A Followership View of Servant Leadership: Ch 1-C

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

We complete our consideration of Chapter 1 with this final post, embracing two more significant ideas as followers consider followership and as we reflect on our leaders’ leadership.

Creativity. In the context of my own organization, which is currently engaging in a push toward embracing and encouraging creativity amongst its members, Greenleaf’s multiple references to a leader’s need for creativity were striking. While perhaps not identical to our present organizational interest (where we’re really exploring the use of the arts), highlighting creativity in any respect seems important. (I’m also currently reading Eugene Habecker, The Softer Side of Leadership, in which he gives an entire chapter to a leader’s creativity.)

In the first post for this chapter, I referenced this sentence: “For the person with creative potential there is no wholeness except in using it” (p.26). This applies to leaders and followers alike. In fact, it’s stated that model leaders should be looked to “as examples of highly creative individuals” (p.49). Greenleaf then makes several other statements specifically aimed at leaders and their use of creativity.

Following on from several of the defining factors of leadership in the previous post, to have the necessary foresight and judgment, “Leaders, therefore, must be more creative than most; and creativity is largely discovery, a push into the uncharted and unknown” (p.36). I’m not sure if there is a strong difference between creativity and innovation here, but the sense of good judgment requiring robust creativity is intriguing. Although ‘creatives’ are often thought to be eccentric, head-in-the-clouds individuals, here is a call to connect creativity to the most down-to-earth necessities of doing life and responding appropriately to what arises.

servantleadership-2What does that look like? Greenleaf says, “One follows the steps of the creative process” (p.39), which he enumerates as engaging in analysis until it reaches its limits, then withdrawing from that analysis so that creative insight will arise. It is not baseless dreams that a leader should seek, but informed insight, facts and awareness fueling forward direction and radical response.

He offers Jesus Christ, in His encounter with a mob that wants to stone an adulteress, as an example of this process (p.42). When the mob demands Jesus’ answer about the law’s declaration that the woman be stoned, He crouches to write in the sand; “he assumes the attitude of withdrawal that will allow the creative insight to function.” While others may see an opportunity for prayerful reflection in what Greenleaf refers to as the creative process, this leadership pause allows one of the greatest bits of wisdom ever to come forth: “Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone.”

In our contemporary contexts, here’s one application of that creativity. “Nothing is meaningful until it is related to the hearer’s own experience” (p.31). Offered under the consideration of language (and its limitations), here is a focus for our creativity: how do we connect and engage with our colleagues and customers? How do we establish and build meaningful relationship?

Community. This question flows naturally into the other striking topic in this chapter: the importance of community, of interconnectedness. Surely, leadership and followership are meaningless concepts without the sense of a relational dynamic at some level.

But Greenleaf envisions something more profound when he refers to community. For example, “I suggest that human service that requires love cannot be satisfactorily dispensed by specialized institutions that exist apart from community” (p.52). While an institution, at one level, could be considered a community of sorts, Greenleaf is pushing deeper, into establishing an environment that promotes love and healing (p.49f) as necessary elements for effective service.

The challenge he poses to leaders is, “it is our task to rediscover the elementary knowledge of community while we refine and radically improve much of the vast non-community institutional structure on which we depend” (p.53). Note that he doesn’t pit institutions as against community, but rather calls us to implement institutions within a sense of community. These community-based (not in the sense of local geography) institutions should be constructed “to build a group of people who, under the influence of the institution grow taller and become healthier, stronger, more autonomous” (p.53). Such institutions move “from people-using to people-building” (p.53).

And this is the thrust of his view of community: it’s a people-centered, servant first attitude, existing to better its participants and recipients. Community and institution aren’t so much about structure as about purpose and impact. “The servant views any problem in the world as in here…not out there” (emphasis original; p.57)—that is, within the community there’s something to be addressed, rather than regarding issues as impersonal, exterior matters. There is something amongst us that needs to be addressed and engaged.

Building this kind of organization is the task of the leader (and the trustees, as we’ll hear much more about). The fundamental question is, “Can they [the leaders] build better order?” (p.59). Can they create a better framework of community institutions which lead to positive impact?

“It is terribly important that one know, both about oneself and about others, whether the net effect of one’s influence on others enriches, is neutral, or diminishes and depletes” (p.56). And this is where many of Greenleaf’s comments about the leader’s role in establishing the environment become extended to us followers as well.

Tying these two themes of creativity and community together, the chapter concludes appropriately: “Except as we venture to create, we cannot project ourselves beyond ourselves to serve and lead” (p.61). Followers and leaders alike must contribute creatively to the community, or else condemn it to be a platform of people-using rather than people-building.

Next entry: Servant Leadership, Chapter 2 (Part A)

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

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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