The Power of Servant-Leadership

The Power of Servant-Leadership

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Based on the seminal work of Robert K. Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive who coined the term almost thirty years ago, servant-leadership emphasizes an emerging approach to leadership—one which puts serving others, including employees, customers, and community, first. The Power of Servant Leadership is a collection of eight of Greenleaf's most compelling essays on servant-leadership. These essays, published together in one volume for the first time, contain many of Greenleaf's best insights into the nature and practice of servant-leadership and show his continual refinement of the servant-as-leader concept. In addition, several of the essays focus on the related issues of spirit, commitment to vision, and wholeness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626563926
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 09/04/1998
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 552,663
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Robert K. Greenleaf, author of the classic Servant-Leadership, was director of management research at AT&T. He held a joint appointment as a visiting lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and at the Harvard Business School. He died in 1990.
Editor Larry C. Spears has been CEO of The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership since 1990. He is the editor and co-editor of several books, including Insights on Leadership and Seeker and Servant.

Read an Excerpt

The Power of Servant-Leadership

By Robert K. Greenleaf, Larry C. Spears

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 1998 The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57675-035-3


Servant: Retrospect and Prospect


I believe that caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is what makes a good society. Most caring was once person to person. Now much of it is mediated through institutions—often large, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one more just and more caring and providing opportunity for people to grow, the most effective and economical way while supportive of the social order, is to raise the performance as servant of as many institutions as possible by new voluntary regenerative forces initiated within them by committed individuals: servants.

Such servants may never predominate or even be numerous; but their influence may form a leaven that makes possible a reasonably civilized society.

Out of the perspective that emerges from my long concern for institutions, I have come to believe that a serious lack of vision is a malady of almost epidemic proportions among the whole gamut of institutions that I know quite intimately—churches, schools, businesses, philanthropies. And that needed vision is not likely to be supplied by the administrative leadership of those places. Administrators, important and necessary as they are, tend to be short-range in their thinking and deficient in a sense of history—limitations that preclude their producing visions. If there is to be a constant infusion of vision that all viable institutions need, whatever their missions, the most likely source of those visions is their trustees who are involved enough to know, yet detached enough from managerial concern, that their imaginations are relatively unimpaired. Trustees are most effective when they are led by an able and farseeing chairperson—by a quality of leadership that is rare in our society today. These extraordinary chairpersons are not necessarily "big" people. The most effective trustee chair I have ever seen in action (and I have seen quite a few) was a "little" person in the world of affairs.

The above paragraph offers a view of the crucial role of trustee leadership that is not widely shared today by the populace at large, or accepted as a personal goal by many current chairpersons, and welcomed by even fewer contemporary chief executives as a role independent of theirs. With so little acceptance of the idea, one may ask, why advocate it? The response to that question requires two "ifs." If one accepts that our institution-bound society serves well enough and no basic change in how our institutions are led is called for, then there is no reason to advocate this radical idea. But if one sees too many of our institutions as seriously deficient in their service to society (as I do) and believes (as I do) that that deficiency could be corrected over time, then something rather fundamental has to change. And the most reasonable and manageable change is to begin, gradually, to raise the effectiveness of trustee leadership until trustees are influential enough and farseeing enough to infuse new visions of greatness, one institution at a time, into as many of our institutions as possible. That powerful new trustee influence is not likely to be achieved until strong visionary leaders emerge to chair their efforts.

Beginning in 1970, I started to write on the theme of servant. These have been interesting years because responses have brought involvement in some depth with persons and institutions that share my concern. In this process, others have contributed much to my understanding of what may be required for our society to become more serving—to make a substantial move toward a quality of the common life that is reasonable and possible with available resources, human and material.

To such as I who did not write for publication until age 65, this understanding has come rather late in life. In summing it up now, I would like to share some reflections. Then I will speculate on the prospects, as I see them, for the servant motive in the future. But, first, a note about where I have been.

Organization—How Things Get Done

The major focus of my adult life may best be described as a student of organization, how things get done—particularly in large institutions. Fortuitous advice from a wise college professor helped shape this interest and led me, upon graduation, to find my way into the largest business organization in the world, American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Early on, I became a student of the history of what seemed to me to be an extraordinary institution. I managed to carve out a career in which I could be both involved and within watching distance of its top structure, and yet maintain sufficient detachment so that I could be reflective about what was going on. My tenure embraced the expansion of the 1920s, the Depression, World War II, and the growth years of the 1950s and 1960s. I never carried heavy executive responsibility and was spared the debilitating effects of such a role which seem almost inevitable, given conventional organizational structures.

