Servant as Leader (I):
Robert K. Greenleaf and the Origins of Servant Leadership
By Richard Smith
The Servant as Leader was first written about in 1969 by Robert
K. Greenleaf in an essay by the same name. The concepts were a
result of 40 years of lived experience-not a 'theory of leadership'-and
only emerged fully into Greenleaf's consciousness when he was 65
years old. By 1990, nearly 500,000 copies of this little essay
had been distributed worldwide by word of mouth. Peter Senge tells
us that if we are going to read only one book on leadership, "this
is the book to read."
Greenleaf invited us to consider some counter-cultural ideas:
- Who I Am (being) proceeds and influences What I Do (doing)
- Servants ('natural' and developed via rigorous
discipline) are, at times, called to lead (Servant- Leaders).
is organic, relational, wholistic and systemic - Individuals,
'Teams,' and Organizations.
- The leader does not 'act upon' the follower but is in relationship
with the follower (the leader both leads and follows
and the follower both follows and leads - and each supports and
All are called to leadership. The test of the servant-as-leader
(short version) is: "Do those served grow as persons?" From
1990 to the present, more and more people are writing about servant-leadership.
Some write from a faith-based perspective and some from a humanistic
perspective. Greenleaf's goal was to have many cultures embrace
his work; and so they have, for the concepts are truly universal.
In the past 30 years, more and more organizations have sought to
embrace the concepts. Many have discovered a paradox of intention
in doing so: those organizations that have embraced the concepts
because they believe "it is the right thing for us to do" have
discovered by-products of "health," low turnover, higher
bottom line, more productive and more fulfilled employees, and
more growth and development. Paradoxically, organizations that
have tried to embrace the concepts because it would help them
achieve these by-products have, almost to an organization, failed
in achieving them (the research on this is now quite significant).
Greenleaf's concepts can be embraced by individuals, 'teams,' (relationships,
departments, etc) and/or by a whole organization. For many, it
is the most difficult and challenging work they have ever embraced;
for some it is a naming, an affirmation, of what they are already
Richard W. Smith