Now, I am going to up the ante.  How do we as a society nurture and deplete each of these five dimensions?  How do we as a global community nurture and deplete each of these five dimensions?  Like our ‘Organizations,’ our ‘Society’ and our ‘Global Community’ are simply combinations of individuals and relationships writ large.  Thus we can, and do, nurture and deplete each of these five dimensions at the Personal, Relational, Organizational, Societal and Global Community levels.

People should not consider so much what they are to do, as what they are. –Meister Eckhart



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


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

Consider, gentle reader, that servant-leadership is concerned with three dimensions of health rooted in trust.  I call these three dimensions: P.R.O.  The first and most crucial dimension is the Personal dimension.  Each of us, as an individual human being, has been entrusted with our self.  We have been entrusted with our physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual/spirit, and social health (social = relationships).  The other two dimensions are powerfully impacted by the Personal dimension.

The second dimension is the Relational dimension.  We human beings, by nature, are relational beings.  One of the great harms we can do to another is to isolate him/her or shun him/her or ignore him/her.  Healthy relationships are rooted in and nurtured by and sustained by trust.  Developing a relationship rooted in trust is, as we know, challenging enough.  Re-developing trust after it has been broken/betrayed is exponentially more daunting.

Research continues to show that the folks who ‘lead with trust’ and are themselves deemed to be ‘trust-worthy’ are more open to re-developing a trust that has been betrayed/broken.  Those folks who believe that ‘trust must be earned before it is granted’ are not as open to ‘trusting again.’

The third dimension is the Organizational dimension.  Organizations are simply individuals-relationships writ large.  The ‘healthy’ organization is also rooted in trust.  The healthy organization is committed to the physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual/spirit, and social health of the individual and of the relationships.  When trust is broken/betrayed the healthy organization seeks to engage forgiveness, healing and reconciliation so that trust can be nurtured back into a tap root that helps sustain (think: nurture and ‘feed’) each dimension.

Because the ‘P.R.0.’ dimensions are imperfect (thus, ‘consistency’ not ‘perfection’ becomes a goal) not only will trust be broken/betrayed and have to be re-developed, imperfection reveals a paradox.  Greenleaf noted that at our healthiest we are living paradoxes of good and evil (his words; others use virtue-vice or light-darkness).  This means that each person, each relationship and each organization is a living paradox in this way.  To put it another way: ‘Walk the Talk’ is a trap.  As imperfect beings we will not be able to perfectly walk the talk.  It is better to say that each of these dimensions is more likely to ‘stumble the mumble’.

In addition to being rooted in ‘Trust’ each of these three dimensions is also nurtured by Entheos.  Greenleaf noted that entheos is an ancient term (a bit of an understatement).  Its meaning, however, is crucial.  Entheos is the spirit that sustains us.  We, in our culture at least, often talk of the spirit that sustains us and we know that when our spirit is depleted that we are at risk of dis-ease.  What feeds and sustains our spirit?  ‘Trust,’ again, is a major tap root that does so.  Other tap roots include (but are not limited to) the following: Commitment, Passion, and Purpose.

Are there other dimensions that need to be nurtured and sustained?  Stay tuned.

Be the one who nurtures and builds.  Be the one who has an understanding and a forgiving heart, one who looks for the best in people.  Leave people better than you found them. –Marvin J. Ashton


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment