Servant Leadership: Examples and Advice to Live By

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Servant Leadership" by Robert Greenleaf. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

What are the best servant leadership examples? How can churches and businesses be socially responsible?

Servant Leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf gives advice about how different kinds of institutions can fulfill their unique social responsibilities. He also discusses what you can do as an individual to fulfill your social responsibility.

Keep reading for servant leadership examples in churches, universities, foundations, and individuals.

Advice for Churches

The first of four servant leadership examples is the social responsibility of 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.

(Shortform note: While Greenleaf argues that universities have a social responsibility to prepare future servant leaders, others take issue with the idea that college students should take responsibility for social problems. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that universities’ sole purpose is to help students discover truth—and that when students are more concerned with social justice than the truth, they become fragile and susceptible to groupthink, making campuses more polarized. On the other hand, many experts say that students benefit from social justice efforts by becoming more active citizens, which may inspire marginalized students to become community leaders after graduation.)

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.

The Value of College Leadership Programs

Leadership programs for college students are becoming more popular, and some research suggests that they may help students develop concrete leadership skills—like greater integrity, a heightened sense of civic responsibility, improved multicultural competence, and better ability to handle differences of opinion. However, other research suggests that while students may test better with regard to these competencies, they don’t actually behave differently after undergoing leadership training—which undercuts the value of such programs.)

While colleges typically don’t proactively draft potential leaders into training programs, they do weigh demonstrable leadership skills heavily in the college application process. Some experts are concerned that this dilutes the concept of leadership—instead of emerging as leaders of causes they genuinely care about, students are incentivized to vie for top positions just to pad their applications. As an alternative to this approach, some experts believe we should recognize the equal importance of being a good follower and offer followership training programs.

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.

(Shortform note: Foundations share their social responsibility with public charities, another kind of organization whose purpose is to give money to others in society-improving ways. But foundations differ from charities in terms of where they get their funds: Foundations are typically funded by a singular entity (person or business) that gives the foundation a one-time endowment; the endowment is then invested to produce a constant income stream. In contrast, charities must be publicly funded by continuous donations.)

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.

(Shortform note: Some experts say that foundations haven’t made much progress on this front since the publication of Greenleaf’s book: Foundations are still charged with squandering their resources and investing primarily in causes that will serve their own interests, like the arts, instead of tackling tough problems like poverty. According to some experts, one way to counteract this is to consult and/or employ community members to ensure that funds are being invested in the right ways and places.)

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.

(Shortform note: Foundations don’t typically carry out their own solutions-oriented research, but they do fund research ventures. A well-known example of this is the Ford Foundation, which awards 1,500 grants per year to researchers investigating solutions to inequality. Here’s how it works: Foundations put out a call for research proposals, usually centered on a particular research topic. Researchers put in their proposals, and then foundations determine which proposals are the most promising. Foundations then grant funding to the most competitive research projects.)

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.

(Shortform note: Philosophers have expressed opposing viewpoints as to whether everyone has a moral obligation to serve others. On one hand, some believe that suffering isn’t caused by injustice but by bad luck—and since luck falls on everyone equally, you’re under no obligation to help those who are less fortunate than you. On the other hand, others believe that inequality is fundamentally unjust, so you do have a responsibility to help those who are suffering.)

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.

(Shortform note: Greenleaf doesn’t explain how these measures can help you resist bureaucracy, but we can surmise that they help in at least two ways: They incentivize you to push back against harmful ideas and to treat people with human dignity, which experts say are essential steps toward undermining bureaucracy. Other ways to overturn bureaucracy include sharing power, taking smart risks, and prioritizing ethics over productivity.)

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.

(Shortform note: Experts believe that one effective way to make ethical decisions is by universalizing—asking yourself what the world would be like if everyone made a similar decision to yours. For example, it might not seem like a big deal for you to lie to someone once—but if everyone lied all the time, it would be much harder for people to know the truth about anything, generally—which might have chaotic and dangerous consequences. If the outcome of universalizing seems bad, you may want to make a different decision. Then, after relying on universalizing to make a decision, reflect on whether your choice had the outcome you’d predicted—and if not, learn from your mistake.)

Servant Leadership: Examples and Advice to Live By

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Robert Greenleaf's "Servant Leadership" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Servant Leadership summary:

  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *