This is the essay that started it all. Powerful, poetic and practical. The Servant as Leader describes some of the characteristics and activities of servant-leaders, providing examples which show that individual efforts, inspired by vision and a servant ethic, can make a substantial difference in the quality of society.
Greenleaf discusses the skills necessary to be a servant-leader; the importance of awareness, foresight and listening; and the contrasts between coercive, manipulative, and persuasive power. A must-read.
This is an interesting article with many valuable insights. I will need to come back to some of these points to consider and discuss them further, but I particularly liked the idea that a true leader is chosen by their followers because they can be trusted, they have a vision, they listen, they serve, they make a difference.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
“The great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness (p. 2).”
“Leadership was bestowed upon a man who was by nature a servant. It was something given, or assumed, that could be taken away. His servant nature was the real man, not bestowed, not assumed, and not to be taken away (p. 2).”
“It is seekers, then, who make prophets, and the initiative of anyone of us in searching for and responding to the voice of contemporary prophets may mark the turning point in their growth and service (p. 3).”
“If one is servant, either leader or follower, one is always searching, listening, expecting that a better wheel for these times is in the making. It may emerge any day. Anyone of us may find it out from personal experience. I am hopeful (p. 3).”
“People are beginning to learn, however haltingly, to relate to one another in less coercive and more creatively supporting ways. A new moral principles is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader (p. 3).”
“How many of them will seek their personal fulfillment by making the hard choices, and by undertaking the rigorous preparation that building a better society requires? It all depends on what kind of leaders emerge and how they – we – respond to them (p. 4).”
“More servants should emerge as leaders (p. 4).”
“‘What can I do about it?’ Criticism has its place, but as a total preoccupation it is sterile. In a time of crisis, like the leadership crisis we are not in, if too many potential builders are taken in by a complete absorption with dissecting the wrong and by a zeal for instant perfection, then the movement so many of us want to see will be set back. The danger, perhaps, is to hear the analyst too much and the artist too little (p. 4).”
“Serving and leading are still mostly intuition-based concepts in my thinking (p. 5).”
“The servant-leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first (p. 6).”
“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? 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; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived (p. 6)?”
“The natural servant, the person who is servant first, is more likely to persevere and refine a particular hypothesis on what serves another’s highest priority needs than is the person who is leader first and who later serves out of promptings of conscience or in conformity with normative expectations (p. 6).”
“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 conceptions of individuals that are born of inspiration….The very essence of leadership, going out ahead to show the way, derives from more than usual openness to inspiration (p. 6).”
“But the leader needs more than inspiration. A leader ventures to say: ‘I will go; come with me!’ A leader initiates, provides the ideas and the structure, and takes the risk of failure along with the chance of success. A leader says: ‘I will go; follow me!’ while knowing that the path is uncertain, even dangerous (p. 7).”
“A mark of leaders...is that they are better than most at pointing the direction. As long as one is leading, one always has a goal...and can articulate it for any who are unsure....The one who states the goal must elicit trust, especially if it is a high risk or visionary goal, because those who follow are asked to accept the risk along with the leader....for something great to happen, there must be a great dream (p. 7).”
“No miracles were wrought; but out of a sustained intentness of listening....only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first....The best test of whether we are communicating at the depth is to ask ourselves first: Are we really listening? Are we listening to the one we want to communicate to? Is our basic attitude, as we approach the confrontation, one of wanting to understand? Remember that great line from the prayer of St. Francis, ‘Lord, grant that I may not seek so much to be understood as to understand.’ (p. 8)”
“Nothing is meaningful until it is related to the hearer’s own experience (p. 9).”
“The ability to withdraw and reorient oneself, if only for a moment, presumes that one has learned the art of systematic neglect, to sort out the more important from the less important – and the important from the urgent – and attend to the more important (p. 9).”
“Pacing oneself by appropriate withdrawal is one of the best approaches to making optimal use of one’s resources. The servant-as-leader must constantly ask: How can I use myself to serve best (p. 10)?”
“The servant always accepts and empathizes, never rejects. The servant as leader always empathizes, always accepts the person but sometimes refuses to accept some of the person’s effort or performance as good enough (p. 10).”
“For a family to be a family, no one can ever be rejected (p. 10).”
“Acceptance of a person, though, requires a tolerance of imperfection. Anybody could lead perfect people – if there were any. But there aren’t any perfect people. And the parents who try to raise perfect children are certain to raise neurotics (p. 10).”
