Robert K. Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership: Overview

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What is Robert K. Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership about? Why are modern institutions failing?

In Servant Leadership, Robert K. Greenleaf argues that institutions and individuals fail the people they’re meant to serve and employ. His solution is the servant leadership philosophy that fixes institutional problems from within.

Read below for a brief overview of Servant Leadership.

Servant Leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf

Robert K. Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership is the answer to the failure of modern institutions to meet the needs of those they serve and employ. He argues that institutions and the individuals within them should adopt the philosophy of servant leadership: prioritizing their followers’ needs, thus enabling those followers to achieve their goals and empowering them to be of service to others in turn. According to Greenleaf, servant leaders have the potential to improve society by leaps and bounds, in every facet of life.

Greenleaf’s advice is based on what he observed during his career as an AT&T executive and business consultant. Since he coined the concept of servant leadership in 1977, his philosophy has inspired a widespread movement, which is carried forward today by the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

We’ve broken Greenleaf’s ideas down into three parts:

  • The Philosophy of Servant Leadership: We’ll explain what servant leadership is, define the qualities of good servant leaders, and discuss why servant leadership is an effective solution to modern institutional problems.
  • The Ideal Institution: We’ll discuss Greenleaf’s suggestions for building the ideal servant-leader institution and explore the role of trustees as servant leaders of ideal institutions.
  • Actionable Advice for Institutions and Individuals: We’ll discuss Greenleaf’s advice for four kinds of institutions: churches, universities, businesses, and foundations. Finally, we’ll end with some recommendations for individual servant-leaders.

The Philosophy of Servant Leadership

Greenleaf believes that servant leaders will pave the way toward a better future—but what is servant leadership, exactly? In this section, we’ll define the concept, list some of the qualities you need to be a servant leader, and explain why servant leadership would improve society.

What Is Servant Leadership?

According to Greenleaf, servant leadership is a three-pronged philosophy with the primary aim of making the world a better place. The first prong is a vision of the common good—a goal that would significantly improve the lives of most people, if not everybody. The second prong is a sense of social responsibility—a desire to altruistically serve others’ needs, prioritizing them ahead of your own interests (like money, power, or glory). The third prong is inspiration—to be a servant leader, you must be able to convince and motivate others to pursue your vision by becoming servants themselves. To illustrate, some say that the civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. exemplified the servant leadership philosophy.

Greenleaf writes that servant leadership is as much a spiritual calling as it is a worldly one. Servant leaders are invested in making the world a better place because that’s what’s spiritually fulfilling for them—and because they want to ensure that the rest of the world can achieve spiritual fulfillment, too. Although this perspective is rooted in Greenleaf’s Quaker beliefs, he emphasizes that servant leadership isn’t limited to the traditionally religious—he argues that the whole point of religion is to unite individuals with the world around them, and you don’t have to adhere to any specific religion to pursue that goal.

Why Servant Leadership Is Necessary

According to Greenleaf, servant leadership is the solution to America’s most pressing problem: institutional inefficacy. Let’s explore the origins of that problem and Greenleaf’s proposed solution in more detail.

The Problem With Modern Institutions

Greenleaf argues that the majority of modern U.S. institutions—namely, churches, universities, businesses, and foundations—fail to uphold their social responsibility. In his view, churches no longer meet people’s spiritual or material needs, universities are overcrowded and don’t adequately prepare students, businesses are often solely motivated by profit and do social harm in pursuit of that profit, and foundations are inefficient with the money they disperse to what might otherwise be good causes. As a result, people are losing faith in the institutions that were created—at least theoretically—to serve them.

According to Greenleaf, one factor in American institutions’ inefficacy is their increasing bureaucratization. Bureaucratized institutions have strict rules of operation, value consistency and uniformity, and are committed to maintaining the status quo. Because of this, bureaucratized institutions are resistant to innovation, which prevents them from discovering how to use their resources—including time, money, and manpower—most effectively. As a result, the quality of the services they offer is lower.

