Continuing our reading of Robert Greenleaf’s classic work, from a followership perspective…
Three relatively brief chapters remain in our journey of Servant Leadership with Greenleaf. Chapter 10 bears the title, “America and World Leadership.” While several of the author’s international observations are likely still relevant several decades after they were penned, I find this chapter especially valuable in articulating realities that exist across any relational dynamic where there is a power differential.
The two themes of humility and generosity are twinned together in a way that should cause all leaders and followers to take note.
Perhaps pessimistically, or realistically, Greenleaf begins by stating that civilization has yet to achieve a stage of advancement such that “individuals, institutions, or governments are likely to be both powerful and humble”; while a shift in perspective may help, “Some may make it, but the odds are against it” (p.320).
And so we are confronted with the issue of how those who are powerful by position can also exemplify the servant leadership value of humility.
Succinctly, Greenleaf gives us a point of evaluation: “humility in the more powerful is ultimately tested by their ability to learn from and gratefully to receive the gifts of the less powerful” (p.320).
In my own writing on followership, I stress that followers have a valuable and necessary contribution to make, that influence is not limited to those with lofty titles, and that followers can be an important factor in the development and success of their superiors (see Chapters 5 & 6 of Embracing Followership).
But much of this possible influence and contribution can be shut down by a leader, a person in a position of power, who is unwilling to receive it. Doors can be closed and efforts stifled by a leader who is not comfortable with embracing the limits of his or her power and the reality of their own need for others’ contributions.
As I express in Chapter 19, every leader is a “poor” leader: that is, every leader is impoverished in some way, lacking the complete package of tools, skills, abilities, perspective, and gifts to achieve all that the group needs or desires.
As a follower, responding to this reality requires patience, gentleness, forgiveness, and participation.
But as a leader, owning this truth requires significant humility in the midst of wielding one’s power.
Power, often accompanied by position and authority, usually places one in the position of giver: the boss bestows rewards, punishments, opportunities, access to resources, etc. It is not as natural for the powerful to perceive their need to receive, and yet Greenleaf states that such a perspective is exactly what must exist in order for the powerful to maintain humility.
“One may not safely give unless one is open and ready to receive the gifts of others…. Receiving requires a genuine humility that may be uncomfortable and difficult to achieve, whereas giving poses the risk of arrogance…” (p.324f; emphasis original).
From the perspective of followership, and also servant leadership, the effective leader will display dependence rather than pretend self-sufficiency.
At the same time, followers must also adopt a proper perspective. More naturally in the receiving position, it is vital that followers develop a sense of humility. Without this, all acts of giving on the part of the leader may be perceived as gross exercises of power and authority, rather than an attempt to further individual and organizational achievement.
Followers must lead the way in humility, and also in gentleness. As followers become givers, offering contributions, perspective, and questions to their leaders, they must be able to do so without generating their own sense of arrogance, disdaining their leaders who are so lacking as to need others’ help, or withholding forgiveness for human limitations and errors that are found within their leaders.
The two-way street of influence between leaders and followers does include a separation of roles, but must also include mutual expressions of humility, giving, receiving, and proper use of whatever power each individual and position affords.
Previous entry: Servant Leadership, Chapter 9
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:
Embracing 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) —