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Spotlight on Robert Greenleaf’s Concept of Servant Leadership

In 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf published an essay, “The Servant as Leader,” that forever changed the way we look at the subject of leadership. His subsequent book, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, further expanded on his ideas. It is now considered a landmark text in the study of leadership development.


What Greenleaf had in mind was revolutionary: the idea that a sense of service is the central distinguishing characteristic of true leadership. He believed that cultivating servant leadership throughout society could foster greater social strength and cohesion, and could also help people discover new and more genuine sources of happiness in their everyday lives.


This paradigm has since been widely adopted by individuals, corporations, and nonprofit organizations. Today, the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership continues this legacy. Headquartered in Indianapolis, the center maintains nine branches worldwide, offering courses, certificates, and conferences.


Some of the world’s most accomplished scholars of management and business have praised Greenleaf’s insights, with business consultant and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Peter Drucker calling him “the wisest man I ever met.”



Early Life and Family


Robert Greenleaf was a child of the Industrial Revolution. He was born in 1904 in Terre Haute, Indiana, the son of George Greenleaf, a noted local machinist and mechanic who also served as a community steward. George Greenleaf went on to direct the “Practice Shops” that developed at Rose Polytechnic, later known as the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. These “Shops” gave students the opportunity to assist in repair jobs for commercial customers.


The elder Greenleaf loved his city, kept involved in his local labor union, and served as a member of the city council and the school board. In 1913, George Greenleaf helped direct rescue efforts after a major natural disaster. He also joined a public-spirited group that was successful in sending a corrupt Terre Haute mayor to Leavenworth Prison for committing fraud and bribery in connection with the 1914 election.


Robert Greenleaf always remembered his father’s modesty, honesty, and commitment to causes larger than himself. Decades later, George Greenleaf became known as the original “Servant Leader,” who served as the model for his son’s insights.



Career and Management Philosophy


Robert Greenleaf attended Rose Polytechnic, then college in Indiana and Minnesota before beginning work at AT&T. He wanted to do what he could to create positive change in the culture and daily practices of what was then the world’s largest corporation.


He eventually led an AT&T unit in New York in the areas of management development and research, traveling and working on improvement processes for hundreds of associated smaller companies. Notably, his evolving perspective was informed by his wife, architect Esther Hargrave. She started him on a new path by introducing him to new ideas in modern art and the philosophy of intuition.


After retiring from AT&T, Greenleaf transitioned during his 60s to a second career as a writer and consultant. He met and befriended numerous celebrities, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a noted writer on spiritual ethics and an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the struggle for civil rights.


Greenleaf’s elegantly articulated ideas on the ethical use of power, building consensus, and developing the intuitive faculty in a business setting are now well-established aspects of the conversation around leadership development. But the very success of his arguments can lead to our failure to see just how revolutionary they were in his time.



Revolutionary Insights into Leadership


His work on analyzing and facilitating growth for AT&T companies led Greenleaf to realize that the corporations that survived competition and challenges best were those whose leaders worked to coach and support their employees. He came to realize that “the organization exists for the person as much as the person exists for the organization.” In the mid-20th century, this idea was almost unthinkable in traditional management circles.


Greenleaf was also a pioneer and a role model in his strong support for women and people of color in the AT&T business culture. As Director of Management Development, he initiated the first regular promotion of female and African American staff to non-menial jobs. He also set up the company’s first corporate assessment center, as well as a program to connect all staff with the humanities through the thinkers and writers he engaged as speakers.


He poured this lifetime of study and thought into the servant leadership articles and books he produced in a steady stream over the course of his final two decades.



Developing Servant Leaders at Every Level


Greenleaf identified servant leaders as those who, in putting their first emphasis on the “servant” part of the equation, ultimately served their organization and those around them through their leadership. These leaders listen, draw on their capacities for intuition, understand the power of language to influence others, stay alert to emerging possibilities, work to bring their teams on board through good process rather than brute force, and use pragmatic criteria to gauge success.


He consistently analyzed the characteristics of leaders, and of those who rely on them, highlighting the necessity for leaders to remain attuned to the needs of others. A servant leader, he said, will always be looking to ensure that followers’ most significant needs—personal growth, good health, financial prosperity, freedom, and agency—are met. The ideal result would then be new generations of committed servant leaders.


Greenleaf, who became a Quaker later in life, noted that his ideas on servant leadership were designed to resonate with people of all faiths and backgrounds, both secular and religious. His later development of the concept of servant leadership expanded to encompass the idea that whole societies and institutions have the ability to function as servant leaders.

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