“People grow taller when people who lead them empathize and when they are accepted for what they are, even though their performance may be judged critically in terms of what they are capable of doing. Leaders who empathize and who fully accept those who go with them on this basis are more likely to be trusted (p. 11).”
“‘If, on a practical decision in the world of affairs, you are waiting for all of the information for a good decision, it never comes.’ There always is more information, sometimes a great deal more, that one might have if one waited longer or worked harder to get it – but the delay and the cost are not warranted. On an important decision one rarely has one hundred percent of the information needed for a good decision no matter how much one spends or how long one waits. And if one waits too long, one has a different problem and has to start all over. This is a terrible dilemma of the hesitant decision maker (p. 11).”
“On the most important decisions there is an information gap….The art of leadership rests, in part, on the ability to bridge that gap by intuition, that is, a judgment from the unconscious process. The person who is better at this than most is likely to emerge the leader because of the ability to contribute something of great value (p. 11).”
“Leaders, therefore, must be more creative than most; and creativity is largely discovering, a push into the uncharted and the unknown. Every once in a while a leader needs to think like a scientist, an artist, or a poet. And a leader’s thought processes may be just as fanciful as theirs – and as fallible (p. 12).”
“Intuition is a feel for patterns, the ability to generalize based on what has happened previously (p. 12).”
“Trust is at the root of it (p. 12).”
“Foresight, is a better than average guess about what is going to happen when in the future (p. 12).”
“The prudent man is one who constantly thinks of ‘now’ as the moving concept in which past, present moment, and future, are one organic unity....One is at once, in every moment of time, historian, contemporary analyst, and prophet – not three separate roles. This is what the practicing leader is, every day of his life. Living this way is partly a matter of faith....Is there any other way, in the turbulent world of affairs (including the typical home), for one to maintain serenity in the face of uncertainty (p. 13)?”
“Each of us acts resolutely from moment to moment on a set of assumptions that then govern one’s life (p. 14).”
“Framing all of this as awareness, opening wide the doors of perception so as to enable one to get more of what is available of sensory experience and other signals from the environment than people usually take in. Awareness has its risks, but it makes life more interesting; certainly it strengthens one’s effectiveness as a leader (p. 14).”
“William Blake has said, ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is, infinite (p. 14).’”
“A qualification for leadership is that one can tolerate a sustained wide span of awareness so that one better ‘sees it as it is (p. 14).’”
“Leaders must have more of an armor of confidence in facing the unknown (p. 15).”
“He chose instead to withdraw and cut the stress – right in the event itself – in order to open his awareness to creative insight (p. 15).”
“His method was unique. He didn’t raise a big storm about it or start a protest movement. His method was one of gentle but clear and persistent persuasion....persuading people one by one with gentle non-judgmental argument that a wrong should be righted by individual voluntary action....John Woolman exerted his leadership in an age that must have looked as dark to him as ours does to us today (p. 16).”
“He knew who he was and he resolved to be his own man. He chose his own role....When the Constitution was drafted some years later Jefferson wasn’t even around; he was in France as our Ambassador. He didn’t have to be around. He had done his work and made his contribution in the statues already operating in Virginia. Such are the wondrous ways in which leaders do their work – when they know who they are and resolve to be their own men and will accept making their way to their goal by one action at a time, with a lot of frustration along the way (p. 17).”
“The leadership of trailblazers…is so ‘situational’ that it rarely draws on known models. Rather it seems to be a fresh creative response to here-and-now opportunities (p. 19).”
“Abandon their present notions of how they can best serve their less favored neighbor and wait and listen until the less favored find their own enlightenment, then define their needs in their own way and, finally, state clearly how they want to be served. The now-privileged who are natural servants may in this process get a fresh perspective on the priority of others’ needs and thus they may again be able to serve by leading....Heed John Milton’s advice, ‘They also serve who only stand and wait (p. 19).’”
“Examples of highly creative men, each of whom invented a role that was uniquely appropriate for him as an individual, that drew heavily on his strengths and demanded little that was unnatural for him, and that was very right for the time and place he happened to be (p. 20).”
“‘We are all healers, whether we are ministers or doctors. Why are we in this business? What is our motivation?’.... ‘For our own healing.’....This is an interesting word, healing, with its meaning, ‘to make whole.’...the servant-leader might also acknowledge that his own healing is his motivation (p. 20).”
“Men and women once lived in communities, and, in the developing world, many still do. Human society can be much better than it is (or was) in primitive communities. But if community itself is lost in the process of development, will what is put in its place survive (p. 20)?”
“Only community can give the healing love that is essential for health (p. 21).”
