Thursday, November 17, 2011

Robert Greenleaf, a retired AT&T executive served on the board of trustees of East coast universities during the turbulent 1970’s. Each time he visited a campus, he dropped by the college book store to see what students were reading. He noticed there was always a display of books by German novelist, Hermann Hesse. In an effort to understand the rebellious students of the day, he began to read Hesse’s books.

One of those books was Journey to the East, the story of a group of pilgrims on a mythical journey to the East. Accompanying these men was a servant name Leo who did their menial chores, kept their spirits high and did whatever necessary to make the journey meaningful and move the journey forward. All goes well until Leo disappears. Soon the group falls in disarray, and the journey is disbanded. Ten years later after much wandering, one of the pilgrims unexpectedly discovers Leo.  He soon learns that the Leo he knew as a servant was the leader of the Holy Order that had initially sponsored the journey to the East.

As a result of reading about Leo, Greenleaf began to explore a new approach to leadership. Greenleaf concluded that great leaders are first and foremost, servants first. Leo’s effectiveness came from deep within him. He had a servant’s heart. Greenleaf believed that servant leadership is an “inside out” process. The true motivation to serve and lead comes from within a person—it is a calling to serve a community of people.

While there are multiple definitions of servant leaders, Greenleaf offers one of the most insightful explanations. “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. The best test is: Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servant?” * 

Over the next several weeks, I will offer suggestions regarding numerous aspects of servant leadership. I welcome your observations, questions and insight.

One final note:  many Christians have been critical of Greenleaf for not crediting Jesus Christ as the source of his insights regarding servant leadership. A committed Quaker, Greenleaf was quick to acknowledge there is not a more perfect example of servant leadership than the life of Christ. But in terms of his own personal journey, Greenleaf posits that his first insights regarding a different approach to leadership came from the writing of Herman Hesse. 

Dan Pryor is an adjunct professor of Organizational Communication at St. Edward's University and a member of First Baptist Church.

*The Servant as Leader by Robert Greenleaf (Indianapolis: The Robert Greenleaf Center, 1970)     


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