A Followership View of Servant Leadership: Ch 2-A

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

Chapter 2, “The Institution as Servant,” is another lengthy segment, so we’ll split our exploration across a couple of posts. One of the first topics mentioned in this chapter is the prominent role of trustees; however, as that’s the focus of Chapter 3, I’ll save some of those observations for later.

The first theme I want to start with from Chapter 2 is the notion of the institution. Greenleaf has a very high standard for what organizations should be about. Hear his own words:

  • An institution that moves “toward distinction as a servant…[is one which] makes a contribution…toward building a society that is more just and more loving, one that offers greater creative opportunity to its people” (p.63, 93).
  • “Most people who do the work of the world will be happier and act more responsibly if more is asked of them and if recognition and reward for good performances are more discriminating” (p.70).
  • informal initiatives are the ‘glue’ that holds the formal structure together and makes it function well. Bureaucracy is a condition in which there is not enough glue. Formalities are substituted for it” (p.73).
  • “The pyramidal structure weakens informal links, dries up channels of honest reaction and feedback, and creates limiting chief-subordinate relationships…” (p.76).
  • “None of us is perfect by ourselves, and all of us need the help and correcting influence of close colleagues” (p.76).
  • “I believe that we should expect businesses to become conspicuously more serving fast than the others [government, churches, and universities]” (p.85).
  • “countervailing power is a necessary condition of all human arrangements. No one should be powerless!” (p.98; emphasis original).
  • “What is the serving institution like? What does it take to produce it…? Trust is first. Nothing will move until trust is firm” (p.101).

servantleadership-2How does your current employer or organization reflect these qualities? Creating a more just, loving, life-giving/creative environment ? Offering a trust-based forum where help and correction can be given to each member? Extending real power and influence to all participants? Governed and preserved through relational bonds more than via policy manuals?

Sadly, even in a humanitarian non-profit like the one that I work for, most of these attributes are not primary, perhaps not even present, and at best only marginally improving.

As followers, where can we find such institutions and how can we enter them? Greenleaf will put the responsibility for creating such places on the shoulders of leaders (which we’ll look at in the next post) and trustees (board members; chapter 3).

In the meantime, are we just to build up a set of expectations that are likely to be unmet?

I think we followers also have a contribution to make, alongside leaders and trustees, in both desiring and shaping an organizational environment as described above.

Trust isn’t an institutional hallmark; it’s an interpersonal characteristic. The kind of ‘glue’ that matters is not what’s holding the bricks together, but rather the avenues of commonality that bind the people (as individuals and constituencies) together. Love, justice, and creativity are all human endeavors and virtues—things which an institution can facilitate, but never itself possess.

So, this chapter on institutions ultimately comes down to people and relationships.

As one who’s been exploring followership for some years now, that’s no surprise. Servant leadership is, must be, serving other people—followers as well as ‘clients’—through the role and responsibilities of leadership. Servant leadership cannot exist merely as an institutional aim, corporate value, or quarterly metric. It can only be defined, realized, and evaluated within the interpersonal leader-follower dynamic.

Next time, we’ll look at what more Greenleaf has to say about leaders (and administrators) in the context of this chapter. He’s already given us an initial definition of leadership (see post on Chapter 1-b), but there are some additional nuances he’ll develop in putting forth this particular organizational vision.

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

Previous entryServant Leadership, Chapter 1 (Part C)

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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