“The school, on which we pinned so much of our hopes for a better society, has become too much a social-upgrading mechanism that destroys community (p. 21).”
“Human service that requires love cannot be satisfactorily dispensed by specialized institutions that exist apart from community, that take the problem out of sight of the community. Both those being cared for and the community suffer (p. 21).”
“Love is an undefinable term, and its manifestations are both subtle and infinite. But it beings, I believe, with one absolute condition: unlimited liability! As soon as one’s liability for anther is qualified to any degree, love is diminished by that much (p. 21).”
“Most of the goods and services we now depend on will probably continue to be furnished by such limited liability institutions. But any human service where the one who is served should be loved in the process requires community, a face-to-face group in which the liability of each for the other and all for one is unlimited, or as close to it as it is possible to get. Trust and respect are highest in this circumstance and an accepted ethic that gives strength to all is reinforced. Where there is not community, trust, respect, and ethical behavior are difficult for the young to learn and for the old to maintain. Living in community as one’s basic involvement will generate an exportable surplus of love which the individual may carry into his many involvements with institutions which are usually not communities: businesses, churches, governments, schools (p. 21).”
“All that is needed to rebuild community as a viable life form for large numbers of people is for enough servant-leaders to show the way, not by mass movements, but by each servant-leader demonstrating his own unlimited liability for a quite specific community-related group (p. 22).”
“An institution starts on a course toward people-building with leadership that has a firmly established context of people first (p. 22).”
“The role of trustees provides a great opportunity for those who would serve and lead. And no one step will more quickly raise the quality of the total society than a radical reconstruction of trustee bodies so that they are predominantly manned by able, dedicated servant-leaders (p. 23).”
“In a complex institution-centered society…there will be large and small concentrations of power. Sometimes it will be a servant’s power of persuasion and example. Sometimes it will be coercive power used to dominate and manipulate people. The difference is that, in the former, power is used to create opportunity and alternatives so that individuals may choose and build autonomy (p. 23).”
“Part of our dilemma is that all leadership is, to some extent, manipulative. Those who follow must be strong (p. 24)!”
“Servants, by definition, are fully human. Servant-leaders are functionally superior because they are closer to the ground – they hear things, see things, now things, and their intuitive insight is exceptional. Because of this they are dependable and trusted, they know the meaning of that line from Shakespeare’s sonnet: ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none (p. 24).’”
“How does one tell a truly giving, enriching servant from the neutral person or the one whose net influence is to take away from or diminish other people?....If there were a dependable way that would tell us, ‘These people enrich by their presence, they are neutral, or they take away,’ life would be without challenge. Yet it is terribly important that one know, both about oneself and about others, whether the net effect of one’s influence on others enriches, is neutral, or diminished and depletes (p. 24).”
“So it is with joy. Joy is inward, it is generated inside. It is not found outside and brought in. It is for those who accept the world as it is, part good, part bad, and who identify with the good by adding a little island of serenity to it (p. 25).”
“Evil, stupidity, apathy, the ‘system’ are not the enemy even though society building forces will be contending with them all the time. The healthy society, like the healthy body, is not the one that has taken the most medicine. It is the one in which the internal health building forces are in the best shape. The real enemy is fuzzy thinking on the part of good, intelligent, vital people, and their failure to lead, and to follow servants as leaders. Too many settle for being critics and experts. There is too much intellectual wheel spinning, too much retreating into ‘research,’ too little preparation for and willingness to undertake the hard and high risk tasks of building better institutions in an imperfect world, too little disposition to see ‘the problem’ as residing in here and not out there. In short, the enemy is strong natural servants who have the potential to lead but do not lead, or who choose to follow a non servant. They suffer. Society suffers. And so it may be in the future (p. 25).”
“Many people, finding their wholeness though many and varied contributions make a good society (p. 26).”
“There must be some kind of order because we know for certain that the great majority of people will choose some kind of order over chaos even if it is delivered by a brutal non-servant and even if, in the process, they lose much of their freedom. Therefore the servant-leader will beware of pursuing an idealistic path regardless of its impact on order. The big question is: What kind of order? This is the great challenge to the emerging generation of leaders: Can they build better order (p. 26)?”
“The only way to change a society (or just make it go) is to produce people, enough people, who will change it (or make it go) (p. 26).”
“The builders will find the useful pieces wherever they are, and invent new ones when needed, all without reference to ideological coloration. ‘How do we get right things done?’ will be the watchword of the day, every day. And the context of those who bring it off will be: all men and women who are touched by the effort grow taller, and become healthier, stronger, more autonomous, and more disposed to serve (p. 27).”
