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Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness

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The Revolution Has Only Just Begun Twenty-five years ago Robert Greenleaf published these prophetic essays on what he coined servant leadership, a practical philosophy that replaces traditional autocratic leadership with a holistic, ethical approach. This highly influential book has been embraced by cutting edge management everywhere. Yet in these days of Enron and what VISA CEO Dee Hock calls our "era of massive institutional failure," Greenleaf's seminal work must reach the mainstream now more than ever. Servant Leadership― · helps leaders find their true power and moral authority to lead. · helps those served become healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous. · encourages collaboration, trust, listening, and empowerment. · offers long-lasting change, not a temporary fix. · extends beyond business for leaders of all types of groups. †

370 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 1977

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Robert K. Greenleaf

21 books39 followers

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5 stars
1,227 (44%)
4 stars
872 (31%)
3 stars
468 (16%)
2 stars
141 (5%)
1 star
55 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 88 reviews
Profile Image for Bart Breen.
209 reviews17 followers
May 24, 2012
Not a Book for the Weak of Heart

Servant-Leadership is rapidly becoming a popularized term and a popular concept to bandy about in many circles.

This is the book that started that trend.

Published originally in 1977, it contains articles and concepts that found their germination in the turbulant decade of the 1960's. While you might imagine from the term "Servant-Leader" that the ideology of this book stems from religious conviction and it certainly does include that, you may be surprised to read in the first chapter of the book that it finds its inspiration in literature. Specifically, the Servant-Leader who captured Greenleaf's imagination and catalyzed the writing of this book was the fictional character Leo in Herman Hesse's "Journey to the East."

More surprises remain in store throughout this book that challenges concepts seemingly ingrained in human nature and counter-intuitively argues for several revolutionary premises, not simply on the basis of morality, but rather effectiveness and societal need.

In particular, Greenleaf argues that the advent of big business, large institutions, and corporate growth requires a paradigm shift in the view of leadership. Contrary to the anti-authoritarianism so ingrained in the 60's, Greenleaf argues that large organizations hold tremendous promise to accomplish correspondingly large results. What is needed are leaders who will embrace the organizations and see them almost as separate entities, living organisms as it were, love them, care for them and serve the population within and without through them.

The qualities that Greenleaf profers as indicative of such growth and service are:

1. Do those served grow as persons?

2. Do they, while being served become healthier wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?

3. What is the effect on the least privileged in society?

4. Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived? (Greenleaf 1977/2002 p.27)

In practical terms Greenleaf argues strongly for such Servant-Leaders to rise up and shake off the traditional trappings of leadership within archaic and dusty organizations and equally archaic leadership models, where the emphasis has been upon elevating managers to de facto leaders of these institutions and instead, elevating Trustee's and Board Chairpersons to reject passivity, reject the role of a rubber stamp and exert leadership that embraces values, takes risks and empowers people.

It is a clarion call to activist leadership that feels very much a derivitive of the 60's altruism, yet rejects the across the board discarding of all institutions as irretrievably corrupt and inherently in need of dismantling.

The influence of this concept and the leadership institutions that are adopting the model in their training and operations is remarkably going beyond its author who passed away in 1990.

This book should be a welcome addition to the leadership library of every student and participant in the leadership melieu. Whether you accept and adopt the premises contained, there is wisdom and insight for all who wish to read. Answers in some context are given, but more importantly, tools are provided with which to frame the question for those moving forward.

I highly recommend this book as an indispensible tool for understanding the leadership issues and needs of this generation.
Profile Image for Susanna Mayo.
48 reviews5 followers
March 5, 2017
This book is directed predominantly at trustees and very high level leaders. Greenleaf's writing is very dry without much practical application for individuals who work in lower levels of an institution.
Profile Image for Jeff.
142 reviews1 follower
July 11, 2009
Greenleaf sets forth the almost utopic vision of "servant leadership" as a sort of modified "people-first" mentality. The concepts themselves are great. The evidence that he provides is convincing. I also found it interesting that Greenleaf predicted some of the political situations in which we now find ourselves. Why is this interesting? He did it in the 1970s!

I do agree with many of Greenleaf's assertions about servant leadership. I do believe that one of a leader's responsibilities is to treat his/her people right and try to do what's good for both the organization and the people that comprise it. There is a line, though, that cannot be crossed, which Greenleaf recognizes and debates the element of servitude in that context.

