A Followership View of Servant Leadership: Ch 8

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

After exploring the topic of servant leadership (and followership) through the various spheres of education (chapter 5), foundations (chapter 6), and churches (chapter 7), Greenleaf now reflects on the lives of two people that he sees as examples of “Servant-Leaders” (the title of chapter 8).

Without going into the details of the lives of Abraham Joshua Heschel (Jewish rabbi) or Donald John Cowling (a college president and mentor), there are several important ideas for followers to consider in terms of the human condition and organizational engagement.

Humanity. It seems always relevant for us, in terms of our expectations and the quality of our relationships, to remember the realities of who we are.

servantleadership-2“Personal greatness…is not synonymous with perfection” (p.269). Herein is a valuable standard, both as we measure our leaders and evaluate ourselves. We shouldn’t demand our leaders to be paragons of perfection, and neither should we deride ourselves for mistakes which can yet be learned from and redeemed into something useful in the future.

On the other hand, our inability to achieve perfection doesn’t let us off the hook of pursuing excellence and contribution. Greenleaf states, “I have come to realize that adult performance in all fields is pretty much mediocre when judged by what is reasonably possible, and I am now less critical of the performance…and more critical of their pretensions” (p.270).

I’ve often personally wrestled with the idea of whether or not I’m being productive, fruitful, impactful; measuring my achievements often makes me wonder whether the time and energy put in are achieving results commensurate with the cost.

Greenleaf pointedly says that we could be doing more/better, but since everyone is generally in that same reality, what becomes an important distinctive is character: the attitude and perspective, and the portrayal of internal qualities, that a leader or follower evidences in life. In this framework, vices and virtues may more readily be observed (or criticized) with greater import than whether or not a maximum productivity score is achieved on a performance review.

In an almost touching reflection on humanity, Greenleaf recalls his old college president who “had a formula for good health” (p.284) which included “plenty of sleep” (8 hours at night + a lunchtime nap). I can guess there are relatively few leaders and followers who fulfill such a formula, and yet this fundamental need for rest is essential for our inner health as much as for our physical stamina.

On the topic of energy, he makes a keen observation about that same college president who stated, “I find relaxation in turning from one type of work to another.” Greenleaf says, “This may explain why executives generally seem to have more energy available than other people. They have more choice of where to expend energy and when” (p.285).

There is a possibility here of finding life in the midst of work. Also, perhaps returning to the myth, hinted at above, that leaders are perfect or superhuman, Greenleaf puts forward an interesting hypothesis: it may not be that executives are unique individuals of profound capacity or productivity, but rather that the executive role brings with it a degree of freedom and opportunity which enables more life-giving engagements (and thus more engagements overall) than what the average ‘lower-level’ employee experiences.

While we may not be able to shape our entire schedule according to our preferences, there is a lesson here for us: to whatever extent we can choose or arrange our activities to suit our gifts, pacing, and appetites, doing so may enable us to contribute in a more ‘high-powered’ and self-satisfying way.

Organizations: Error, Reward, Loyalty, & Persuasion. Putting us individual humans—with our flaws and needs—into a group context, there are a few additional facets of engagement that Greenleaf highlights, which are advantageous to bring to our awareness.

Error. Continuing his earlier comments about our lack of perfection and mediocre achievements, Greenleaf unabashedly declares, “Human institutions are weak and full of error because individuals are weak and full of error” (p.298). While this may feel discouraging, his mentor gave this encouragement toward action: “what is a person of strength and ability and integrity to do? Should one live like a hermit…and free from being compromised by other people’s errors? Or should one take a responsible institutional role and put as much goodness into it as one can, realizing…that the total effort may not be very good—but still a little better than if someone had not tried?”

Despite our limitations, an organization may indeed be greater, more positive, than the sum of its individual parts: but we have to apply ourselves, to participate, to engage with goodness, despite our foibles.

Reward. Quoting his mentor again, Greenleaf relates, “I believe in individual initiative and that the rewards of one’s efforts should be in proportion to the social value of what one does. The working of any such theory inevitably results in different levels of advantages according to the ability, resourcefulness, and industry of each individual. However, I do not believe that anyone is justified in having any advantage, whether of wealth or education, or position, whatever it may be—except as one uses it to further the interests of the common life…they are thought of as creating opportunities and a responsibility to contribute to the common good” (p.294).

Here again, there is an elegant portrayal of the individual and the group. Individual distinctives should exist, and be applied, in light of the larger social enterprise. Whatever our position may be, it creates opportunity and responsibility to contribute to the communal endeavor. This is an important frame of reference to maintain, as we consider our (collective) humanity and (individual) engagement.

Followership Guide coverLoyalty. Our attachment, as unique persons, to something bigger is not automatic. The concept of organizational loyalty (which I explore under the headings of ‘association’ and ‘affiliation’; see Chapter 20 and Study 12) is one of those qualities that runs deeper than external performance.

Greenleaf says, “I venture the opinion that many careers today…would be more significant if institutional loyalty were a stronger motive” (p.272).

Indeed, how is our sense of attachment to the larger group? How is our degree of buy-in and ownership of the values, aims, and methods employed by the organization? How is our level of commitment, especially when tested, and perhaps when tempted with dissolving our attachment and relocating elsewhere? Are we ‘all-in’? If not, why not? Are we satisfied with our contributions, with the application of our presence? If not, might it be the case that the quality of our contribution cannot outstrip the depth of our loyalty?

Persuasion. What might some of this contribution look like? What is our role, our opportunity, our obligation within the organization?

Greenleaf’s mentor held this perspective: “any important influence on this complex organized society must be wielded through persuasion. It must be persuasion that has the effect of shaping the institutions that are the real forces in the modern world” (p.289).

Perhaps it’s no wonder why some of the ‘best’ leaders and most influential persons I know seem to have an incredible aptitude for persuasive communication. To be honest, it intimidates me, as one who is not particularly persuasive in speech, nor resolute in opinion. What possibility do I have for exerting real influence?

At the same time, such a definition should also help to alleviate fears that followers cannot be meaningfully influential. There is no role-based limitation on being able to persuade others toward a beneficial way of thinking or acting. Role may contribute a platform, or a foundational degree of weight or credibility to one’s words, but anyone can grasp hold of what’s good, right, and suitable and invite others to participate as well.

Next entry: Servant Leadership, Ch 9

Previous entryA Servant Leadership Definition of Followership

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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