Why Servant Leadership Is the Solution

Greenleaf believes that servant leaders will ensure that the institutions they belong to fulfill their social responsibility. They’ll do this by changing these institutions from the inside out—with a clear vision of past institutional failures and of a better path forward, they’ll ensure that their institutions actually serve the needs of the people they claim to serve.

Greenleaf argues that only servant leaders can revitalize American institutions because they’re the only kind of leader that deserves the loyalty of their followers—they earn their leadership positions by proving that their vision is the most effective, rather than by coercing (under legal threat) or forcing institutions to go along with their vision, like government officials do.

Greenleaf explains that the concept of servant leadership was inspired by a story—Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. In the story, a servant named Leo accompanies a traveling party of spiritual seekers, running their errands and keeping them in high spirits. Unbeknownst to his companions, Leo is actually a leader of the spiritual sect that inspired the journey—and when he disappears, the party falls apart because they had relied on his services to keep them going. According to Greenleaf, Leo is the quintessential servant leader—he only earned prominence among his companions because his services were so essential for them to reach their goal.

The Ideal Institution

Recall Greenleaf’s belief that institutions have a social responsibility to meet the needs of those they serve. In this section, we’ll explain how servant leaders can transform underperforming institutions into ideal institutions that fulfill their social responsibility. First, we’ll define the ideal institution in greater detail. Then, we’ll explain why institutions should be led by trustees who are servant leaders and how trustees can build the ideal institution.

What Is an Ideal Institution?

Greenleaf believes ideal institutions are those that fulfill their social responsibility to be of service and that they constitute the basis of a healthy society. He reasons that if every institution prioritizes helping people meet their needs, then everyone will get their needs met. In contrast, if every institution prioritizes its own money, power, or fame, some people’s needs will continue to go unmet or even increase. For example, a business might sell a carcinogenic product like cigarettes because it’s profitable, without consideration for the harm it might do to consumers. Like the quintessential servant leader Leo, ideal institutions are only entrusted with power, influence, and profits because they’ve proven their benefit to those they serve.

Any kind of institution can be an ideal institution, but Greenleaf believes that businesses are most likely to become ideal institutions because in order to be profitable, they have to respond to both internal and external influences—like the higher standard of treatment expected by employees and consumer demand for ethical business practices. If businesses’ values aren’t in line with the public’s values, they won’t succeed.

The Role of Trustees in Ideal Institutions

Greenleaf argues that a faulty institution can only become an ideal institution if the trustees who govern it are servant leaders. Traditionally, trustees are people who are responsible for ensuring that an institution meets its financial responsibilities—for example, a bank’s board of trustees makes decisions to ensure that the bank is profitable so that account holders’ money is safe, employees are paid, and shareholders profit. In ideal institutions, though, trustees prioritize the institution’s social responsibility over its profits. For example, the trustees for an ideal search engine company would prioritize accurate search results over more profitable promoted content.

Greenleaf explains that trustees play a separate but equally important role than administrators do. While trustees’ main priority is envisioning institutional excellence and enacting the policies that make it possible, the main priority of administrators is to execute that vision based on the policies trustees have set down. Trustees’ decisions have bearing on the institution’s daily operations, and trustees collaborate with administrators to figure out how their policies are best implemented, but trustees have little to do with mundane operational matters.

Greenleaf says that trustees are essential for institutional success because they have an overhead view of the bigger picture, which makes them more likely to be open to change. Administrators and employees tend to be biased in their own favor—they see themselves as competently carrying out their duties, and they need to have faith in their competence to be motivated to work. Since trustees are removed from the day-to-day operations of the institution, they have a different perspective: They can more clearly see where the institution is failing, and that doesn’t demoralize them—it motivates them to come up with solutions.

How Trustees Can Build the Ideal Institution

Greenleaf says that to build the ideal institution, trustees must do the following:

1) Envision institutional excellence—this means seeing how their institution can improve the lives of everyone it affects and setting the bar high to give the institution something to aim for. Trustees’ vision should be clear enough for them to create concrete objectives and plans to meet those objectives.

2) Proactively seek out and hire the best executive team for the institution—this is how trustees can ensure that their vision of institutional excellence will be carried out.

