I’ve been preparing the material for a class on Servant Leadership, and it’s given me the chance to read and re-read some of the writings of Robert Greenleaf. Greenleaf, who had a long career with AT&T from the 1920s to 1960s, wrote the book Servant Leadership in 1970. Today that phrase is used a lot in many sectors, and sometimes it’s used without much explanation as to exactly what is meant by it. It seems that most people assume the meaning is self-explanatory. However, in Greenleaf’s writings, he paints a much clearer picture of what it actually means to be a servant leader.
However, what captured my imagination even more than his description of a servant leader were his thoughts on the important role that a servant leader plays in a prospering organization or society. Greenleaf said that the greatest problem facing us was not the system, nor the presence of evil people. He wrote that the greatest problem was the failure of good people to do one of three things:
- They needed to be leaders, but they chose not to be.
- They chose to lead, but not as servant leaders.
- They agreed to follow leaders who were not servant leaders.
He said that if you could magically remove all of the “bad people” and if you could have the perfect organization, that it wouldn’t work, matter, or last—unless you had an adequate number of servant leaders. In other words, without servant leadership, any system would fall apart and every organization would become corrupted. For that reason, he suggested that while developing leaders should not be the only priority of a healthy organization, it should be the first priority of every organization.
Reading through his material, I kept thinking about my experiences in some of the really poor neighborhoods in large cities in Brazil. I love Brazil, and I have been there many times. It’s a marvelous country. One of its challenges, though, is the neighborhoods that have been built without government authorization. I’ve been in some of them. In many of those neighborhoods, there were no organized sanitation services. The trash was just accumulating into large piles—sometimes in the middle of the street! It’s a complex situation, but as I look back, I think of it as a sort of metaphor of what happens when there aren’t an adequate number of servant leaders.
In spite of all of the problems, the presence of more servant leaders would have made a big difference. My guess is that’s probably the same in your organization. No matter how complex the problems are, it’s likely that more genuine servant leaders would make a big difference.