Greenleaf writes: …If Lord Acton was right when he said: “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (and I think he was), and if some use of power is unavoidable, then what do those with tender consciences do?  It seems to me they do at least two things: first, they acknowledge the potentiality for evil in the act of doing whatever they do.  They acknowledge it to themselves and to all who may be touched by the use of power.  Second, they make sure that the balance of power in the institution is optimal.  …the institution is strongest when all the parties have adequate power for their role; it is weakest when one or two elements has too little power, because then somebody has too much and the corrupting influence of power is moving toward the absolute.

Was Lord Acton’s observation on point?  If so, does it still hold today?  It is helpful to note that Greenleaf defines ‘power’ in a certain way: it is a coercive force employed overtly to compel or employed covertly to manipulate.  For a number of years now I have defined ‘power’ as: ‘one’s ability to act rooted in moral reflection.’  As I reflect upon Lord Acton’s observation, it doesn’t seem to matter which definition – Greenleaf’s or mine – is adopted.  ‘Absolute’ power might well corrupt and do so absolutely.  Given this, I think the risk continues to be present today.

To what extent do I-you-we believe that the potential for evil resides within our every action?  ‘Within Our EVERY Action!’  As Greenleaf notes in his writings, awareness often brings with it disturbance; so it is with my being aware of the potential evil that resides within me and hence within my every action.  Regarding the servant-first Leader, Greenleaf also asks: ‘When is serving potentially immoral?’  It is not just ‘power’ that puts me at risk for behaving immorally; it is also ‘serving.’  This is a type of double-whammy for the person who seeks to be a servant-first leader.  Talk about being disturbed!

Self-knowledge is crucial; but it is not enough.  Greenleaf also advises that we are to share this knowledge with ‘all who may be touched’ by our use of power and by our serving.  How many of us choose to be so self-revealing (especially those of us who are role-defined leaders)?

Greenleaf also advises that each person within an institution have the ‘power’ required by his or her role.  For me, this means that each person has the ‘ability to act rooted in moral reflection’ and to what extent one can act is directly rooted to his or her role (we know that by their very ‘nature’ some roles have more of an ability to act than other roles do).

‘Having the power’ also implies that one exercises the power.  One chooses to act; one is powerless when one refuses to act or when one chooses not to act.  How often do we blame others for our ‘lack of power’ when it is our refusal to act that is at the root of our being powerless?   When is our choosing not to act potentially evil?  This is also a disturbing question – a question I would rather not hold.  A question that as one who espouses to be a ‘servant-first’ I am required to hold.



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Greenleaf writes: ‘What message have you for young people?’ …Rabbi Heschel replied: ‘I would say: Let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity.  Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can – every one – do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments.  And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art.

 …His life-long credo was simply expressed: ‘Just to be is a blessing.  Just to live is holy.’ 

 He died quietly in his sleep early on the Sabbath – as any devout Jew would wish to do.  His friends were consoled to recall his often quoted words, ‘For a pious man it is a privilege to die.’ 

My mentor, Lowell, introduced me to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writings in 1972.  In 1977 I discovered that Greenleaf had been his friend and had written about him.  In the essay I quoted from above Greenleaf suggests that the searcher and seeker spend time reading and reflecting upon Heschel’s powerful treatise: ‘The Prophets.’  Personally, Rabbi Heschel’s writings – his words – continue to stimulate and stretch and challenge my own thinking; he continues to be a mentor to me.

In the opening quote, Rabbi Heschel was responding to a question by an interviewer; the interview occurred shortly before Rabbi Heschel’s death.  Here is the quotation from one of his essays: ‘Know that every deed counts, that every word is power…above all, remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art.’

‘Know’ – This alone is a challenge for some of us.  Do I really want to ‘know’ – to be aware and understand?  Greenleaf often reminds us that this type of ‘knowing’ does not bring comfort or solace; it brings disturbance.  Rabbi Heschel ups the ante when he adds ‘every deed counts…every word is power.’  Not ‘some’ words or deeds!  Every word and deed!

Greenleaf often employed a ‘garden metaphor’ – there is a paradox here: I am both the garden and the gardener.  Rabbi Heschel offers us another metaphor, ‘art’ – I am both the work of art and the artist.  Greenleaf might ask: ‘What are you sowing and what are you reaping and what seeds are you passing on to others for them to sow.’  Rabbi Heschel might ask: ‘What life are you choosing to sculpt?’  ‘What life are you sketching out?’  ‘What scenes are you choosing to capture on the canvass that is your life?’ ‘How do you want your work of art – your life – to be viewed and experienced and remembered by the other(s)?’

