A Followership View of Servant Leadership: Ch 1-A

Continuing our reading of Robert Greenleaf’s classic work, from a followership perspective…

After a brief but encouraging introduction (my reflection here), we head into the first (lengthy) chapter of the main body of Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.

servantleadership-2The bulk of this chapter consists of nearly two dozen “unconnected little essays, some developed more fully than others, with the suggestion that they be read and pondered separately within the context of this opening section” (p.27). As such, this blog post will just reflect on the 5 pages of material before these essays begin, and then I expect we’ll have a number of posts considering the rest of the material in chapter 1, taking our time to ponder these little essays, as Greenleaf suggests.

Titled “The Servant as Leader,” this chapter initially offers some foundational perspective on service, leadership, and following which I found to offer profound validation and encouragement.

Identity. Reflecting on Herman Hesse’s story Journey to the East (which has been on my reading list for some time), Greenleaf posits that “the great leader is seen as servant first” (p.21). It’s common in contemporary followership blogging to state that ‘great leaders are first great followers’ (or something similar). What I appreciate here is that Greenleaf uses the word “seen”: there is clear identification of the servant nature (and activity) by the broader community.

It is not simply that one considers himself or herself to be looking out for the interests of others, but more so that there is an acknowledged display—and not merely a one-off, but rather a habit—of living one’s life with a bent toward service. It may be a fine line between self-aggrandizement and public contribution, but service is present and evident; “that simple fact is the key to his greatness,” according to Greenleaf.

He pushes further to validate the notion that some people are, inherently, servants. Talking about a character from Hesse’s story: “…he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down inside” (p.21; emphasis original). I find this personally encouraging, an affirmation that service is the result of a subdued personality, but instead is an intrinsic quality, a core value in the truest sense.

If modern individuals are aspiring to leadership greatness, and reading the aforementioned blog posts that stipulate one must first be a great follower, there is perhaps a challenge here: service can’t be faked or superficial. It should exist at the heart of one’s character. That doesn’t mean service exists only in those with a specific genetic makeup, but it does indicate the necessary depth, authenticity, and integrated nature of the attribute of service alongside other virtues.

Response. Greenleaf identifies a “new moral principle” which says that “the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident [see previous point] servant stature of the leader. Those who choose to follow this principle…will freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants” (p.24).

It is 42 years since the original publication (1977) of this book. Is that “new moral principle” at all prominent in the leader-follower dynamics of our modern organizations and institutions? Have we arrived at that place and inculcated that perspective?

I don’t think I can say that, morally, the only authority deserving of my response is the authority I grant to others: there are certainly some situations in which I am obligated as a follower, and not by choice (e.g. to my parents, to the government of my birth country).

However, I do appreciate the encouragement to choose one’s leader whenever possible, and to have rigorous standards for doing so. In considering an organizational affiliation, the ones you work with (or for) may be nearly as personally important as the actual work you’re doing, the aims and objectives you’re pursuing.

I believe I can honestly say that I originally chose my current boss in large part because of his intentional service in creating a thriving environment for his followers (my now colleagues). But in light of this, have I intentionally ascribed authority and demonstrated a free and robust allegiance and response to him?

What about other leaders in other spheres of my life? Do I take on the challenge of observation and evaluation of their “servant stature,” working consciously toward ascribing authority and defining my allegiance? Or do I simply just get on with it and deal with whatever attributes the leader does or doesn’t have?

Likely the latter.

Danger. “As I ponder the fusing of servant and leader, it seems a dangerous creation: dangerous for the natural servant to become a leader, dangerous for the leader to be servant first, and dangerous for a follower to insist on being led by a servant. There are safer and easier alternatives available to all three. But why take them?” (p.26).

I can personally identify with all three of these categories. I would style myself more naturally bent toward service (and also toward followership). So: dangerous for me to become a leader, dangerous to be a servant first (now that I am in leadership), and dangerous (as a follower) to insist on my leader being a servant.

For one such as me, who is also risk averse, this sounds like an awful lot of danger. Greenleaf says he’s going to answer his “But why take them?” question over the course of his various short essays in the remainder of the chapter, and I am eager for the answers. I would generally prefer the easier way, the simpler approach; why not take that path indeed?

Bonus. Two additional quotes in this chapter that I personally found resonance with.

“Serving and leading are still mostly intuition-based concepts in my thinking” (p.26). Although the research into various aspects of followership is multiplying, my own writing follows this same pattern of being based on a simpler view of what seems true about life, humanity, community, and organizations.

I’ve mentioned in other posts that I was initially not going to offer a definition of ‘followership’ in my book because it seemed unnecessary: whenever I mentioned the term to others who had never heard it before, they instantly resonated with it and knew instinctively what I was talking about. I have continued to personally avoid the research angle, the categorizing of follower types, etc. because I believe there is more practical work that we can do to encourage people to follow well even without rigorous statistical validation or psychological attribution. That’s not intellectual laziness (I have a Masters degree in mathematics & statistics and am certified in the use of various personality instruments), but rather we can move past theories and deal with realities because, as fellow members of humanity, we’ve got enough shared experience, deep need, and intuition about what we’re talking about in order to move forward. Just like Greenleaf did.

The other quote that made me smile was this: “For the person with creative potential there is no wholeness except in using it” (p.26).

I’m also feeling this personally, as I’m embarking on a ‘365 project’: creating at least one photograph every day, as I seek to engage a life-giving hobby and creative outlet of photography.

But all followers, as necessary contributors, have creative potential. The journey of Embracing Followership is the experience of this wholeness that comes from engaging, participating, offering what we have and being who we are. Thus I find both a kindred spirit, and am also expecting a helpful guide, as Greenleaf’s work continues to unfold.

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

Previous entry: Servant Leadership, Introduction


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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