Greenleaf writes: The forces for good and evil in the world are propelled by the thoughts, attitudes and actions of individual beings. What happens to our values, and therefore to the quality of our civilization, in the future will be shaped by the conception, born of inspiration, of individuals. …The very essence of leadership, going out ahead to show the way, derives from more than usual openness to inspiration, to insight. …But the leader needs more than inspiration, more than insight. He has to take the risk to say, “I will go; come with me!” He has to…take the risk of failure along with the chance of success.
Throughout his writings Greenleaf is consistent: The individual can, and does, make a difference. This was his lived experience. As an individual he made a difference when he was an undergraduate at Carlton College. As an individual he made a difference during his 38 years at AT&T. As an individual he made a difference as a consultant. The many stories he shares with us throughout his writings are stories about individuals making a difference.
How many times have you, Gentle Reader, and I have uttered the words “What can I do, I am only one person?” For me, I know I have uttered them all too frequently. How many times have we heard from a person: “I am not going to vote because my vote won’t matter”?
On the other hand, how many times have we learned the impact we had upon another – for good and for ill? How many times have we learned that others stepped forward because at one time they saw us step forward? How many times have our children, now adults, told us (in words or by their behavior) that our thoughts, attitudes and actions powerfully impacted their identity and their life choices?
Thirty-one years ago I was introduced to the General Manager of a large hotel. He was in his third year as General Manager. When he became the GM he was presented with a hotel that was rated the worst in the system. When I met him, three years later, it was rated the best. His story was simple. He believed that he could not coerce or manipulate or even persuade the employees to change (other GMs had attempted to do so and they had all failed). What he did was this: He held a thought that almost all of the employees wanted to excel. He held a belief that they were capable of excelling. He held an attitude that each person could make a positive impact. THEN, he modeled all of this. He would spend the majority of his time ‘cleaning up’ the spaces that needed to be cleaned. He worked with the housekeepers, the janitors, the cooks, the front desk folks, the valets, the doormen. Within a year a critical mass (his words) of folks were excelling and more importantly, were ‘emotionally owning’ their role in a positive manner.
This GM took a risk. He went out ahead. He showed the way. He, by his behavior and his attitude, invited others to ‘come along.’ He strove to never doubt that they would choose to excel. When I met some of those folks I heard, over and over, “Look at what WE did!” I thought of Lao Tzu’s words about the effective leader: The followers will say, ‘we did it ourselves.’ The GM did not know about Greenleaf’s concept. He did, however, live the servant-first concept: In serving he led. In serving he experienced that others grew and they chose to serve-first.