When I read Rabbi Heschel’s life-long credo I pause and ask myself: ‘What is your life-long Credo?’  ‘Do you know; are you aware of the Credo you are living into and out of?’  ‘Is my very existence a blessing?’  ‘Do I believe that ‘to live’ is holy?’  Statistically, I have lived more than 85% of my life.  Do I believe that it has been a privilege and a blessing to have lived AND how do I view my eventual death – will that also be a privilege and a blessing?  Will I die peacefully or will I go screaming into the night?  Robert K. Greenleaf and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel continue to invite me to consider and challenge me to respond.  Both continue to be blessings in my life; for them I continue to be deeply thankful.


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Responsible people build. –Robert K. Greenleaf

Greenleaf writes: At the heart of every constructive action are responsible persons, those who reach out to engage with real life issues where the going may be rough, lay out alternatives (invent some if necessary), assess their relative merits, choose one that accords with virtue and justice – with their own hearts – make the choice knowing they may be wrong and suffer for it, and bear the risk bravely.

 But at every level from the family to world society we are tragically short of such people.  We have plenty of able people who are only critics, plenty who are only experts, and too few responsible people.  And we are in this dilemma because not enough of my generation…thought it their duty to remake the world and bring it more in accord with virtue and justice, more in accord with their own hearts, and too few consciously sought a life style that would prepare them for responsible roles that would make a difference.  If they were able, too many settled for being experts and critics.  They had the chance to be exceptional, by adding responsibility to good motives and ability, but they settled for the ordinary.

Greenleaf offers us a clear and challenging definition of ‘responsible persons.’  How many of us have embraced – lived into and out of – his definition?  How many of us have begun the process and when things got ‘rough’ we developed an excuse for not following through? How many of us did not have the courage – the heart – to carry on?

Greenleaf accused his generation of falling short – of ‘tragically’ falling short.  How would he grade our generation (we 50-80 year olds today)?  How many of us are critical, if not cynical, more than responsible?  How many of us seek to ‘remake the world’ so it is more in alignment with ‘virtue and justice’?  We, perhaps even more than Greenleaf’s generation, had – have? – an opportunity to be ‘exceptional’ (exceptional = seeking to remake the world rooted in virtue and justice); what has our generation chosen to do with our opportunity (perhaps exploring the quality of the men and women we continue to elect and re-elect is one indicator that we are not doing so well – the lack of ‘constructive action’ is enough to view them as not being response-able nor responsible).  What is our generation modeling for the next two or three generations?

I am thinking of a quote attributed to Peacemaker, the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy: ‘Think not forever of yourselves…nor of your own generation…think of continuing generations…of those yet unborn.’  How is our generation thinking about the next generation (to expect us to think about the generations yet to be born seems to be a real stretch for us)?  How is our generation helping the next generation develop into persons who seek to remake the world so it is more virtuous and just?  How is our generation helping the next generation to become ‘Responsible Persons’? 

I close this morning with the words of Henry Ward Beecher who reminds us and challenges us:

Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody expects of you.  Never excuse yourself.

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Greenleaf writes: ‘Tolerance.’  I use this word in an older meaning – the ability to bear suffering with serenity.

…Robert Frost, whose poetry has meant much to me, writes in his poem ‘New Hampshire’:

 I make a virtue of my suffering
From nearly everything that goes on round me.
In other words, I know wherever I am,
Being the creature of literature I am,
I shall not lack for pain to keep me awake.

…Robert Frost states the problem of tolerance, serenity in the face of suffering, as well as I know how to state it: to acknowledge that one does not want for pain to keep him awake, but to make a virtue of it – learn from it…

 This is deep in our tradition.  In Sophocles’ account of the great tragic figure of Oedipus, blind and desperate with the only bond linking him to the world the hand of his daughter Antigone, he proclaims, ‘Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude all is well.’

All of the great wisdom traditions offer us the same belief: No matter how bad things are, ‘all is well.’  They even up the ante by stating that ‘all is good.’  Talk about two challenges. . .