In the latter part of my career, I held the position of Director of Management Research. With the help of a professional staff, and within a broad charter, I could both study and advise regarding the management and leadership of this huge institution—over 1 million employees—immersed as it is in sophisticated technology, elaborate human organization, and regulated public service. I was concerned with its values, with its history and myth, and, intimately, with its top leadership. I learned the hard way about the profound influence that history, and the myths of institutions that have a considerable history, have on values, goals, and leadership. And I was painfully aware of the cost in these terms of any insensitivity to history and myth—especially among the top officers. In any institutional setting, one really cannot understand one's involvement in it now without a clear sense of the course of events that form that institution's past, out of which grows the mythology that surrounds the record of those events. History and myth, in my view, need each other in order to illuminate the present.

This experience at AT&T gave me a good perspective and the impetus, in my retirement years that began in 1964, to venture into close working relationships with a wide range of institutions: universities (especially in the turbulent 1960s), foundations (as trustee, consultant, and staff member), churches (local, regional, and national), and related church institutions, professional associations, healthcare, and businesses—in the United States, in Europe, and in the third world.

This post-retirement experience, following 38 years with AT&T, has been enriching and stimulating; but one facet of it, in particular, prompted me to begin to write and to pull together a thread of thinking that has emerged around the servant theme.

The servant theme evolved out of close association with several colleges and universities during their disturbed period in the 1960s. This was a searing experience, to be intimately involved with students, faculty, administrators, and trustees at a time when some of these venerable institutions literally crumbled—when the hoops came off the barrel.

My first servant essay, "The Servant as Leader," was prompted by my concern for student attitudes which then—and now, although the manifestations are different—seemed low in hope. One cannot be hopeful, it seems to me, unless one accepts and believes that one can live productively in the world as it is—striving, violent, unjust, as well as beautiful, caring, and supportive. I hold that hope, thus defined, is absolutely essential to both sanity and wholeness of life.

Partly in search for a structural basis for hope, partly out of awareness that our vast complex of institutions—particularly colleges and universities in the late sixties—seemed so fragile and inadequate, two further essays were written: "The Institution as Servant" and "Trustees as Servants." The three essays were then collected in a book with some related writings and published in 1977 under the title Servant Leadership. Another projected essay, "The Servant as a Person," turned out to be a book and was published in 1979 with the title Teacher as Servant: A Parable [published by The Greenleaf Center].

Out of the struggle to write these things, while contending with the modest ferment they stirred, came the belief that, as a world society, we have not yet come to grips with the institutional revolution that came hard on the heels of the industrial revolution, and that we confront a worldwide crisis of institutional leadership. How can we ordinary mortals lead governments, businesses, churches, hospitals, schools, philanthropies, communities—yes, even families—to become more serving in this turbulent world? And what does it mean to serve? I prefer not to define serve explicitly at this time. Rather, I would let the meaning it has for me evolve as one reads through this essay.

How can an institution become more serving? I see no other way than that the people who inhabit it serve better and work together toward synergy—the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.

I believe that the transforming movement that raises the serving quality of any institution, large or small, begins with the initiative of one individual person—no matter how large the institution or how substantial the movement. If one accepts, as I do, the principle of synergy, one has difficulty with the idea that only small is beautiful. The potential for beauty (largely unrealized to be sure) is much greater in large institutions—because of the phenomenon of synergy. Because we are now dominated by large institutions, how to make big also beautiful is a major challenge for us.

How to achieve community under the shelter of bigness may be the essence of this challenge because so much of caring depends upon knowing and interacting with persons in the intimacy of propinquity. The stimulus and support that some individuals need to be open to inspiration and imaginative insight often come from the nurture of groups. There may not be a "group mind" (inspiration and imaginative insight may be gifts only to individuals), but there is clearly a climate favorable to creativity by individuals that the group, as community, can provide. Achieving many small-scale communities, under the shelter that is best given by bigness, may be the secret of synergy in large institutions.

The Idea of Servant

The idea of "servant" is deep in our Judeo-Christian heritage. The concordance to the Standard Revised Version of the Bible lists over 1300 references to servant (including serve and service). Yet, after all of these millennia, there is ample evidence that ours is a low-caring society when judged by what is reasonable and possible with the resources at hand. There are many notable servants among us, but they sometimes seem to be losing ground to the neutral or nonserving people. It is argued that the outlook for our civilization at this moment is not promising, probably because not enough of us care enough for our fellow humans.

