A Followership View of Servant Leadership: Ch 6

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

I appreciate Greenleaf’s approach in considering the application of servant leadership within various spheres of operation–business, education, churches, etc. I find it unique that among those spheres, he considers foundations; charitable trusts rarely seem to be singled out as special entities, and yet Greenleaf sees enough importance to focus Chapter 6 on “Servant Leadership in Foundations.”

The core sentiment within this chapter hinges on the reality that foundations exist to give rather than to serve (p.217). From this stems a few thoughts that Greenleaf explores, and which I think are relevant for followers of all stripes to consider.

Helping vs. Being the Helper. In quoting former foundation president Dr Merrimon Cuninggim, Greenleaf surfaces this notion: “The relatively innocent desire to help is so thinly distinguished from wanting to be the helper” (p.218). Although he cites a few ideas about what this distortion may entail (“wanting to be widely known as the helper, wanting to make some decisions for the helpee, wanting to dictate, to paternalize, to manipulate”), he doesn’t go into detail about the delineation between helping vs. being the helper.

servantleadership-2For me, the core issue is identity. Our identity as followers, for example, includes an important degree of participation and contribution (see https://embracingfollowership.com/2017/02/06/significance-from-potential-to-participation/), but we are not merely production machines. And, it is not on the basis of our contributions that we seek to offer influence; rather, it is something more fundamental: our personhood, our presence, our group affiliation.

Once our identity, or our platform for interacting with others, becomes based on task accomplishment, we move into a transactional dynamic rather than a relational one. “I’ve done this much for you, therefore you must…” or “Clearly, you need me for what I can do, so you….” Rather than mutual commitment or trust establishing the foundation for collaboration, it becomes a bartering system with the threat of withholding my (necessary) input if you don’t respond in the way that I desire.

So too in the realm of giving, the threat of withholding resources without being given other opportunities for influence (“wanting to make some decisions for the helpee, wanting to dictate, to paternalize, to manipulate”) is the exact opposite of service.

Criticism. Another outworking of the giving-rather-than-serving nature of foundations that Greenleaf identifies is that their posture often means that they “receive little informed criticism of their work” (p.217). Because they are not offering a direct service, they are not as stringently evaluated; so long as a recipient gets their money, there is rarely any productive feedback offered. However, “all institutions, all people, do better when they are guided by informed criticism” (ibid).

As followers, in serving, we should expect, invite, and perhaps even demand criticism of our organizational engagement. Pursuits of excellence and personal development are impossible without some frame of reference, some informed guidance which surfaces necessary changes and reveals next steps.

All too often, feedback may be absent, or merely limited to the most superficial production (a.k.a. “performance”) review, ultimately unhelpful for motivating and guiding change. On the other hand, valuable criticism may be offered, but may be ignored or opposed by us followers, again resulting in personal and professional stagnation.

Criticism, evaluation, feedback — these should be expected, elicited, and valued elements of our service and followership.

Creativity. This has already been one of Greenleaf’s most popular themes (see Chapters 1-C, 2-A, & 2-B), but creativity returns in this chapter as an opportunity for foundations, given their unique posture and position. “Creativity, we know, thrives best when people can maintain a perspective of detachment from the problem before them” (p.227). As such, Greenleaf suggests that foundations should engage significant staff and resources in “foundation-originated, creative projects” (p.228). He says that they must get beyond simply processing grant applications and instead pursue issues, leveraging their detached giving position as an additional resource for engagement.

Followers, often without the high profile attachment to organizational decisions, policies, reputation, and bottom-line that other leaders are laden with, should similarly engage in creative interaction with problems impacting the group’s endeavors.

One of my own previous colleagues (actually, my boss’ colleague) observed that we needed people with ‘organizational margin’ to engage in addressing non-essential development tasks, such as smoothing and improving administrative support and resourcing. And so, he sponsored an ‘admin huddle’ that brought together several of us in similar roles to spend some time and energy improving our background service and engagement with our leaders. We were given opportunity, supported by our organizational freedom, to explore what could be different.

I have little doubt that Greenleaf would encourage all followers to make the most of their position to more freely and creatively explore the challenges that are afflicting their organization…and that servant leaders should ensure that such followers are permitted and encouraged to do so.

Previous entryServant Leadership, Chapter 3

Series start: Servant Leadership, Introduction


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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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