I felt is was a major shortcoming that he limited his discussions to corporations, universities, and churches. I would like to have heard his thoughts on government, the small business, non-profit/charitable sectors, volunteer organizations, etc. Also, the book was hard to read. The writing style did not relate well to the content, which made the content seem distant or inaccessible. The actual hardcover binding of the book also made it hard to read.
Profile Image for Sterling.
51 reviews
September 25, 2017
His theory of servant leadership is still very applicable today. Unfortunately, some of his examples of the application of this theory were dated and distracting. I would have enjoyed this read much more had Greenleaf focused on the message slightly more than the esoteric world of non-profit foundations, churches, and education of the '60s and '70s.
Profile Image for Ying Ying.
271 reviews110 followers
February 24, 2018
This book is intense and profound. I give it a three-star rating because while the teachings are extremely valuable, the content is not easily accessible. I will have to read the book one more time to fully absorb its messages.
Profile Image for Aaron Wong.
531 reviews6 followers
December 18, 2017
Powers, J. B., & Moore, J. W. (2004). Voices of leadership series (booklet 11): Servant-leadership and the art of teaching. Westfield, IN: The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership.

Inner characteristics or commitments: building community, commitment to growth of people, foresight, conceptualisation, awareness - p. 3

Outer characteristics or practices: listening, empathy, healing, persuasion - p. 14

A leader's power stems from five bases:
1. Coercive: ability to instill fear
2. Reward: ability to distribute value
3. Legitimate: positional authority
4. Expert: expertise, skill, knowledge
5. Referent: others' identification with him
- p. 20-21
Profile Image for Tara Brabazon.
Author 23 books324 followers
December 26, 2020
Robert Greenleaf introduced servant leadership to leadership studies. This book is the 25th anniversary of his landmark book. It is inspiring. It is fascinating. The problem is that it is also wrong. It is remarkable to see how phrases and arguments made in the 1970s have been revealed to be so wrong.

Fascinatingly, it is also important to log Greenleaf's anti-statism. Big institutions worry him. There is nostalgia here. Further, there is not much attention to 'public good.' Instead, 'morality' is its inelegant replacement.

Greenleaf argues for the important of decent people behaving well. Like motherhood and Santa Clause, this is hard to argue against. But if our institutions are based on decent individuals, then we will be waiting a long time - if ever - to create structural change.

Four stars for the inspiration. One star for its application through neoliberalism.
Profile Image for David Gaetke.
92 reviews3 followers
February 7, 2021
While the writing style is a bit dry (think college textbook) the content is GOLD. How I wish modern leaders would look back to these concepts and hold fast to them. But I can start with me.
Profile Image for Elena Astilleros.
Author 2 books6 followers
February 10, 2018
First portion that explains servant leadership is rich with stories and distinctions to help bring the practice to life. Later parts are a decent historical reference to the conversations and debates of the time (written decades ago).
Profile Image for Barry Davis.
271 reviews7 followers
July 29, 2020
In his introduction, the author speaks of the emergence of the concept of servant leader “after a deep involvement with colleges and universities during the period of campus turmoil in the late 1960s and early 1970s” (Greenleaf, p. 17). Much of the content of the book is a compilation of essays and speeches delivered to diverse audiences and groups. Building on the metaphor of the servant Leo who is later recognized as the leader of the group in Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East, Greenfield passionately makes the case that any great leader is first seen as a servant.
The book addresses the importance of this fact by enumerating a number of the key characteristics of the servant leader, including listening, imagination, persuasion (often of one person at a time), and conceptualizing. Emphasis is placed on the power of community, and Greenfield invests significant time in focusing on the critical function of the trustee in the organization. By virtue of the very name, such individuals are entrusted to stand outside of the organization but are “intimately concerned” with the organization and, as such, are “the last court of resort” when issues cannot be resolved within the group (54).
Greenfield continues his treatise on the power of servanthood by discussing its practice in a number of settings, including business, education, foundations, and churches. A strong emphasis is the design of an organization that seeks to correct the shortcomings of a single leader who holds total authority in the organization. The author provides a graphic to demonstrate the distinction between an organization run by a chief leader and one where the leader is primus inter pares, “first among equals” (74). Such a group can develop a sense of servanthood in the interaction between the key members, promoting vulnerability among the members and the recognition of the resources present when power is shared. Greenfield does an excellent job of noting the many challenges and shortcomings experienced by the organization that relies on a single, powerful leader, losing the insights and perspectives of others.
A strength of this book is the author’s penchant for asking questions of the reader throughout the work. At times the questions he raises seem to have more power and insight than the answers posed by Greenleaf. However, this does not take away the impact of these queries. His commitment to the power of the leader as a servant is present in the phrase “the nature of legitimate power and greatness” in the subtitle of the book. The essays he provides to make his persuasive points read like speeches to his selected audiences. Regarding his thoughts on servant leaders and the church, he admits to a less than theological approach to the subject, limiting the impact of his application of servant leadership in the church to the evangelical Christian.
The author takes the time to identify two servant leaders near the end of the book, providing a brief biography of both as well as well as citing their impact as servant leaders. One, Donald Cowling, was a conservative and the president of his college. The other, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, was a liberal activist. Greenleaf developed relationships with both of these unique individuals, adding to his insights on their leadership styles. Some time is also invested in addressing bureaucracy as well as America in relation to servant leadership.
Referencing a variety of thinkers and authors in the book, Greenleaf closes his work with a careful interpretation of Robert Frost’s poem Directive as he describes his personal journey in servanthood. Servant Leadership is a worthwhile resource to understand the power of servanthood.
Profile Image for Melsene G.
658 reviews2 followers
March 27, 2020
This is one of those classic books on leadership that should be read by anyone who is gearing for a leadership role. Although the first edition dates from 1977, the concepts and principles are still valid, now more than ever. The foreword is by guru Stephen Covey and the Afterword by guru Peter Senge.

