Servant Leadership – Start with Robert Greenleaf’s Original; All that Follows is Commentary and Elaboration

Randy, could you give me a few books or maybe the best book on servant leadership that you have come across?

That question came from a Dallas Police Officer, who has attended some training sessions we’ve put on for the DPD through the Caruth Institute. It’s a very good question.

I recently heard a student speech on “Bullying.” The student failed to include a critical piece of information. That information: a good definition of “bullying.” After he finished, I read the definition of “bullying” from the dictionary to him and the class, and then the definition of “ridicule,” and told him that his speech was actually more about ridicule than it was about bullying.

Words matter. Concepts matter. And the phrase servant leaderhsip has a history – a beginning point. A “definition.”

servant-leadershi2So, I told the Dallas Police Officer to start with the book that started it all: Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf. To my knowledge, Mr. Greenleaf coined the term. You can buy the 25th Anniversary edition, published in 2002, at Amazon: Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness 25th Anniversary Edition.

Here are some key “foundational thoughts” excerpted from this book:

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.” The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. 

The best test 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?

My hope for the future rests in part on my belief that among the legions of deprived and unsophisticated people are many true servants who will lead, and that most of them can learn to discriminate among those who presume to serve them and identify the true servants whom they will follow.

The very essence of leadership, going out ahead to show the way, derives from more that usual openness to inspiration. Why would anybody accept the leadership of another except that the other sees more clearly where it is best to go? A leader ventures to say: “I will go; come with me!” A leader says: “I will go; follow me!” 

A mark of leaders, an attribute that puts them in a position to show the way for others, is that they are better than most at pointing the direction. As long as one is leading, one always has a goal. 

And, from Greenleaf’s The Institution as Servant, Greenleaf’s “credo” —

“This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.”

From the Center for Servant Leadership website, we read this:

Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.

Here are some of my thoughts.

First, if you want to understand a concept, go back to its roots. The book Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf laid the foundation, and in one sense, everything else written about servant leadership is simply commentary and elaboration building on Greenleaf’s solid foundation.

Next, make no mistake — not all leaders are “servant leaders.” In fact, some of our most revered and successful leaders, leaders who have built great successful companies, do not have/did not have much of a servant leadership understanding or approach.

In other words, one does not have to take the servant leadership approach to build a successful company. Nor does taking the servant leadership approach guarantee success (in the “profitability” definition of success).

And, a “danger” — “Servant leader” does not automatically mean “soft” or easy” leadership. If the best test of successful leadership is, as Mr. Greenleaf wrote, do those served grow as persons?,” sometimes a leader has to be tough, direct, challenging, to help people grow as persons. Servant – yes. Soft – not so much.

But, a servant leader is committed to the people he she is leading more than anything else. Yes, a company has to make a profit; yes, a company has to be successful in its competitive arena. But the servant leader is focused on helping the people he/she leads to grow as persons even as they seek the profitability and success of the company.

The book Servant Leadership, and its key principles, provide the starting point – the foundation. So, start here, and keep coming back time-and-again to these basic principles.

And, then, if you want to read more, I suggest:

Wooden on Leadership by John Wooden. Coach Wooden was a true servant leader.
And read Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson. He too, though different in many ways from Coach Wooden, was also a servant leader.


Here is a link to some Must-Read Servant Leadership Books.

And here are the Ten Principles of Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf. (I got these from this web site).

Ten Principles of Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf

  1. Listening – Traditionally, leaders have been valued for their communication and decision making skills. Servant-leaders must reinforce these important skills by making a deep commitment to listening intently to others. Servant-leaders seek to identify and clarify the will of a group. They seek to listen receptively to what is being said (and not said). Listening also encompasses getting in touch with one’s inner voice, and seeking to understand what one’s body, spirit, and mind are communicating.
  2. Empathy – Servant-leaders strive to understand and empathize with others. People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirit. One must assume the good intentions of coworkers and not reject them as people, even when forced to reject their behavior or performance.
  3. Healing – Learning to heal is a powerful force for transformation and integration. One of the great strengths of servant-leadership is the potential for healing one’s self and others. In “The Servant as Leader”, Greenleaf writes, “There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between the servant-leader and led is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something that they have.”
  4. Awareness – General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader. Making a commitment to foster awareness can be scary–one never knows that one may discover! As Greenleaf observed, “Awareness is not a giver of solace – it’s just the opposite. It disturbed. They are not seekers of solace. They have their own inner security.”
  5. Persuasion – Servant-leaders rely on persuasion, rather than positional authority in making decisions. Servant-leaders seek to convince others, rather than coerce compliance. This particular element offers one of the clearest distinctions between the traditional authoritarian model and that of servant-leadership. The servant-leader is effective at building consensus within groups.
  6. Conceptualization – Servant-leaders seek to nurture their abilities to “dream great dreams.” The ability to look at a problem (or an organization) from a conceptualizing perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities. Servant-leaders must seek a delicate balance between conceptualization and day-to-day focus.
  7. Foresight – Foresight is a characteristic that enables servant-leaders to understand lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision in the future. It is deeply rooted in the intuitive mind.
  8. Stewardship – Robert Greenleaf’s view of all institutions was one in which CEO’s, staff, directors, and trustees all play significance roles in holding their institutions in trust for the great good of society.
  9. Commitment to the Growth of People – Servant-leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As such, servant-leaders are deeply committed to a personal, professional, and spiritual growth of each and every individual within the organization.
  10. Building Community – Servant-leaders are aware that the shift from local communities to large institutions as the primary shaper of human lives has changed our perceptions and has caused a feeling of loss. Servant-leaders seek to identify a means for building community among those who work within a given institution.

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