I am personally hopeful for the future because knowledge is available to do two things that we are not now doing, things that are well within our means to do and that would give caring people great joy to do, things that would infuse more of the servant quality into our society. (1) We know how to mature the servant motive as a durable thing in many who arrive in their teens with servanthood latent in them—and this, I believe, is quite a large number. This is what my book Teacher as Servant is about. (2) We know how to transform institutions so that they will be substantially more serving to all who are touched by them. A chapter in Teacher as Servant deals with such a transformation. But formidable obstacles stand in the way of using this knowledge, obstacles that I will call "mind-sets."

The Problem of Mind-Sets

Mind-sets that seem to restrain otherwise good, able people from using the two bits of knowledge mentioned above are often tough and unyielding. Whether obstacles like these can be sufficiently reduced before the deterioration of this civilization has become irreversible is open to question. For the older ones among us who are "in charge," nothing short of a "peak" experience, like religious conversion or psychoanalysis or an overpowering new vision, seems to have much chance of converting a confirmed nonservant into an affirmative servant. But for some, those few older ones who have a glimmer of the servant disposition now, it is worth their making the effort to try to stem the tide of deterioration. Life can be more whole for those who try, regardless of the outcome.

Civilizations have risen and fallen before. If ours does not make it, perhaps when the archeologists of some future civilization dig around among the remains of this one they may find traces of the effort to build a more caring society, bits of experience that may give useful cues to future people. It is a reasonable prospect that, in the civilization that succeeds ours—whether it evolves from ours in a constructive way or whether it is reconstructed from the ruins after long dark ages—those future people will be faced with the same two problems that confront us now: (1) how to produce as many servants as they can from those who, at maturity, have the potential for it; and (2) how to elicit optimal service from such group endeavors (institutions) as emerge. And, unless some unforeseeable transmutations in human nature occur along the way, those future people may be impeded by the same unwillingness to use what they know that marks our times. Knowledge may be power, but not without the willingness, and the release from inhibiting mind-sets, to use that knowledge.

Over a century ago, when the then-stagnant Danish culture was reconstructed as a result of the work of the Folk High School, the motto of that effort was The Spirit is Power. A chapter in the essay "The Servant as Leader" tells the story of a remarkable social transformation that followed when the spirit of the Danish young people was aroused so that they sought to find a way out of their dilemma, a stagnant culture, by building a new social order.

Worth noting about this 19th-century Danish experience is that Bishop Grundtvig, the prophetic visionary who gave leadership to the Folk High School movement, did not offer a model for others to follow, nor did he himself found or direct such a school. He gave the vision, the dream, and he passionately and persuasively advocated that dream for over 50 years of his long life. The indigenous leaders among the peasants of Denmark responded to that vision and built the schools—with no model to guide them. They knew how to do it! Grundtvig gave the prophetic vision that inspired them to act on what they knew.

Vision for Our Times: Where Is It?

"Where there is no vision, the people perish." This language (Proverbs 29:18) from the King James Version of the Bible stays with me even though modern translators make something else of that passage.

What Grundtvig gave to the indigenous leaders of the common people of Denmark in the 19th century was a compelling vision that they should do something that they knew how to do: they could raise the spirit of young people so that they would build a new society—and they did. Without that vision, 19th-century Denmark was on the way to perishing.

Our restless young people in the 1960s wanted to build a new society too. But their elders who could have helped prepare them for that task just "spun their wheels." As a consequence of this neglect, a few of those young people simply settled for tearing up the place. And, in the absence of new visionary leadership to inspire effort to prepare our young people to build constructively, some of them may tear up the place again! Do not be surprised if they do just that. The provocation is ample. We simply are not giving the maturing help to young people that is well within our means to do. Instead, we are acting on the principle that knowledge, not the spirit, is power. Knowledge is but a tool. The spirit is of the essence.


Excerpted from The Power of Servant-Leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf, Larry C. Spears. Copyright © 1998 The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

About the Author
Foreword by Peter B. Vaill
Introduction by Larry C. Spears
1. Servant: Retrospect and Prospects
2. Education and Maturity
3. The Leadership Crisis
4. Have You a Dream Deferred?
5. The Servant as Religious Leader
6. Seminary as Servant
7. My Debt to E. B. White
8. Old Age: The Ultimate Test of Spirit
Afterword by James P. Shannon
References and Permissions
Greenleaf Bibliography
About the Editor and The Greenleaf Center

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