For me, a complement to Greenleaf’s definition of ‘Tolerance’ can be found in the root of ‘Vulnerable.’  Vulnerable is rooted in the Latin ‘Vulnus.’  ‘Vulnus’ means: ‘To carry the wound with grace.’  So if one is tolerant and vulnerable one then embraces both suffering and wounds received with serenity and grace.  This is another daunting challenge for us human beings.

As a human being I will suffer and I will receive wounds (some will be self-inflicted; I call this ‘self-violence’).  My suffering and my wounds will affect one or more of the four dimensions that help define me as a human being.  As a reminder, gentle reader, these four dimensions include the Physical, the Intellectual, the Emotional, and the Spiritual.  As a human being I will experience suffering in each dimension and I will, most probably, also experience being wounded in each dimension.  By the by, as we all know, each of us is also able to inflict suffering and wounds upon other human beings – AND – all too often we do so both intentionally and unintentionally.

Greenleaf notes that we can choose to embrace ‘Tolerance’ as a virtue; we can do the same with ‘Vulnerability.’  And, he adds, we can ‘learn from it.’  What we can learn, of course, will vary with each of us.  As always, Greenleaf reminds us that we have choice.  We are free to choose how we interpret and how we embrace the suffering that comes into our lives.  The same choice is present when it comes to how we interpret and embrace the wounds we receive.

A few years ago Nietzsche noted: ‘He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.’  It seems, if Nietzsche is correct, that it is important for each of us to discern a ‘why’ to live.  Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ has helped many, including myself, in their search for the ‘why’?

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Greenleaf writes: How can we grow to respond to the opportunities to remake the world and bring it more in accord with virtue and justice, more in accord with our own hearts, unless we can have that quiet inward smile called humor when we regard the silly little half-made creatures that we are?  But, as Carlyle said, it is a loving smile.

 The relevance of humor to growth in responsibility is that we can have this loving, indulgent inward smile about ourselves – self-acceptance, some call it.  I would rather say love of self, of the self as it is when laid bare only to our inward seeing in moments of quiet introspection.

 Scripture says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  How, then, can you love your neighbor ‘unless’ you love yourself?  And how can you love yourself without humor?

Humor = a comic, absurd, or incongruous quality causing amusement; an ability to perceive and express a sense of the amusing.

T.E. Lawrence, known to many as Lawrence of Arabia, once noted that we humans are ‘a silly little people.’  He was not, some observed, gifted with a sense of humor.

As is his pattern, Greenleaf begins with self.  Develop a sense of humor and apply it to yourself.  Learn to smile at your ‘self’ and root this smile in a love of your ‘self’.  Greenleaf and Lawrence were correct, I think: I-You-We are silly creatures (half-made – I like ‘imperfect’ more than ‘half-made’ – and at times we are ‘little people’ for we settle for the mundane and the mediocre rather than the transcendent and distinctive; we can also be quite ‘silly’).

Consider ‘silly.’  Silly = weak-minded, lacking good sense, foolish, absurd or irrational.   How many of us have not demonstrated – more often than we would like or like to admit – one or more of these ‘silly’ qualities?

Greenleaf’s question is an important one: Given that we demonstrate ‘silly’ are we able to find the humor, the ‘incongruous quality,’ or the ‘absurdity’?  Are we able, then, to smile at ourselves and smile in a loving way?  I have known a few folks who were able to embrace such a sense of humor.  In my life I have had my moments and I have had my struggles in doing so.  For me, the issue has not been ‘humor’ but ‘self-love.’  Can I smile lovingly at my ‘self’ when I am being ‘silly’?

How about you, gentle reader, how is your sense of humor when it comes to accepting your own tendency to act ‘silly’?  Is your humor rooted in a love of self?  Is your funny bone tickled when you become aware of how silly you can be – have been — are?  As I smile, in closing, I offer us two quotations:

If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide. –Gandhi

Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is. –Bacon

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Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. –Aristotle

Greenleaf writes: An old Italian proverb runs, “From listening comes wisdom, from speaking comes repentance.”  Listening, as I use it here, is not just keeping still, or even remembering what is said.  Listening is an attitude, an attitude toward other people and what they are trying to express.  It begins with a genuine interest that is manifest in close attention, and it goes on to understanding in depth – whence cometh wisdom.  It is openness to communication – openness within the widest possible frame of reference – openness to hear the prophetic voices that are trying to speak to us all of the time.

…Don’t assume, because you are intelligent, able, and well-motivated, that you…know how to listen.  Make a motto on your wall of that great line from the prayer of Saint Francis, “Lord, grant that I may seek not so much to be understood as to understand.”

