A Followership View of Servant Leadership: Ch 7-A

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

While most leadership literature is undoubtedly aimed at those operating in business, I applaud Greenleaf for also exploring various non-profit spheres as well: education (chapter 5), foundations (chapter 6), and now in chapter 7, “Servant Leadership in Churches.”

dts-jesusMy own Christian faith, founded on the teachings, truth, and example of Jesus Christ, would hope that little would need to be said about servant leadership in churches. However, Greenleaf lays down some significant expectations and challenges for the contribution that communities of faith should be making to the broader culture and the development of a servant ethos.

Wholeness. He begins by stating that religion and churches have a fundamental role “to heal the pervasive alienation” (p.231) that exists in humanity. This is not just a self-acclaimed task, but that “churches are needed to serve the large numbers of people…if their alienation is to be healed and wholeness of life achieved” (ibid).

servantleadership-2This sentiment brings again a spotlight onto the importance of community (see Chapter 1-C & Ch 3). As followers, we cannot effectively, rightly (in the context of our humanity) operate outside of interconnection with our peers and leaders. We are not designed to be self-sufficient individuals, and no one of us possesses all that’s necessary to individually and excellently fulfill the group’s aims.

Vision. Greenleaf also notes the role of the church in fostering prophetic vision, not in the sense of telling the future, but of offering a voice which guides and directs and paints a picture of what could be, what should be.

He notes that, “The variable that marks some periods as barren and some as rich in prophetic vision is in the interest, the level of seeking, the responsiveness of the hearers” (p.232).

Are we, as followers, committed to and engaged in the group endeavors to the point that we are indeed seeking that calling to something larger than ourselves? Are we hungry for a reality that is beyond what we ourselves can manufacture? Do we respond and participate when such a vision is presented, responding to the invitation to apply our own talents, energy, and perspective to the achievement of making a difference?

trust graphicThat dynamic of seeking and leading (prophetically sharing the vision) is importantly two-sided. “It is for competent moral persons to learn to know experimentally so that they can effectively discriminate when they follow, and so that when they lead they can dependably illuminate, with a superior wisdom, the path for others to follow so that those others will trust, and be justified in trusting” (p.242). The trusting and the trustee working together; but toward what aim?

In particular, Greenleaf notes that one fruit of that attitude of seeking should be “effective involvement with the ethical dilemmas of one’s times” (p.233). Followers cannot leave behind their moral compasses when they punch-in at the timeclock, exchanging them for whatever their leaders or their organization declares to be ‘right’ (which may mean productive, efficient, cost-saving, popular, or many other such definitions).

Rather, engaged followers should be both a challenge to impropriety and a contributor to excellence at every level of an organization’s operation and outcomes. This is at the heart of much of Ira Chaleff’s work on The Courageous Follower.

Opposition. There are some cautions in this chapter as well. The need to ethically stand against immorality can give rise to a negative reputation which actually impedes the influence of an individual or institution to effectively exert its healing service.

For instance, he labels the Catholic Church in the US as potentially the most powerful institution for good, but hampered in that it opposes a number of specific issues (abortion, divorce, etc.) while supporting broad virtues (peace, justice, etc.), and thus is primarily perceived as a negative force: because the things it opposes are more specifically defined than the causes it supports.

“All that one can do with opposition is to stop or prevent something. One must oppose those things that one believes to be wrong, but one cannot lead from a predominantly negative posture…. in a negative posture, someone else has defined an issue and taken an initiative that we believe is wrong and all that is required of us is to act against that initiative.” (p.248f; emphasis original).

He extends this possibility to considering moral law in general, typified by the 10 Commandments given to Moses. “Most of it was ‘thou shalt not’s’…. The few affirmations are general, and conformity with them is difficult to establish. This allows the interpretation that if one obeys the prohibitions, one is virtuous” (p.260). Further, in this emphasis on avoidance, “persons are relieved of the obligation to measure up to their opportunities and their potentials. This permits many to be seen as law abiding when, in fact, their performance is far below what it might be” (ibid).  (Note: In contrast, I often see a principle in the New Testament of “do not…but…”; not only a list of thou shalt not’s, but encouraging a replacement of bad with best, the pursuit of a higher calling. See p.11 of The Five Circles & the Nature of Humanity.)

As followers, it may be easy for us to grumble, complain, naysay, or otherwise impede decision-taking. However, if our participation is primarily defined in terms of opposition and antagonism, we will garner a reputation as a negative force and forfeit the healing opportunities for our service and involvement. There is an important balance between being a corrective force and a complaining one.

Healing. In regards to our human condition of “pervasive alienation,” Greenleaf posits service (servanthood) as both the remedy (the means) and the result of overcoming this predicament. He puts forth the idea of needing “to reestablish men and women in the role of servants—healers—of society” (p.235; emphasis original).

The work of these servants will be to “help them find that wholeness that is only achieved by serving. And out of that wholeness will come the singleness of aim and the capacity to bear suffering” (ibid).

And how will they do this? They “help others to move in constructive directions. Servant-leaders are healers in the sense of making whole by helping others to a larger and nobler vision and purpose than they would be likely to attain for themselves” (p.240; emphasis original).

Greenleaf sets the high standard that organizations “must make of themselves exceptional institutions in which all of the people participating in them in all roles…can find in their participation conditions that favor fulfillment of their potentialities as persons” (p.251; emphasis original). He states, “age-old wisdom of how people best relate as individual human beings must be applied with painstaking care to the vast institutional structures in which all of us are now inextricably involved. Caring is the essential motive” (p.255).

No doubt, he would insist that servanthood is at least one aspect of that fulfillment, and thus we have the dynamic that servanthood applied as healing for the illness of alienation begets yet more servanthood, which further broadens the work of healing, and so calls forth more servanthood…and thus an institution, and a society, and perhaps a world, are transformed.

Our next entry will look further at Chapter 7, specifically focusing on Greenleaf’s direct comments about followership.

Next entry: A Servant Leadership Definition of Followership (Chapter 7-B)

Previous entryServant Leadership, Chapter 6

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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