“‘He must grow, I must disappear (p. 27).’”
“Venture to create....create dangerously (p. 27)!”
This long essay started the entire field of Servant Leadership and is a true classic in leadership literature. I believe every leader or aspiring leader should read and reread this essay until he or she understands that being a leader is about serving others - not the other way around.
I also believe in practicing what I preach, so I reread this at least once a year. And I always find something new in it with each reading. This time, it was the following paragraph on page 27:
"Foresight is the 'lead' that the leader has. Once he loses this lead and events start to force his hand, he is leader in name only. He is not leading; he is reacting to immediate events and he probably will not long be a leader. There are abundant current examples of loss of leadership which stems from a failure to foresee what reasonably could have been foreseen, and from failure to act on that knowledge while the leader had freedom to act."
How relevant is that paragraph in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Having said that, the only reason I didn't give this five stars is that the language, writing style, and some of Greenleaf's examples are dated. And while that's to be expected given that he wrote the first edition in 1970, it does somewhat limit the reader's enjoyment of the essay.
Still, this remains a classic, one whose message will NEVER go out of style. On the contrary, I believe that we need servant leadership now more than ever.
Its a pamphlet, not a book, so it's a very quick read. I read it in a little over an hour. There are some really good thoughts that the author presents. On Ethics:
"The failure or refusal of a leader to foresee may be viewed as an ethical failure."
Interesting point. Especially in today's corporate environment of CYA and executives more concerned with survival than doing the right thing. This is further emphasized later when he mentions there are no evil people. There are, and he says, so, but you cannot get rid of them. They will come back. But the problem (the answer to Who is the Enemy?) is that there is too little "willingness to undertake the hard and high risk tasks of building better institutions in an imperfect world."
Community is also discussed. How are institutions like schools, churches, hospitals functioning in today's society? And that was before COVID-19.
Overall a quick read with some very interesting points. Anyone who is interested in the concept of servant leadership should read this.
Greenleaf explores the theory and application of servant leadership through a variety of essays, ultimately arguing that the following characteristics are evident in all effective servant leaders: initiative, vision, listening, clear communication, ability to withdraw, acceptance and empathy, intuition, foresight, awareness and perception, persuasion, working through one step at a time, conceptualization, healing, and community.
"Since we are the product of our own history, we see current prophecy within the context of past wisdom." (pg. 3)
"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... [Servant leaders] make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? 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; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?" (pg. 6)
"A leader initiates, provides the ideas and the structure, and takes the risk of failure along with the chance of success." (pg. 7)
"Every achievement starts with a goal — but not just any goal and not just anybody stating it. The one who states the goal must elicit trust, especially if it is a high risk or visionary goal, because those who follow are asked to accept the risk along with the leader. 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 the tenacious pursuit of a goal." (pg. 7)
"Nothing is meaningful until it is related to the hearer’s own experience. One may hear the words, one may even remember them and repeat them, as a computer does in the retrieval process. But meaning, a growth in experience as a result of receiving the communication, requires that the hearer supply the imaginative link from the hearer’s fund of experience to the abstract language symbols the speaker has used. As a leader (including teacher, coach, administrator) one must have facility in tempting the hearer into that leap of imagination that connects the verbal concept to the hearer’s own experience." (pg. 9).
"As a practical matter, on most important decisions there is an information gap. There usually is an information gap between the solid information in hand and what is needed. The art of leadership rests, in part, on the ability to bridge that gap by intuition, that is, a judgment from the unconscious process." (pg. 11-12)
"The prudent man is one who constantly thinks of “now” as the moving concept in which past, present moment, and future, are one organic unity. And this requires living by a sort of rhythm that encourages a high level of intuitive insight about the whole gamut of events from the indefinite past, through the present moment, to the indefinite future. One is at once, in every moment of time, historian, contemporary analyst, and prophet — not three separate roles. This is what the practicing leader is, every day of his life. Living this way is partly a matter of faith." (pg. 13)
"One is always at two levels of consciousness. One is in the real world — concerned, responsible, effective, value oriented. One is also detached, riding above it, seeing today’s events, and seeing oneself deeply involved in today’s events, in the perspective of a long sweep of history and projected into the indefinite future. Such a split enables one better to foresee the unforeseeable. Also, from one level of consciousness, each of us acts resolutely from moment to moment on a set of assumptions that then govern one’s life. Simultaneously, from another level, the adequacy of these assumptions is examined, in action, with the aim of future revision and improvement. Such a view gives one the perspective that makes it possible for one to live and act in the real world with a clearer conscience." (pg. 14)
"Leadership by persuasion has the virtue of change by convincement rather than coercion." (pg. 16)
"Twelve ministers and theologians of all faiths and twelve psychiatrists of all faiths had convened for a two-day off-the-record seminar on the one-word theme of healing. The chairman, a psychiatrist, opened the seminar with this question: “We are all healers, whether we are ministers or doctors. Why are we in this business? What is our motivation?” There followed only ten minutes of intense discussion and they were all agreed, doctors and ministers, Catholics, Jews, and Protestants. “For our own healing,” they said... Perhaps, as with the minister and the doctor, the servant-leader might also acknowledge that his own healing is his motivation." (pg. 20)
"Servants, by definition, are fully human. Servant-leaders are functionally superior because they are closer to the ground — they hear things, see things, know things, and their intuitive insight is exceptional." (pg. 24)
I've always considered myself a natural leader, which this book seems to demonize a bit. I don't know that I agree with 100% of it's information, but it's packed with a lot of great advice in a very tiny package. My full review and summary can be found on my Youtube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyAVL...
