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Greenleaf on Leadership: Revisiting " “Star vs. Servant"

April 5, 2017


For much of the last century, expertise in leadership has been synonymous with big personalities and splashy individual traits; consider Tony Robbins, Steve Jobs, or Martin Luther King junior, whose high-profile, passion-oriented leadership depends as much on charisma as on principle. But in the new post modern era of humanity, does big personality leadership still make sense, taking into context of a century that saw two world wars and a devastating Depression throughout the 1930s. At certain times and in certain situations, we need more immediate direction and decision making. But times have changed; what do we need from leaders now? Certainly since the 2002 dot.com catastrophe and the financial collapse of 2008, researchers have had to grapple in new ways with the role of values based in leadership. We are realizing that the big personality might not be the most useful form of leadership for our times. In these early days of Trump’s reign, for instance, millions are wondering precisely who is served by his particular form of leadership.


It pays to look back about fifty years at Robert Greenleaf’s (1970) prescient “The Servant as Leader” which is, I think, more valuable now than ever, because it is increasingly clear that we need much more than big noise from ego-driven leaders. We need what Greenleaf defined as a more genuine ‘servant leadership’ to support the common good of all, including the most vulnerable members of our culture and society.


Greenleaf’s credibility comes from the vantage point of 38 years at AT&T, where he began working directly after university, and where he rose to Director of Management Development. He came to believe that “the organization exists as much for the person as the person exists for the organization” which was quite a radical notion at the time, and in many ways remains radical today. He was among very few at the time who promoted women and African Americans to management positions. Corporate USA, relying on a more traditional top-down hierarchy, did not quickly fall in love with the notion that the individual mattered (Frick, 2004). But Greenleaf’s view was more closely attuned to a humanitarian vision than corporate USA’s. Greenleaf wanted to see leadership by and for all, at a point when the concept of star-centered leadership was already diminishing in the eyes of the public (Greenleaf, 1970).


One of Greenleaf’s key objections to the popular image of leadership, at that time, grew from his awareness that the terms ‘leadership’ and ‘serve’ had been so often misused that people had become cynical about the field (Greenleaf, 1970). Greenleaf was no cynic. An important argument in ‘The Servant as Leader’ deals with how the individual relates to systems, ideologies and movements; he noted that within these larger structures, there are very often opportunities for leadership at the individual level. Greenleaf was deeply interested in the matter of individuals taking those opportunities to lead when they present themselves. Again, the notion of any individual taking on a leadership opportunity when such occasions arose was pretty radical in 1970.


Greenleaf suggested that leaders use particular tools in order to lead well: listen to understand, use shared language to promote imaginative ideas and solutions, develop acceptance to foster empathy, foresight, and awareness. These tools bring the leader and those whom the leader wants to support toward solutions that lead to action based on an ethics and integrity (Greenleaf, 1970). Greenleaf’s premise was that the world is about individuals being truly engaged in their communities, and stepping up when needed to help their community become a better place.


How do you know when you’re a servant leader? Greenleaf’s test is not an easy one. He argued that leadership worked only when the leader is a servant to the well-being of others. Are other people's highest priority needs being met? Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? Significantly one of his criteria for leadership was the impact on the most vulnerable; what is the effect of certain choices on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?" (ibid). The focus on those served rather than those leading is no doubt a very idealistic view of leadership, but at a time when ethical ideals seem to be in short supply among many current leaders, we would do well to think hard about what Greenleaf proposed almost half a century ago.


When I first read ‘The Servant as Leader’ in the late 1980’s, I thought Greenleaf‘s argument was wonderfully idealistic, but completely impracticable. Great philosophy, but seriously, how could this vision ever actually work? That said, I was simply unable to stop thinking about the ideas in those mere thirty-seven pages. The servant-as-leader was a concept I could feel myself growing into.  As I became more involved in executive development as an associate professor in the Smith School of Business, I kept thinking about Greenleaf’s paper. I began implementing some of his ideas in my practice; as a professor, I wanted to engage in deeper listening, in order to understand better where my colleagues and students were coming from. Later on, I adopted what Dweck (2007) calls a ‘growth mindset’ rather than a fixed mindset, which is really about un-bias listening.


In early 2000 I had the opportunity to teach a leadership course, and I read much more of Greenleaf’s work, including that 1970 essay that had so resonated with me years ago. I noticed that Greenleaf’s framework had begun to appear, in one form or another, in more recent scholarship on leadership. There was new research coming out among a number thinkers and organizations aiming to engage more practically, as well as theoretically, with this ‘new’ leadership theory. Other researchers were working on defining the characteristics of servant leadership more comprehensively in order for organizations in general, and business organizations specifically to make good use of the principles.


The literature arising from or connecting to Greenleaf’s message is that the servant-leadership process is about helping others develop and become better contributors to their communities, organizations and groups through active, ethical, moral engagement. A key point among all on this message is that mutual trust between servant leaders and those s/he wishes to support is both fundamental and essential. In my view, any form of leadership demands such trust, but in servant leadership, that trust is the launch pad from which all else springs. Without it, no leadership, and certainly not servant leadership, is possible. Without trust, leadership is mere manipulation and/or coercion at best.


Keith’s (2017) [Key Practices of Servant Leadership] defines the 7 characteristics of servant leadership as: self-awareness, listening, changing the pyramid (organizational change), people development, coaching not controlling, unleashing the energy and intelligence of people, and foresight. In sum, Keith argues that self-understanding to the degree that one has a quiet, inner self-confidence facilitates an open (growth-centered) mind. Keith’s premise is in distinct accord with Greenleaf’s original concept; both put those served with, not below, those who lead. In servant leadership, we want to ‘coach, mentor, and teach’ others, to assist in their development as potential ‘servant leaders’ themselves. In this process, we aim to improve the quality of thinking in individuals, which in turn enhances community within families, communities, organizations, and perhaps in humanity as a whole. Greenleaf’s propositions are big-picture ones; how do we individuals contend with power and authority in ways that serve the individual, and certainly the more vulnerable individual?


At this point, it might be useful to acknowledge that we’re not all profoundly ethical. History is heavily populated by leaders with zero interest in supporting the community in which their power resides.  As I note above, Greenleaf is no cynic but neither is he a blind optimist. His method of dealing with the reality of human nature is to categorize humanity in terms of 3 groups: the good thinking and acting person, the ‘fuzzy thinking good person’ and the evil or bad person.  Neither the ‘good’ person nor the ‘evil’ person mattered to Greenleaf as much as the ‘fuzzy thinking good’ person. The FTG person benefits the most from servant leadership in that s/he is supported in doing the right thing, whatever that may be, in challenging moments, which are often moments when individual leadership matters most. Without such leadership, the FTG person risks being manipulated and coerced into doing something that is ‘harmful’ to themselves or to others in some way. FTG people may struggle more than the good thinking person when they have the opportunity, and without servant leadership, they may simply follow the crowd or the charismatic, possibly self-serving ‘leader.’


‘Servant leadership’ is for optimists; not blind ones but optimists nonetheless. Any individual can engage with the concept. It’s about understanding ourselves, developing the quality of our thinking, and then having the inner confidence to step up and lead when the opportunity arises. 



John Phelan

Adjunct Associate Professor at the Smith School of Business,

Queen’s University

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