3) Make financial and policy decisions that ensure the institution meets its social responsibility—this is how trustees convince the public that the institution is both trustworthy and worth engaging with.

4) Moderate the use of power within the institution—using performance reviews, trustees can ensure that the institution and its leadership aren’t abusing their power and influence, but actually contributing to the greater social good.

5) Ensure the institution’s success—by gathering data about the institution’s performance, trustees can determine how well their vision of institutional excellence is being carried out. Based on that information, they can make policy changes to help the institution meet its goals. 

Greenleaf also says that to support their function as servant leaders of the institution, boards of trustees must be radically reorganized so that power is shared equally among all trustees. He explains that traditionally, boards of trustees are organized hierarchically, with a single leader at the top of the chain of command. This has at least three disadvantages: The single leader has too much power and may be inclined to abuse that power, those below her find it hard to communicate honestly with her, and she has more responsibility than one can handle without hurting herself in the process—for example, by relying on stimulants like caffeine and nicotine to power through heavy workdays.

Instead of the traditional organization, Greenleaf recommends that the board be composed of a group of equals who are represented by a chair. The chair should be selected by the board of trustees on the basis of their belief that she’s completely dedicated to the institution’s success and capable of collaborating effectively with administrators. The chair’s responsibilities include closely overseeing the institution’s day-to-day management, ensuring that administrators meet performance goals, and gathering information the board needs to optimize the institution’s performance.

Actionable Advice for Institutions and Individuals

Now that you know what servant leadership is and understand its importance in ideal institutions, you may be wondering what you can do with that information. In this section, we’ll break down Greenleaf’s advice about how different kinds of institutions can fulfill their unique social responsibilities. Finally, we’ll discuss what you can do as an individual—no matter what institutional role you occupy—to fulfill your social responsibility.

Advice for Churches

According to Greenleaf, the social responsibility of churches is to unite spiritual seekers with spiritual visionaries who can help them grapple with relevant moral issues. He uses the Quaker leader George Fox as an exemplar, arguing that Fox successfully convinced other Quakers of the spiritual importance of treating people lovingly in all parts of life—which contributed to the Quakers’ push for gender equality, the abolition of slavery, and fair business dealings.

To fulfill this social responsibility, Greenleaf argues that churches must accomplish three things:

Materially and spiritually improve churchgoers’ quality of life. He argues that churches lose their ability to influence people’s behavior when they merely preach about religious rules without actually meeting the needs of those they claim to serve. For example, if a church teaches that you should care for the sick but doesn’t help its own congregants when they get sick, they’re likely to be seen as hypocritical and lose followers.

Train spiritual visionaries to tap into their intuition and lead the way forward. Greenleaf believes that there always have been and always will be a number of spiritual visionaries in the world—these are people who have intuitive wisdom about what needs to happen for the world to heal. If churches proactively teach future visionaries to trust their own intuition and equip them with leadership skills, they’ll become more effective spiritual leaders.

Teach spiritual seekers to become servants. Greenleaf says that serving others fulfills an innate spiritual need—uniting you with others in the work of healing the world—and that’s what people are looking for when they join a religion. Teaching seekers to serve also fulfills the church’s larger purpose: When churchgoers go about their day-to-day life with the intention of serving others, they carry out the healing work of the religion outside of the church’s walls—for example, in their business dealings.

Advice for Universities

According to Greenleaf, the social responsibility of universities is to prepare students to become servant leaders. He believes that the fundamental purpose of an education is to help students discover how to use their unique strengths to make a positive contribution to society, and that job-specific training should be secondary to that goal. This is especially important for disadvantaged students—he argues that they have a responsibility to return to their communities and use their education to lead them out of poverty and marginalization.

To fulfill this social responsibility, Greenleaf argues that universities should implement a pilot program in servant leadership for promising freshmen. Students enrolled in this program would be expected to learn the fundamentals of leadership, make an effort to improve life on campus, and come up with a rudimentary plan for their future as servant leaders. This program would run similarly to college athletic programs, with faculty proactively seeking out and coaching students with leadership potential, just as a college football coach might recruit and train new talent. Additionally, visiting scholars and professionals should also be made available to these students as resources whom students can consult as they develop their leadership skills.

