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Servant Leadership

Author: Robert K. Greenleaf
Copyright: ©1977
Publishers: Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.
Book Review by: Cathy Bernatt

Servant Leadership

Lao Tzu captures the essence of what Robert Greenleaf found so profound about Leo's leadership style in Herman Hesse's Journey to the East. Lao Tzu says of the leader, "A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. "Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you": But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say, "We did this ourselves." (Spears, p. 242) Nobody knew Leo was the leader. For them he was only a servant. But when he disappeared the group fell apart. How can one tell if what one is doing is serving others? The key question that determines whether what someone is doing qualifies as servant-leadership is to ask: "...do those served grow as persons; do they while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?" (Greenleaf, p. 13)

In Servant Leadership, Greenleaf explores the role of servant as leader, the institution as servant, trustees as servants, servant leadership in business, education, foundations, and churches. For Greenleaf, a servant-leader's desire first and foremost is to serve others. The servant is "...always searching, listening, expecting a better wheel for these times in the making." (Greenleaf, p. 9) It is through personal experience that we will find it. In serving first, we come to a conscious choice that brings us to want to lead. So much of what Greenleaf talks about takes me back to the motto and philosophy of Outward Bound, "To serve, to strive and not to yield." It is in the serving, the searching, the desire to grow oneself and others, the ability to be vulnerable, to listen deeply, to try and fail and think of those failures as great learning opportunities, to enter uncharted waters, to confront fear and conflict, that we become better than we know we are. The path of the servant-leader and those who follow is rough going. There are no certainties. There is a vision, an "overarching purpose" (Greenleaf, p. 15) towards which people are moving. The know-how is learned along the way. It requires openness to uncertainty, to ambiguity, to change. It requires a deep ability to listen and practice silence. For Greenleaf, it is important to sometimes ask, "In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?" (Greenleaf, p. 19) This brings up the two sins of communication that Scott Peck shares. Sin one is speaking when you are not moved. Sin two is not speaking when you are moved. As humans we are imperfect and the servant-leader has a tolerance for imperfection. We can never know all the information we need before we make decisions. One of the qualities of a leader is to be able to use their intuition to bridge the gap. Intuition and trust in oneself are key for the servant-leader. Intuition is "...a feel for patterns, the ability to generalize based on what has happened previously." (Greenleaf, p. 23)

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To develop our awareness allows us to deal with the stresses of life, to see things as they are, to prioritize what most urgently needs tending to. Leadership is to some extent manipulative, Greenleaf points out. There are two kinds of power, coercive and persuasive. Coercive power is destructive; persuasive power constructive. For Greenleaf, entering uncharted waters, the unknown is necessary for growth. We should as Will Rodgers says, "Go out on a limb, that's where the fruit is."

Greenleaf promotes a new leadership ethic that he believes needs to be applied to all areas of life and society if we are to prosper as a nation. "Except as we venture to create, we cannot project ourselves beyond ourselves to serve and lead." (Greenleaf, p. 48) He promotes Camus's philosophy that we create dangerously. The old style leadership he lived under at AT&T is referred to as the machine bureaucracy, where profits were first, people last. The new leadership emerging, parallels the new science founded on the principles of quantum physics. Movement and change are the norm. Chaos and uncertainty the only absolutes. All this new knowledge makes the field of leadership much more difficult than before. Before, followers looked to leaders for all the answers, to be taken care of. They operated as victims in an oppressed system. The pressure on the leader was great, the task expected, impossible and unreal. The outcome was bad leadership that bred, mistrust, miscommunication, abuse of power and more. But the new leadership espoused by Greenleaf requires a much greater level of responsibility on everybody's role. The leader's key task is to motivate others to grow and become better than they know they are; to facilitate the process of deep communication. Individuals must take responsibility for their own personal growth. Growing is required if one wants to remain marketable today. Having organizations support employees personal growth is an investment that brings returns long-term in employee satisfaction, creativity and productivity. Trust and respect are earned by believing in people at all levels of an organization to make decisions that will benefit the organization as a whole. What people want most of all is to be engaged in meaningful work. As Greenleaf says, "... the work exist for the person as much as the person exists for the work." (Greenleaf, p. 142).

A role model of a servant-leader Greenleaf talks about later in his book is Rabbi Heschel. For Rabbi Heschel, the tragedy of our education today is that, "...we are giving some easy solutions: Be complacent, have peace of mind... NO! Wrestling is the issue; facing the challenge is the issue." (Greenleaf, p. 253)

There is one aspect of what happens to Leo's group after he disappears that really disturbs me. The group falls apart. To me, this demonstrates a great weakness in leadership. If a leader disappears and the group disbands or disintegrates, how effective was the leader? Greenleaf addresses this when he says that a really effective leader thinks about his replacement early on and serves as a mentor to create future servant-leaders.

The ultimate goal as an Outward Bound instructor is to empower the group with enough skills and knowledge to enable them to enter uncharted territory and risk making decisions as a group, leaving room for the possibility of failure. My biggest responsibility is to, very much as Greenleaf promotes, struggle intuitively to frame the questions that will give learners the opportunity to continue their searching and learning from their experiences, through dialogue. I design programs based on clearly defined objectives. From there, all is unknown. Every group is different. Their issues and challenges will be different. As an instructor and facilitator, I need to be comfortable with the unknown and with silence-to stay in the background and in the moment as a leader and allow discomfort, conflict, joy or fear to emerge-to give participants a chance to fully engage in the experiences on all three levels of the learning cycle (cognitive, affective, and psychomotor); to facilitate them to communicate about their experiences and help them to transfer their learning back to their "regular" lives. This transfer and the moment where the group "dies" as Peck describes in the phases of a group, is where the potential for transformation exists. My work is "creating dangerously", albeit safely. My job is first to serve my clients-how to best do that is different for all individuals. Appreciating the uniqueness of all and helping them to move forward from where they are is my key role. Servant Leadership helps communicate what I aspire to do not only in my work with Outward Bound but in my own company Creating...® and in my personal life as well.

Greenleaf, K., Robert (1977).
Servant Leadership
. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press
Spears, Larry (1995).
Reflections of Leadership
. USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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