A Followership View of Servant Leadership: Intro

My “to-read” pile seems to grow without bounds. Within the last year, I’ve added 9 new shelves of space, and both bookcases already are full, with several volumes piled on top of each. Any New Year’s Resolution of “I’m not buying any more books until I read the ones I’ve got” is completely useless; I just can’t help passing up a good recommendation or snapping up a nice price on a used book online.

servantleadership-2One of the books I’ve had for some time is Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership. Although I’ve written previously about his general ideas, I have yet to make the effort to really digest this important work.

The time has finally come.

Servanthood is a topic relevant to a vast array of spheres, from religion to service industries. And servant leadership is not just of interest to managers and CEOs, but to those of us interested in and exploring the realm of followership, both as we consider the nature of our own engagement as well as those we may be following. So I thought I would offer my thoughts along the way, giving a followership perspective while reading Servant Leadership.

I’m working through the 25th anniversary edition (published posthumously in 1992 by Paulist Press), and have just finished the Foreword (by Stephen Covey) and Greenleaf’s Introduction.

The relatively brief introduction (compared with some of the rather lengthy chapters to come) offers a few thoughts that make me eager to explore the rest of the book.

  • Greenleaf describes himself as “a student of organization—how things get done” (p.16). It seems that often followers can look down upon ideas of institutionalism and hierarchy (prompting me to address these topics in my own book), so I appreciate the direct connection here between the notion of an organization and the outcome of getting things done. When so many associations may be thought to merely spin their wheels and create work for its own sake, I appreciate Greenleaf establishing the form of organization as a platform expected to produce, and perhaps even the primary mechanism for the achievement of any endeavor, through collaboration rather than individual effort.
  • The idea of “hope” is another that’s repeated in the intro. Greenleaf presents it as an essential ingredient “to both sanity and wholeness of life” (p,17), while also positing that some readers may be “groping for a basis for hope” (p.18). As followers, it can be easy to become cynical, disenchanted, and complaining (another topic I address), thus the notion of hope is a profound one for us to be concerned about in our followership. Do we have a positive expectation regarding our experience of collaboration and contribution within the group, and also about its possibility for achieving desired aims and making significant impact? If not, why not, and why are we even involved?
  • Greenleaf presents some lofty expectations, that “leaders will bend their efforts to serve with skill, understanding, and spirit” and that “followers will be responsive only to able servants who would lead them—but that they will respond” (p.18; emphasis original). The necessity of followers to participate and engage is clear, and the picture of a leader as one who forms his or her contribution to perhaps break with natural tendencies in order to ensure manifestations of skill, understanding, and spirit is a powerful corrective to the self-serving, unavailable, or detached leader. Tell us more about these people, and equip as followers to avoid making “such gross errors in choosing whose leadership to follow” (p.18).
  • Finally, I’m intrigued by the notion of “legitimate power”, which is referenced in the subtitle of the book. We’re given a question about the possible thrust and impact of reading this book: “Can discriminating people be helped to find the means for legitimizing power?” (p.19). I’m not yet sure what exactly that means, but I am interested to encounter the development that Greenleaf will offer to polish our perspective on power and to refine our responsibility for legitimating it.

There’s another 320 pages still to come, and I can say that I’m indeed interested to continue on. I’m an appallingly slow reader (in part because I tend to subvocalize as I read, simply because I love the artistry of words), but I will hope to address a new chapter (or perhaps a portion of a chapter) at least every two weeks. You can Follow/Subscribe from the Blog Archive page, or follow/like on Twitter or Facebook to be notified of new posts.

If you’re reading, or have read, this book, please contribute your own thoughts in the comment box below on the significant points that Greenleaf makes and how ideas of servant leadership are currently impacting your engagement in your various group endeavors as well as your pursuit of excellent followership.

Next entry: Servant Leadership, Chapter 1 (Part A)


You might also like:

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For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:


Followership Guide coverEmbracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Feb 2016), and  A Discussion Guide for Teams & Small Groups (Dec 2017) —

along with our variety of free downloadable resources and the index of other posts on this site.

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