Advice for Foundations

According to Greenleaf, the social responsibility of foundations is to disperse money to grant applicants who will actually improve the world in some meaningful way. He explains that for a variety of reasons—including bureaucratization and a relative lack of accountability—foundations often seem to invest their funds in unproductive ventures, which makes people question their legitimacy. He believes that in fact, foundations are only legitimate when they succeed in serving people’s unmet needs.

To fulfill this social responsibility, Greenleaf argues that foundations must accomplish two things:

Safeguard against corruptive giving. Corruptive giving is giving that appears altruistic but is actually self-serving—for example, a foundation may give money to an organization because it hopes to exert control over that organization’s operations, rather than because it hopes to enable that organization to help people. Greenleaf says that it’s the responsibility of foundation trustees to ensure that the foundation’s heart—and grant money—is in the right place.

Balance common sense with innovation. Greenleaf explains that common sense is a good place to start when it comes to deciding who should receive grant funds—if you invest in a solution that obviously won’t work (for example, an effort to end world hunger by giving everyone in the world a microwave), you waste money that could’ve been contributed toward social progress. But conventional wisdom isn’t always enough—innovation is needed to solve tough, long-lasting problems. To balance these considerations, Greenleaf says foundations should have two separate staffs: one that researches creative applications of existing technologies to difficult problems, and one that concerns itself with common-sense grant applications.

Advice for Businesses

According to Greenleaf, the social responsibility of businesses is to provide fulfilling jobs for employees and fulfilling services for consumers. He explains that fulfilling jobs are those in which employees can use their unique strengths to provide an important service for others. For example, media companies provide fulfilling jobs for journalists—journalists are good researchers and writers, and they enjoy using those strengths to help subscribers learn. As for fulfilling services, Greenleaf believes that as society improves, people will become less concerned with material goods and more concerned with their psychological needs—so companies should strive to provide services that meet those psychological needs.

To fulfill this social responsibility, Greenleaf argues that businesses must accomplish two things:

Commit to helping employees grow. This requires that businesses embrace continuing education in the workplace and equip aspiring leaders with the skills they need to progress. Greenleaf also argues that labor unions are an important aspect of this process—they represent the interests of employees and negotiate with company leadership to ensure that work conditions are healthy and sustainable.

Proactively work to contribute to the greater social good. First, companies should evaluate how they’re currently faring on this front by collecting data and the opinions of everyone whose life is touched by the company, from consumers to employees to shareholders. Based on that information, company leaders should then come up with a plan for improvement. Greenleaf notes that it’s not good enough for a company to follow the letter of the law—it must stay ahead of the curve when it comes to social issues. For example, this could mean striving for true inclusion of people with disabilities instead of simply meeting the minimum legal requirements for accessibility.

Advice for Individuals

According to Greenleaf, the social responsibility of any individual is to serve others. Some people are cut out to be servant leaders; others are best suited for following servant leaders and can serve others as they do so. In any case, serving others can be broken down into two parts: seeing others’ potential for greatness, and helping them turn that potential into a reality.

To fulfill this social responsibility, Greenleaf argues that you should try to do the following throughout your life, in whatever capacities you serve:

Resist bureaucracies. Greenleaf argues that since bureaucratization is one of the reasons modern institutions are failing, we all have a duty to try to overturn bureaucracies and do our part to build and promote ideal institutions instead. He says that you can resist bureaucracies by prioritizing creativity and wonderment, making the most of each day, listening to visionaries, staying humble, and gracefully enduring and learning from hardship.

Make the best choices you can make. For Greenleaf, this means trying to understand the moral issues of your time, weighing the pros and cons of every possible solution, and endeavoring to pick the one that has the greatest potential to improve society. If you make a wrong choice, try to learn from it and move on.

Robert K. Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership: Overview

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  • Why modern institutions fail to meet the needs of those they serve and employ
  • Why institutions must learn to prioritize the needs of their followers
  • How you can learn to become a servant leader

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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