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Robert Greenleaf wrote this seminal book in 1977 and it has since sparked waves of literature and innovation in leadership research and practice. Coining the phrase “servant leadership”, Greenleaf believed that a leader should not merely try to add service into a toolkit of techniques, but rather that servant-hood would be the defining characteristic of leaders and even entire organizations. Greenleaf went so far as to say that people should flat-out refuse to follow any leader who is not a servant first. To implement these ideas would require a paradigm shift in the minds of leaders and the organizations they were a part of. However, if the switch to servant leadership could be made (and Greenleaf says it would take only a few large organizations), the world would never look back.
This book is comprised of what were originally essays addressing various aspects and contexts of servant leadership. Together they form a comprehensive foundation for the leadership idea that has proved to be profoundly transformational.
Greenleaf begins his book by sharing a summary of Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East. This story and its description of an expedition spurred on by its lowly servant (and secret commissioner) provided the spark for Greenleaf’s articulation of servant leadership. He goes on to say that people are made into leaders because other people have chosen to follow them. Thus, a great responsibility rests on the shoulders of followers. He writes, “The only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted to the led by the leader in response to, and in proportion to the clearly evident servant nature of the leader.”
So who is this servant leader that is to be followed? Greenleaf says the best test is to watch those served/led by such a person and see, “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?” Passing this test proves that a leader is first and foremost a servant. But how can a servant lead? To be a leader, Greenleaf says, is to go out ahead, show the way, and ask “who will go with me?” To lead in such a way requires a grand vision and the initiative to carry it forward. It also requires a great deal of trustworthiness. Thus, a leader must not only have integrity, but also must have great insight, intuition, judgment, and intelligence. Greenleaf writes, “Leaders do not elicit trust unless one has confidence in their values and competence (including judgment) and unless they have a sustaining spirit (entheos) that will support tenacious pursuit of a goal.” This servant leader will learn to listen well and will accept responsibility rather than placing blame.
Greenleaf takes these ideas and expands them, describing how they apply to institutions, trustees, businesses, schools, foundations, and churches. Additional thoughts on how societies and countries can live out the principle of servant leadership are included at the end.
Institutions: Moral, serving institutions are vital to the health of a society. The way most institutions are structured, however, precludes them from a servant leadership model. Having a single person in charge (CEO) and everyone positioned under her will not due. The leader of an organization, if they are to be servant first, must be a primus inter pares - first among equals. Trustees: For an institution to become a servant leader in its field, it must be led by a Board of Trustees that are servant-first leaders. Board members do not administrate, rather, they hold the public trust for the organizations they serve.
Business: In summary, “The work exists for the person as much as the person exists for the work. Put another way, the business exists as much to provide meaningful work to the person as it exists to provide a product or service to the customer.” Education: For education to be transformed along servant-leadership lines will mean that education (at least in the secondary level and on) must be by choice rather than coercion. This education must also be transformed from a means of memorizing facts to a training which prepares the student to handle the uncertainties of life.
Foundations: Foundations, by their nature, are often insulated from criticism and develop a savior complex. They must open themselves to regular critique, deeply analyze their methods and grant recipients, and build turn-over into their directors to keep a fresh perspective.
Churches: Effective churches will form when the followers refuse to follow leaders who are not servants. Leaders who inspire, teach, and entertain but who do not serve are not to be followed. Those leaders must then hold themselves to this standard, “A single failure to lift an involved individual to greater stature should be judged to be an unwarranted exception.”
It is easy to see how hundreds of books were spawned from this one volume. Servant Leadership is a slow read, not because it is boring, but rather because line after line is filled with insights and huge ideas. The book is broad and its vision so large that one hardly knows where to begin in implementing its ideas into daily life. Greenleaf himself understood this. In this he book takes the role of the prophet, calling us all to a different and brighter future. Though not every step is outlined for us in detail, his call could be summarized as this: “Do not be content to sit on the sidelines and criticize. Wherever you are, envision a better, brighter future, and set about working to achieve it. Lead from where you are and lead in such a way that those following you will, ‘become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants.’”