success stories

Posted February 12, 2004

Book: The Servant Leader Within: A Transformative Path
Author: Robert K. Greenleaf and edited by Hamilton Beazley, Julie Beggs, and Larry C. Spears
Paulist Press, New York, pp. 258

Check out The Call of Service: A Witnss to Idealism by Robert Coles on our web site to learn more about the servant model of leadership. . Go to search on our web site, chose only for www.jknirp.com, and type in “Robert Coles”

An except from the Jacket:

The question of leadership has always been a crucial one for human society. Whether in politics, business, or education, thoughtful people have always asked, “What makes a great leader?” In 1970, with the publication of his now classic essay “The Servant as Leader,” Robert K. Greenleaf answered this question with a revolutionary idea whose influences continue to be felt strongly to this day. Greenleaf proposed that truly great leaders are not motivated by the selfish desire to increase their own power or prestige, but by a yearning to help others. In other words, a great leader is, first and foremost, a servant to others.

An excerpt from the Book:

In Here, Not Out There

A king once asked Confucius’s advice on what to do about the large number of thieves. Confucius answered, “If you, sir, were not covetous, although you should reward them to do it, they would not steal.” This advice places an enormous burden on those who are favored by the rules, and it establishes how old is the notion that the servant views any problem in the world as in here, inside himself or herself, not out there. And if a flaw in the world is to be remedied, to the servant the process of change starts in here, in the servant, not out there. This is a difficult concept for that busybody, modern human being.

So it is with joy. Joy is inward; it is generated inside. It is not found outside and brought in. It is for those who accept the world as it is, part good, part bad, and who identify with the good by adding a little island of serenity to it.

Walt Whitman put it succinctly when he wrote (in the Song of the Open Road), “I and mine do not convince by arguments . . .we convince by our presence.” And Hermann Hesse dramatized it in the powerful leadership exerted by Leo, who ostensibly only served in menial ways but who, by the quality of his inner life that was manifest in his presence, lifted men up and made the journey possible. Camus, in his final testament quoted earlier, leaves us with, “Each and every man, on the foundations of his own sufferings and joys, builds for them all.”


These little essays were written in the belief that in the 1070s both serving and leading may be radically different — perhaps in ways yet to be discovered, but different from what has been before. To the extent that the quality of society, then or now, is not all that it reasonably might be (and ours is not), natural servants with potential for leadership have failed to prepare for and consequently to perform as leaders. They have chosen less creative roles. And they have suffered. And society has suffered. And so it may be in the future.

The future society may be just as mediocre as this one. It may be worse. And no amount of restructuring or changing the system or tearing it all down in the hope that something better will grow will change this. There may be a better system than the one we now have; it is hard to know. But, whatever it is, if the people to lead it well are not there, a better system will not produce a better society. Many people finding their wholeness through many and varied contributions make a good society. These essays are concerned with but one facet: able servants with potential to lead must lead. Not much else counts if this does not happen.

If an able young person is aware of his or her servant stature and leadership potential, what does that person do to prepare to lead? A few suggestions:

Begin by seeing the pervasive mediocrity in positions of influence for what it is — one individual at a time, not the “system.” See the mediocre individual as not necessarily evil, but simply a person in a leadership spot who has no “lead,” who does not see what needs to be done any more clearly, if as well, as the people he or she is trying to lead. Every time you se such a mediocre performer, say no to yourself, “That fellow is there because a few years ago someone like me failed to prepare for that job.” Don’t blame the mediocre individual. Don’t blame the system. Blame the right person for not being there and resolve that, a few years hence, such blame will not be heaped on you.

If you have the potential to lead, you have the ability to foresee events better than others, and, by using your “lead,” by action on your foresight while you have the freedom to act, you can provide some shelter from the shock of the unexpected for those less capable of foreseeing. This is not all that leadership is about, but it is an indispensable first condition. Why should anyone willingly follow another expect that the other better sees the path and better anticipates the dangers as well as the opportunities?

There is no better way to further one’s ability to know the unknowable and foresee the unforeseeable than to practice constantly on every observable event. Ask, what is going on here? What motivates this individual? Where is this tending? What are the future consequences? If another present action would bring a better consequence, what would it be? In this circumstance, what is required of one in a responsible position of leadership?

Even though you may be young and inexperienced and you are in a school rather than in the world of affairs, open your awareness to what is going on around you, make your own estimates and predictions, monitor the progress of events nd check the accuracy of your assumptions and store it away as your experience. Read the philosophy of leadership: Machiavelli’s The Prince, Henry Taylor’s The Statesman, Alexander Leighton’s The Governing Men. Avoid the how-to-do-it books; avoid any stereotyped leader model. Rather, choose your own role, the one that best fits your nature, and allow your own best leader style to emerge out of your own experience.

Realistically, we know that we have too few able leaders today, and fewer still are servants. Otherwise we would not hold contemporary society to be mediocre. And even if the future holds a better promise, a higher proportion of able, dedicated servant-leaders in homes, schools, businesses, governments, labor unions, society may still fall short because of the number who presume t lead who do not measure up. Knowing this, what does the servant-leader do? Two things. First, he or she makes the very best contribution regardless of the prevailing condition. No one person is responsible for the whole society, only for what he or she achieves inwardly and how he or she deals as an individual with opportunities. This is the first approach of a servant-leader to a mediocre society.

The second possible action is to move to demythologize leadership. The prevailing myth holds that we respect the position even though we cannot respect the ability of the person who occupies it. This cannot be. Respect goes only to persons. What then do we do? We ask all leaders to be honest, because honesty can be respected even in the interior person. Then the inferior person in a leadership spot, be he or she a parent, teacher, judge, pastor, manager, president, or king, will admit to not seeing the path any more clearly than anybody else and ask for the help of those he or she is presuming to lead. In fact, it is better for ll leaders to admit this, partly to leave those who go with them free to judge whether the leader’s vision of the path is really superior, and partly because there will be times — no matter how prescient or perceptive the leader — when someone else does see the path more clearly.

Five concluding observations seem important to me at the time of this writing:

- True servant-leaders are artists in the deep meaning of being open to chaos. In their own personal theologizing (and they all do it) they set a limit on the logic of the spirit and acknowledge a threshold beyond which all is mystery. They set this threshold closer to conscious reality than more “religious” people do. They may receive intimations, but they stand too much in awe of the mystery to carry their feeble logic beyond that threshold. Such people will listen both to the flower people and to the Birchers — not because it makes any particular sense in their rational consciousness to do so, but because they (the flower people and the Birchers) are here. And one does not ask why they are here because the answer to that question is beyond the threshold of the mystery where one does not ask. Who knows; if one could ask and get an answer that one could understand, their reasons for being here might be better than for most of us. It is a sobering thought. And it helps make one accepting of all conditions of people.

- Not much that is really important can be accomplished with coercive power. Headship, the holding of a titular position or possessing coercive power, is not at all synonymous with leadership. Some things individuals think they want, like the Pyramids, can be built with coercive power. But, mostly, such power can destroy; it usually does not build things of ultimate importance to human beings. In an imperfect world we will probably have coercive power around for quite a while and everyone had best be wary lest he or she be coerced. In acknowledging the presence of coercion, we should also note that its value is inverse to its use. When our country used atomic power in a war when only we had it, we forfeited the opportunity to be influential in its use hen several have it.

- Nothing much happens without a dream. For something great to happen, there must be a great dream.

- To refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral.

- In the end, all that matters is love and friendship