Chapter 1-The Servant As Leader: We need to empower people and to have a culture of trust, morals, conscience; leaders need moral authority. Sadly, I don't see much of this today but let's move on. Leaders need to 'serve first.' "Behind every great achievement is a dreamer of great dreams." Great quote. Leaders need to listen first, accept and empathize, know the unworkable and foresee the unforeseeable, they need to be creative, have foresight, awareness and perception, persuasion. There are good examples of John Woolman (Quaker) and Thomas Jefferson.

Chapter 2 discusses the institution as servant. Even 1 large institution will improve the rest of society. Members of governing boards, ie Trustees, are in a position to make a difference. They need to care for everyone the institution touches. They should take a more active role in top administrative spots. Teams are better than the sole CEO. Universities and churches need major overhauls.

Chapter 3 expands on Trustees as servants. They should not be rubber stamps, which most boards are these days. Trustees need to lead, not administer. Trust needs to be built but it's tough in today's climate.

Next we move onto servant leadership in business. Examples cited are GM and Alfred Sloan, Sears and Julius Rosenwald, and ATT and Ted Vail. Meaningful work for employees is essential. Great products for the customers. Leaders need to be managers of the process.

Servant leadership in education has failed, it's not taught and needs to be so young people can find their purpose to serve and lead. There's a chapter on churches which echoes the sentiments above. Much work is still needed there.

The chapter on the author's two mentors was the best. Donald Cowling-a conservative president of Carleton College where the author went and liberal activist Rabbi Abraham Heschel of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Both were devoted to making things better and deeply influenced the author.

Servant leadership in a bureaucratic society is very tricky and leaders somehow need to seek virtue and justice, have good motives, and hope.

Peter Senge's afterword urges long term commitment to train and inspire servant leaders. True commitment actually creates choice for others (David Packard). Leaders need to be vulnerable, have humility and commit to telling the truth.

Profile Image for Katie Maggs.
85 reviews
September 20, 2022
3.5/5 stars

In addition to working full time, I’m a part time student seeking a Masters degree in Organizational Psychology. On top of my reading for fun is reading for purpose. ⁣

As I approach the final stretch of classes, I’m preparing for a thesis topic on servant leadership. To prepare, I read the seminal work on the subject by Robert Greenleaf. ⁣

I have high regard for servant leadership and its aspiration of making organizations better both for the sake of the organization and the communities it serves. And Robert Greenleaf didn’t just talk the talk. He very clearly and passionately walked the walk. His writings on the subject, built from a lifetime of practice, are inspirational although a tad repetitive. ⁣