Here are some of the highlights I liked most:
1) Seek to serve and create value as your primary purpose. 2) Realize there will always be emergencies, so you have to leave some energy in your tank. You can't push yourself to your maximum limits every day. If you do, when the inevitable emergencies arise, you won't be able to deal with them - at least not very well. 3) Don't reject people. You can reject their behaviors and choose not to associate with them, but it's always based on behavior, NOT the person themselves. We all have the potential for improvement and development. 4) Be empathetic. Put yourself in other peoples' shoes as much as possible. Seek to understand where they're coming from and why their behaviors makes sense to them. Don't always assume you understand everything immediately and are right (and they're therefore wrong.)
Inspiring. In reading this, I have paid homage to the man who sparked the colossal tidal wave of servant leadership.
Summary of my key learning points.
1. Servant leaders accept their followers unconditionally. An example of this is Next Jump, which provides its employees with Lifetime Employment. So instead of firing its employees for bad performance, it helps to develop and nurture its employees. This was highlighted in Simon Sinek's book "Leaders Eat Last", we should be treating the employees as a family instead of trying to "get the best out of them", thereby treating them as wet rags and wringing them dry. Instead, we want them to be at their "natural best"
2. Penal institutions (e.g. jails and institutions) that are focused on societal vengeance and retribution do no good to "rehabilitate" and instead "debilitate and return more difficult offenders to society". Instead, we should try to bring these offenders the love and nurture that a community can provide and not segregate them from society.
At first I thought this was a type of "management" technique, having seen a recommendation on it for learning better leadership skills, but it is so much more. It had so much meaning to me and led me to understand the vexing problems torturing my mind about humanity and how we got here and whether there is a way out.
This is a book that defined Servant Leadership. A great read to those who already experienced the inner transformation of ones leadership and a must read to those who still think today that everything is in their powers... This book mentions key values and aspects that leaders need to remember and keep growing on.
Interesting essay from the first person to coin the term "servant leader" in modern times. Greenleaf makes a very strong case for servant leadership in the workplace. There are large segments when he focuses simply on leadership, rather than servant leadership.
Topic itself is super relevant and the references will be interesting to explore further. But the read itself is.. too much filled with slogans? There's enough of management thinkers who cover the topic better. But as an introduction to the concept, it's not that bad.
Great foundational learning reading. The context that Greenleaf provides on Servant leadership is indispensable. The reader will find themselves reflecting on the implications of there on leadership style.
I found “servant-leadership” as the best way to lead by the simple fact that, despite or even in spite of being counter intuitive and a paradox in itself, it is what Jesus showed us as “the way” - Do you want to lead? Be the last. That’s leading.
Short, impactful essay. Reading this essay gives context and foundation to what has become a buzz word. The world would be a better place if everyone who spoke the term "Servant Leader" actually read and followed the concept of this very short essay
Loved the compactness and straightforwardness of this book. Straight to the point with short essays, no excessive pre-chewed examples to throw down your throat, but exactly enough to spark the thought-process, and leave room for interpretation and discussion.
Concepts set forth are five star and have shaped leadership literature since it was written. Book itself is a bit tough to get through. Many good - and not so good - adaptations since Greenleaf wrote this.
Read it for background on a course in leadership. It is to read about the origination of a leadership theory without all the dry, technical, research jargon that normally goes with this type of research. It was interesting to read how Greenleaf happened upon this leadership theory and his thoughts.