A Followership View of Servant Leadership: Ch 2-B

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

Our previous post looked at Greenleaf’s vision of the institution; as we complete our examination of Chapter 2, we’ll look at some of his additional thoughts on leadership (following on from material in Chapter 1) which he offers in the context of “The Institution as Servant.”

Perhaps in summary, as I read Greenleaf’s thoughts, I see the role of leadership as one of “covering”: leaders providing an overarching (not overbearing!) function of connection (and sometimes protection) which ultimately serves to facilitate the excellent contributions of the followers.

So, Greenleaf states, “leadership…gives the total process coherence…by establishing priorities, allocating resources, choosing and guiding staff, articulating goals and philosophy, and exerting a sustained pull for excellence” (p.71).

While leadership is often equated with vision casting, the elements listed above are a more nuanced and significant contribution to the big picture of organizational dynamics. The leader does much to establish the overall environment (see here) and culture of the institution—connecting participants and constituents together—while also channeling resources and promoting excellence—which are acts that connect individual contributors to the internal and external resources necessary for effectiveness.

servantleadership-2Ideally, the leader is a fundamental agent of freedom, laboring on behalf of followers. “Leadership provides the encouragement and shelter for venturing and risking the unpopular. It gives support for ethical behavior and creative ways of doing things better…. [Leadership is needed] to mitigate the effects of administration on initiative and creativity and to build team effort” (p.73).

“The result is team effort and a network of constructive interpersonal relationships that support the total effort” (p.73).

Contrary to the leader as self-serving tyrant, these connective contributions are all about others, both individually and corporately. Of course, this is only to be expected in the light of ‘servant leadership.’

Greenleaf highlights a few facets, or specializations, of leadership, acknowledging that all of these elements should be present in every leader, although any one leader is likely to excel in just one of these areas.

The Leader as Operator: “carries the institution toward its objectives…and resolves the issues that arise as this movement takes place” (p.79)


  • interpersonal skills
  • sensitivity to the environment
  • tenacity
  • experience
  • judgment
  • ethical soundness

The Leader as Conceptualizer: “sees the whole in the perspective of history”


  • stating and adjusting goals
  • analyzing and evaluating operating performance
  • foresees contingencies
  • long-range strategic planning
  • setting standards
  • effective persuasion
  • relationship building

The Leader as Team Builder: “a strong person who provides the substance that holds the team together in common purpose toward the right objectives…. This is accomplished by asking the right questions. If a group is confronted by the right questions long enough, it will see through to the essence and find the right way” (p.80).

Throughout the book, Greenleaf makes much of the idea of someone being “first among equals” (primus inter pares). Significantly, under this heading about the team building function, he says, “Whoever [among the leadership] has the greatest team-building ability should be primus…” (p.80). Such a statement places an uncommon weight on the importance of this role as “provider of the substance that holds things together.”

And more so, “if one is to preside over a successful business, one’s major talent will need to evolve from being the chief into the builder of the team” (p.85). While the notion of team building is often one ascribed to an outside consultant, Greenleaf’s strong portrayal of it as a fundamental leadership function (and qualification) is startling, and appreciated.

As followers, what can we take from this chapter?

We’re all part of associations, organizations of fellow human beings, so the notions of institution apply to all of us. But what does that look like?

EmbracingFollowership_CoverTextureWith the emphasis on leaders as team builders, there is a side to that team building equation that rests upon us. We need to participate in the group endeavors, contribute to the conversations, actively engage in the pursuits of reflection and growth. (See Chapters 5 & 11 of my book Embracing Followership.)

For Greenleaf, with team building hinging on questions, we need to be open to being asked (and re-asked) challenging questions, and to do the work of exploration and consideration in order to achieve development and change.

Tucked within this chapter, Greenleaf makes two comments about trust. “No matter what the competence or the intentions, if trust is lacking, nothing happens” (p.83), and, “This must come first. Trust is first. Nothing will move until trust is firm” (p.101).

Followership Guide coverTrust is another two-way street, hands holding either end of a rope, joined together. No matter how virtuous and trustworthy a leader might be, an untrusting follower, a skeptic or a cynic (or an aggressive or a passive), can allow this necessary bond for team and organizational health to go slack and thus be devoid of providing any real support. (See Chapter 15 and Study 9 of my Embracing Followership Discussion Guide.)

Finally, Greenleaf says, “Leadership by persuasion and example is the way to build—everywhere” (p.98). I might replace ‘leadership’ with ‘influence’, and challenge all participants—leaders and followers alike—to voicing their passions and concerns, and living lives that offer a positive and impactful example.

In the next post, we’ll launch forward from initial thoughts about board members begun in Chapter 2, into the full exploration of Chapter 3, “Trustees as Servants.”

Next entry: Servant Leadership, Chapter 3

Previous entry: Servant Leadership, Chapter 2 (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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