A Followership View of Servant Leadership: Ch 9

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

Despite being in the final 50 pages of the book, Robert Greenleaf doesn’t let up on introducing new ideas and making strong calls to a life worth living. Chapter 9 is entitled “Servant Responsibility in a Bureaucratic Society,” and Greenleaf paints further pictures of institutional reality and describes the kind of lifestyle we should develop in order to be truly responsible and engaged servants .

Bureaucracy. This word likely conjures up negative images for many of us: thoughts of having to ‘jump through hoops’, deal with ‘red tape,’ and navigate labyrinthine systems in order to get anything effectively accomplished. I personally have several memories of traipsing the halls of various government buildings in Central Asia while trying to handle a relatively simple administrative matter. Charles Dickens’ fictional “Circumlocution Office” (from Little Dorrit) is almost too close to reality.

servantleadership-2But despite our emotional response to, and experience of, the word ‘bureaucracy,’ I don’t know that I would necessarily have given it a negative definition. However, Greenleaf pulls no punches when he states, “Bureaucracy is defined as a system that has become narrow, rigid, formal, depends on precedent, and lacks initiative and resourcefulness…” (p.307).

In the context of the rest of the book, what he describes here is the antithesis of one of his other key concepts: community. The bureaucratic institution is one which has set relationships aside and thus has lost most of the positive traits of humanity which would bear on accomplishing its purpose.

Sadly, Greenleaf goes on to say, “All institutions…tend to become bureaucracies, regardless of the sheltering ideologies or the specific goals” (emphasis original; ibid.).

I’ve worked with a non-profit for well more than a decade. And despite regularly touting itself as a family, as operating within relationship, I cannot help but observe—in concert with its age and numerical growth—this very tendency which Greenleaf predicts: losing some of its initiative and resourcefulness in exchange for the familiarity of precedent and the comfort of formality.

Responsibility. Within such a forum, there emerges a clarion call to engagement, an obligation to participate and to engage as people in relationship.

Within a bureaucracy, the notion of responsibility usually means to fulfill expectations, to conform, to stay within institutional bounds. But Greenleaf offers his own definition. “Rather, I think of responsibility as beginning with a concern for self, to receive that inward growth that gives serenity of spirit without which someone cannot truly say, ‘I am free.'” (p.306).

EmbracingFollowership_CoverTextureIn my own exploration of obligations of followership (Chapter 5 of Embracing Followership), I mention the similar idea that we each need to be, to have an attitude and an engagement in personal development (Chapter 11), which enables us to contribute with excellence. Greenleaf notes this self-concern, this personal growth, as the essential motivator for responsible engagement. And then, the servant aspect arises, in which self-concern is brought into the broader forum of concern for the welfare of others, where all who participate (as he has said several times thus far in the book) “grow taller and become healthier, stronger, more autonomous” (e.g. p.53).

However, Greenleaf does also mention that fulfilling such responsibility is not a task that can necessarily be accomplished irrespective of stage of life, nor of lifestyle. He sets the expectations that “some of what you can do about it can best be done when you are old, and some whose leadership you should now be following are old” (p.308; emphasis original).

“Don’t think that, when you are forty and have achieved a position of power and influence, an adequate lifestyle will be bestowed upon you because your motives are good and you are able.” Rather, “prepare yourself now by cultivating the lifestyle that will make it a reasonable expectation that you will do your share” (p.311).

Lifestyle. What does such a responsible and impactful lifestyle look like? What should the young be building toward, and seek to attach themselves to in the lives of their leaders?

Greenleaf says that “a lifestyle adequate to cope with bureaucracy does not automatically follow from good motives, ability, and opportunity” (p.311). Why? Because such things are not inherently relational.  Using similar language, he warns, “Don’t assume, because you are intelligent, able, and well-motivated, that you are open to communication, that you know how to listen” (p.314).

The optimum lifestyle, as Greenleaf terms it, “is the best frame of reference through which to regard ourselves and the world” (p.311) and includes the 5 attributes of beauty, spontaneity, openness, humor, and tolerance—which Greenleaf associates with “an older meaning—the ability to bear suffering with serenity” (p.315).

Even without diving into his explanations, can you readily see the relational nature of most of these attributes? “These imply some dimensions of the lifestyle that I believe build both the will and the strength to deal creatively [another key Greenleaf term] with bureaucracy and help one to find the best way of working with teams and groups and societies [i.e. in community]” (p.311f).

Greenleaf’s expectation is not merely for a lifestyle defined by a few healthy habits or superficial virtues. His servant-oriented bureaucratic-engager is to go far beyond conveyor-belt-built ‘leaders’. “We do well at growing critics and experts, but we do not produce enough people for the responsible roles. At the heart of every constructive action are responsible persons, those who reach out to engage with real-life issues…. But it is important that the quality of your life be extraordinary and that you carry this quality into the work of the world…. Man is able, and has the duty, to reach the furtherest point on the road he has chosen…[requiring] persistence, patience, and hope” (p.317f).

May we, as followers, be simultaneously both so self-concerned and others-oriented that we strive toward excellence so that we might be responsible in our engagement with a world, with institutions, that might prefer to eschew relationships, community, and humanity in an effort to pursue a superficial growth in longevity or numbers rather than improving the condition and quality of the individuals and society which both comprise and contain it.

Next entry: Servant Leadership, Chapter 10

Previous entryServant Leadership, Chapter 8

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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