My one bone to pick is that while Greenleaf expounds on the merits of servant leadership, he offers little on how to become a servant. At times it felt implied that one either is a servant or is not, and little can be done to turn a nonservant into a servant. So there is this uncertainty that hangs in the air around whether the reader can apply anything based on the implication that servant leadership is a binary state. I worried throughout that I couldn’t put to use all the excellent points made. That perhaps I lack commitment, humility and vision. ⁣

Despite this doubt, I found the book a worthwhile read. It imparted a hope for what organizations could be if more leaders adopted a servant mentality. ⁣
Profile Image for Tiffany.
Author 3 books7 followers
July 8, 2021
The concept of servant leadership is coming of age about 45 years after Greenleaf first published his thinking on the topic. Greenleaf's recommended governance structure is not practical even now with the technological advancement that has occurred. However, the essence of servant leadership is very much for today. The answer as to how you become a servant organization is not addressed in this book, perhaps because the journey is complex and not reducible to a formulaic approach. Similarly, the process for developing servant leaders is not explored, just the need for them to exist.

Overall, I find the book inspirational as I can see the vision that Greenleaf had and I am able to see elements of servant leadership incorporated into many different leadership philosophies prevalent today including humble leadership, empowering leadership, positive leadership, transformational leadership, ethical leadership, courage leadership, daring leadership, authentic leadership, and spiritual leadership. The presence of so many different views on leadership speaks to the persistence of our societal challenges and workforce engagement issues.

If you want to understand how servant leadership came about, this book if for you. If you want to move toward servant leadership personally or organizationally, you will not find what you need here.
Profile Image for Bethany.
895 reviews18 followers
November 1, 2020
Originally written in the 1970s (I read the 25th anniversary edition), this is a collection of thoughts on servant leadership by Robert Greenleaf, with some repeats. What I think is most important to note is how poignant his concerns are 50 years later. How still very fresh and familiar his recommendations are, in making the world a better place through improved trusteeship of the large institutions that now run our daily life. He is prescient in his assumptions about the future of institutions and how the reporting structure leads to a certain end. And isn’t it important to note that we are still in a “leadership crisis” today.

I have always wondered exactly what a “board of trustees” was supposed to accomplish, especially in instances where all authority seems to rest in the c-suite leadership. Greenleaf really dives into what he expects a trustee to think, question, inspire and accomplish.

In particularly referencing the inadequacies of a liberal arts education, but how utterly accurate for most of my adulthood- our education curriculum is not dealing with the ambiguities of the world. The seemingly logical world that in fact is a miasma of unreasonableness... and how man has not yet made sense of this complex structure (the world and the institution).
Profile Image for Michael Vincent.
Author 1 book4 followers
August 17, 2021
This is an important work in understanding the history of servant leadership in organizations and the business world. Greenleaf is considered the father of the modern servant leadership philosophy. His article, The Servant as Leader, has many important helps including: leaders pointing the direction, dreaming great dreams, listening well, showing acceptance and empathy. These, and others, are important aspects of servant leadership. But much is also lacking in Greenleaf's foundation throughout the book. He often travels down a philosophical path, rather than giving specific direction to develop as a servant leader. I was surprised that I found nothing positive about Jesus as the servant leader. He speaks highly of Buddha, Confucius, and Herman Hesse's work, Journey to the East, but little is referred to that is in the Scriptures and he blames Moses for accepting Jethro's bad advice in Exodus 18. I rate this a three because of its importance in the history of organizational leadership, but there are many other books I would recommend before this one to help one become a better servant leader. Start by following Jesus and the writings of the New Testament.
Profile Image for Wes F.
1,086 reviews13 followers
September 8, 2020
Finally, finally finished up this book. I've been reading this book--bit by bit--for a long, long time. It was a slog. I'm giving it 2-1/2 stars in my Reading Log. It had some good points & insights, but overall it was slow, tedious, & boring. Maybe better read in excerpts.

Meat of the matter: "The servant leader is servant first...It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve--after leadership is established. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types."