Gentle Reader, you might recall that in his seminal essay, ‘The Servant as Leader,’ Greenleaf begins a section with a question: ‘Why is there so little listening?’  He concludes the section with a question: ‘In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?’  He wrote these questions more than fifty years ago; it seems to me that they are still applicable today.

I read my first essay on listening in 1963.  Today the number of books, articles and essays that focus on the topic runs in the tens of millions [don’t believe me, google ‘listening skills’ and see what comes up].  More has been written on the topic in the past 38 years than in all of recorded history prior to 1982.  Yet, to say that we listen more intently and receptively than ever before is probably a stretch; if not a falsehood.  How often do I-You-We truly listen in order to understand?  How often do we listen with what I call ‘undefended receptivity’?  If Greenleaf is correct then we also suffer from a lack of wisdom (if wisdom is, indeed, nurtured into life and is then sustained by a certain type of listening).

Listening, first to understand, does not happen – as Greenleaf notes – simply because one is ‘intelligent, able, and well-motivated.’  Listening in this way is a skill AND a discipline; once one has developed the skill then one spends a life-time developing his or her capacity to listen in this way.  If one ceases the discipline one loses the capacity to listen in this way.

Greenleaf’s second question continues to help me stop, step-back and reflect: ‘In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?’  I cannot begin to count the number of times I have broken the silence by shooting-from-the-lip.  Upon reflection, I am more likely to shoot-from-the-lip because I have not followed Saint Francis’ advice.  I do find that when I seek, first, to understand I am less likely to shoot-from-the-lip.  I am also more likely to honor the silence that nurtures understanding – a silence rooted in reflection and in seeking (to understand).

As I reflect upon it, listening is such a simple act; it requires that I choose to be present to the speaker.  It requires that I open my mind, heart and soul while seeking to understand the speaker.  I don’t have to advise, or counsel or coach; I simply have to listen intently and receptively in order to understand.  Nothing could be simpler than this.

Compassionate listening enables the other to suffer less. –Thich Nhat Hanh

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Greenleaf writes: A central attitude for him who believes it his duty to remake the world and bring it more in accord with virtue and justice, with his own heart, is, ‘This is the day!’  So many able people I have known have nullified their effectiveness by living in a past that will never return or in a visionary future that may never materialize, and the opportunity to be grasped here and now slips by them…

There are moments that contain eternity.  Try to see the moment ‘now’ not as an instantaneous fraction of clock time but as a focus of intensity in which the bright intense center ‘is’ this instant of clock time but which, as the intensity of the light recedes from the center, extends back into historic events and forward into the indefinite future – a sort of moving average…

Even if the present center of this span of time carries for you illness, suffering, and loss, this is the day.  It is what you have now!

I love these three passages.  I remember the first time I read them – 1978; I recall that I put the essay down and reflected upon these passages – they still give me pause.  Do I hold a ‘a central attitude’ regarding my ‘duty’ to help ‘remake’ the world ‘in accord with virtue and justice’?  Do I hold a ‘central attitude’ about anything?  If so, what?  If I do hold a ‘central attitude’ what do I choose to then enact?

Greenleaf reminds me that ‘This is the day!’   There is no other day.  How often do I neglect ‘this day’ and ruminate about the past or spend time imaging the future?  To what extent do I believe that my ‘effectiveness’ is directly related to how much time I spend in the ‘now’ rather than ruminating about the past or imaging the future?  How many ‘now’ opportunities have I missed?  What is the opportunity ‘now’ – sitting right here as I put finger to key?  Right now am I holding an attitude that as I put finger to key I am helping to ‘remake’ my world, if not ‘the’ world?

Do I ‘see’ and ‘experience’ this ‘now’ with a focused intensity?  This is the opportunity!  This is MY opportunity!  Because I took the time in 1978 to stop and reflect I now have the opportunity today.  Because I have stopped at other times during these past decades and reflected upon this passage I am more aware of the opportunity ‘now.’

Greenleaf concludes this passage with another idea – no matter what, ‘This is the day!’  This is, truly, what I have now!  So. . . How will I choose to spend this ‘now’?  I now have an image of Clint Eastwood glaring down at me and I can hear him asking me: ‘Well, punk, what are you going to do with your day today?’

Tomorrow is promised to no one. –Clint Eastwood

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