A Followership View of Servant Leadership: Ch 1-B

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

After surveying the beginning of Chapter 1, we continue by starting to explore the nearly two dozen short essays that Greenleaf presents under the chapter heading of “The Servant as Leader.” We’ll examine these essays over the course of a few posts, so as to be sure to interact with a number of the most important ideas as followers.

Evaluation. My personal experience in the non-profit sector has led me toward a burden for intentional and worthwhile evaluation. It can be easy to skim over this practice entirely, or to rely upon reporting forms that do little to create an environment of, or platform for, constructive assessment and growth.

servantleadership-2As a result, I appreciate Greenleaf laying out a one-sentence evaluation of (servant) leadership in his first essay. “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to be servants?” (p.27; emphasis original).

While the various facets of the framework may need to be defined, and indeed would prove challenging to evaluate, the thrust of this consideration is excellent. I may wonder what exactly Greenleaf has in mind when he refers to those being served as being more autonomous; I don’t believe he means self-sufficient or fiercely independent—his comments about community elsewhere in this chapter (p.29, 34, 52f) communicate a clear value on interconnectedness. But examining health, wisdom, freedom, and the transference of a servant-based contribution…let’s indeed hold ourselves to such standards.

He offers a second part to his evaluation of servant leadership: “And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?” (p.27; emphasis original). What is the cost and impact on others of our investment in our subordinates? Does it positively transform a broader sphere of humanity? Not sure I could handle adding that sentiment to my self-evaluation framework….

An additional evaluative statement posits that clarity of vision of the future is a requisite characteristic of leadership. “This is the current problem: too many who presume to lead do not see more clearly [than the average person” (p.29). Leadership question: how’s my perception of where we’re going?

Definition of Leadership. Leadership definitions aren’t hard to come by, but Greenleaf offers some interesting attributes of leaders across several of his essays.

  • “conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead” following on from “the natural feeling that one wants to serve” (p.27)
  • “going out ahead to show the way” derived from “more than usual openness to inspiration” (p.28), “the leader needs to have a sense for the unknowable and be able to foresee the unforeseeable” (p.35; emphasis original), leaders have “an armor of confidence in facing the unknown” (p.41)
  • defuses “the anxiety of other people who want more certainty than exists in the situation” (p.37)
  • “A leader initiates, provides the ideas and the structure, and takes the risk of failure along with the chance of success.” (p.29)
  • Leadership is establishing community. “If there is no community for you, young man, make it yourself.” (p.29)
  • “better than most at pointing the direction”, “has a goal…the leader always knows what it is and can articulate it for any who are unsure” (p.29)
  • elicits trust (p.30)
  • truly listens (p.31)
  • “The interest in and affection for one’s followers that a leader has—and it is a mark of true greatness when it is genuine—is clearly something the followers ‘haven’t to deserve’…the great ones have empathy and unqualified acceptance of those persons who go with their leadership” (p.34)
  • “historian, contemporary analyst, and prophet” (p.38f)
  • “sharply awake and reasonably disturbed” (p.41)

As mentioned in the previous post, Greenleaf expects followers to only allow themselves to be led by a confirmed servant-leader. If the above list (taken from a span of just 15 pages from this 340-page book) is the rubric that we should be applying as we define and identify a leader that we can rightly follow, do we have a reasonable expectation of ever finding someone qualified?

I discuss in my own book that all leaders are “poor,” they are all impoverished in some way, lacking the full package of attributes and abilities. Leaders are also human; should we expect them to have the near prophetic abilities and superhuman steadfastness described above?

Perhaps rather than expecting this list to match up with a leader’s CV, we should be looking for a leader who is on this trajectory, who is growing toward these virtues without presuming that he or she already has them all possessed and polished.

The essays in this chapter cover a broad range of topics. We’ll give at least one more post to surfacing some of Greenleaf’s other ideas about “The Servant as Leader.” If you’d like to continue journeying with me, you can Follow/Subscribe from the Blog Archive page, or follow/like on Twitter or Facebook to be notified of new posts. And please do add your own thoughts and experience of Servant Leadership & Followership in the Comments below.

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

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

Series start: 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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