I'm glad I read the book overall, since it is a classic. It also had some great biblical injections on the nature of servant leadership and leading & serving with a higher vision than is often common in business or education circles.
Profile Image for Tyler.
636 reviews11 followers
October 15, 2018
There were some really good ideas in this book, but Greenleaf is not a great writer and there was a sense of vagueness and abstraction to his ideas that made it difficult to grasp what he was envisioning. I am really interested to read more about Servant Leadership from other authors who were inspired by Greenleaf's ideas. There were some sentences and passages in this book with really insightful gems about leadership. The part of the book I found the least interesting was his hypothesizing about executive structures and trustees. I have no frame of reference to understand what he is talking about and to know if it is brilliant or deluded or anything. In my opinion the book was also simply more pages than necessary to express the substance it had to convey.
129 reviews
June 2, 2019
This is a great book on leadership development. Robert Greenleaf breaks down servant leadership in several different models from institution to business. This book discusses issues that will help develop servanthood and leadership in the reader if applied. There is no step-by-step manual, so the reader has to pull out the tools and work to apply them in their development. Everyone is different, with assorted backgrounds and education so one may need something that another does not and vice-versa. Over all, I enjoyed this book and recommend it to everyone who seeks to better themselves regardless of their destination.
Profile Image for Jessie.
41 reviews1 follower
May 5, 2018
Giving it 4 based on the concepts behind the book, as in many ways, this concept of Servant Leadership articulated a conceptual and real structure to how I have always approached leading teams, and from that perspective, was validating. The writing however, is old fashioned, painfully formal and disjointed- most of the book is a compilation of various talks, quotes, articles or memos the author has written over time to support his thesis- which becomes tedious. Like most business books, I find, the first 20% delivered 97% of the value- and that would have been enough.
Profile Image for Helena.
71 reviews
February 16, 2020
This book changed a lot of my assumptions about power and leadership.

This quote is pretty illustrative:

"Leadership is the capacity of a human community to shape its future."

and this one, toward the end,

"[Servand leadership] seeks to create organizations in which individual stakeholders become healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous, and, in so doing, build a better, more humane society that welcomes the full diversity of the human family."
Profile Image for Victoria.
20 reviews2 followers
June 11, 2022
interesting perspectives and approaches

As someone who is fundamentally sceptical about leadership theories and texts and ‘how to’ type books, I found this book - although ageing, filled with useful insights and reflections about the importance and role of humility within leadership. It varies in terms of how useful I found the essays but it was good to have a collection. Would recommend
Profile Image for Jonathan Bilbrey.
3 reviews1 follower
February 13, 2019
Insightful and thought provoking. This book pulls so much reality into a the professional world that it makes me think that we have been approaching leadership the wrong way for so long.

I love the stories of his experiences with the great influences in his life. I look forward to adjusting my approach to leadership in a way that would parallel the values stated within these pages.
Profile Image for Nynke Doesburg.
49 reviews1 follower
December 29, 2019
Written in 1977, many chapters feel outdated, but is amazing to me how its core premises feel so familiar and are of every age.
Issues like:
- being an ethical, responsible leader;
- if you’re a follower, to be critical which leader to follow;
- trusting people and gaining trust;
- to communicate openly;
Many authors, like Covey or Sinek, stand on the shoulders of Greenleaf. I’m sure of it.
107 reviews1 follower
October 31, 2020
Some interesting stuff in the first few chapters but I rapidly lost interest as I found it hard to read and it didn’t particularly resonate with me. I was a little surprised by this as I believe we need more servant leadership in business and many of my peers and mentors rate this book. Maybe just not one for me.
128 reviews
February 20, 2021
En grundbog for Servant Leadership. Men jeg må indrømme at jeg gik død i denne bog efter 100 sider.
Jeg har aldrig læst så svær en tilgængelig bog.
Spøjse vendinger og meget svære engelske gloser.
Han beskriver et mål om trustees I alle virksomheder, foreninger og kirker. En flot men noget idealistisk tanke
Profile Image for Mike Finton.
Author 2 books
February 20, 2019

This book is so deep, it is hard to follow at times. I have been committed to being a servant leader and wanted to know about it's origins. I think it has evolved to something more workable and understandable than the deep theory this book presents.
Profile Image for Heidi.
6 reviews9 followers
July 25, 2019
Tough Read. I’ve read scholarly journals that were an easier read than this. I started with this author on the recommendations that this book was the best start in my servant-leader journey. Almost quit before I got out of the gate. Whew. Glad this is over. Moving on.
Profile Image for Paul Dubuc.
245 reviews9 followers
October 15, 2019
This is a classic work on a view of leadership that seems all too rare today in government, business, education, and the church yet it's influence has taken hold in some places and will hopefully grow and continue.
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