The Servant as Leader (I)

Robert K. Greenleaf and the Origins of Servant Leadership

Richard Smith

September 15, 2015

The Servant as Leader was first written about in 1969 by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay by the same name. The concepts were a result of 40 years of lived experience-not a 'theory of leadership'-and only emerged fully into Greenleaf's consciousness when he was 65 years old. By 1990, nearly 500,000 copies of this little essay had been distributed worldwide by word of mouth. Peter Senge tells us that if we are going to read only one book on leadership, "this is the book to read."

Greenleaf invited us to consider some counter-cultural ideas:

  • Who I Am (being) proceeds and influences What I Do (doing)
  • Servants ('natural' and developed via rigorous discipline) are, at times, called to lead (Servant- Leaders).
  • All is organic, relational, wholistic and systemic - Individuals, 'Teams,' and Organizations.
  • The leader does not 'act upon' the follower but is in relationship with the follower (the leader both leads and follows and the follower both follows and leads - and each supports and holds the other accountable)

All are called to leadership. The test of the servant-as-leader (short version) is: "Do those served grow as persons?" From 1990 to the present, more and more people are writing about servant-leadership. Some write from a faith-based perspective and some from a humanistic perspective. Greenleaf's goal was to have many cultures embrace his work; and so they have, for the concepts are truly universal.

In the past 30 years, more and more organizations have sought to embrace the concepts. Many have discovered a paradox of intention in doing so: those organizations that have embraced the concepts because they believe "it is the right thing for us to do" have discovered by-products of "health," low turnover, higher bottom line, more productive and more fulfilled employees, and more growth and development. Paradoxically, organizations that have tried to embrace the concepts because it would help them achieve these by-products have, almost to an organization, failed in achieving them (the research on this is now quite significant).

Greenleaf's concepts can be embraced by individuals, 'teams,' (relationships, departments, etc) and/or by a whole organization. For many, it is the most difficult and challenging work they have ever embraced; for some it is a naming, an affirmation, of what they are already living into.

The Servant as Leader (II)

Leadership, Government, and Creativity