A Followership View of Servant Leadership: Ch 3

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

This post will pick up on the topic of trustees (board members) which surfaced in Chapter 2, and is the focus of Chapter 3, “Trustees as Servants.”

As a follower, the most astounding aspect of Greenleaf’s presentation of the role of trustees is the weight of responsibility he places upon them to shape and engage with the organization that they’re governing.

We may all readily acknowledge the legal role fulfilled by trustees (especially in terms of financial accountability), and their presence as advisers on big-picture issues who help establish the credibility of the organization (labeled ‘nominal trustees’; p.113), but Greenleaf has a far deeper expectation for their involvement.

One of his first comments in Chapter 2 (on institutions) is that “our problems are caused…by the failure of trusteeship in these large institutions” (p.65).

Personally, it would be hard for me to place such significant blame on the board members of my own organization. Despite working for the same non-profit for more than 12 years, I’ve never yet met any of the trustees, and am only vaguely familiar with a few of their names. As far as I’m aware, in my mid-level management role, trustees just haven’t been that prominent of an influence in our corporate culture…and I don’t sense any expectation that they should be otherwise.

But Greenleaf says it should be, must be, different.

servantleadership-2“It is a trustee function to state the goals and purposes…. Defining the institution and stating its goals and purposes is probably the most critical task that confronts trustees. Everything else that trustees do rests on this one basic decision” (p.99f). “Goals are trustee formulated, not just trustee approved or trustee affirmed” (p.107; emphasis mine).

I recently attended the board meetings of a sister organization. The chair shared with me, that in the course of their meeting, it came about that not a single board member was able to recite their mission statement. While perhaps only a small portion of front-line workers would be able to rattle it off readily, I can imagine that Greenleaf would issue a sigh that his aims for trustees are so radically missed.

But if it only required memorizing a few lines of vision statement, that might be easily enough overcome. However, Greenleaf asks for more. “If trust is to replace the now pervasive cynicism, trustees must clearly stand as having a total understanding of the institution and caring for all of the persons touched by it…” (p.100).

It seems that often trustees are selected for their experience in various areas of life, and I have never heard of them getting as personally involved in overcoming morale deficits or care needs within the organization. But this is what Greenleaf posits as necessary for our organizations to become servant/service-focused.

Within this caring engagement, there is the facet that “trustees need to be most critical” (p.119), holding ultimate power but overseeing its application (rather than using it operationally; p.115) in order to ensure that the organization doesn’t drift from its goals and purposes, and that it moves toward becoming an environment in which “the people in [it] grow to greater stature than if they stood alone” (p.116).

Greenleaf thus charges trustees with fostering community, but also with operating in community. “No person is complete…. Completeness is to be found only in the complementary talents of several who relate as equals” (p.125). “Trustees are a deliberative body and information should be designed to give them what they need for the decisions they must make…to facilitate a group decision out of discussion” (p.132). “The effective trustee group is not merely one that hears all the arguments and then votes. Rather, it reaches a consensus—a group judgment that will be accepted as superior wisdom…. Part of the acceptance of trustee judgment as superior wisdom rests upon a consistent group process…” (p.138).

There is also a discussion of power and authority intermingled in this chapter, perhaps too intricate to try and summarize. However, we’ll conclude with two thoughts along those lines.

“Having power (and every trustee has some power) one initiates the means whereby power is used to serve and not to hurt. Serve is used in the sense that all who are touched by the institution or its work become, because of that influence, healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants” (emphasis original; p.142f).

We’ve heard this refrain before (p.27 & p.53), and it outlines Greenleaf’s basic sentiment about service, here reinforcing the trustees’ crucial role in bringing that about.

Ultimately, what does all this mean for us as followers? The chapter concludes with a quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The greatest sin of man is to forget that he is a prince—that he has royal power” (p.146).

In the context of the previous power quote, we see that while trustees have a significant role in shaping the organizational ethos, it is not an exclusive role. All members have power and should have participation—followers and leaders alike, at every level—engaging to create an institution, organization, association which is characterized by servant-heartedness.

Ideally, we followers would have the trustees as excellent models, and companions, in this pursuit, leading the way in caring about the community and its environment. But if we don’t have that, our own responsibility for contributing positively to the ethos and operation of our group endeavor is in no way lessened. And in fact, until we have such trustees, our engagement is all the more necessary.

NB: The next two chapters of the book focus on business & education. For the moment, I am going to skip ahead to Chapters 6 & 7 which address foundations and churches, two entities that are closer to the non-profit world of my own experience. I may eventually return to these missed chapters.

Next entry: Servant Leadership, Chapter 6

Previous entryServant Leadership, Chapter 2 (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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