A Followership View of Servant Leadership: Ch 11 & 12

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

We come to my final reflection on Greenleaf’s writing, with one more post in this series to consider the Afterword (by Peter Senge) and present my own summation. Chapter 11 is entitled “An Inward Journey,” and Chapter 12 is the brief “Postscript.”

servantleadership-2Chapter 11 features an extended reflection on the Robert Frost poem “Directive”; I’ll simply highlight the most personally poignant theme: growth.

Greenleaf reflects, “simply by living in the contemporary world and making our peace with it as it is, we may be involved in a way that blocks our growth” (p.330).

There are two realities here, both of which hinder growth. The first is complacency, “making our peace with [the world] as it is.” Likely as not, this acceptance is usually in light of how our own selves (personality, abilities, dreams, etc.) mesh with the realities of our larger context. We realize it’s not a perfect fit, but we come to terms with what we can expect and how we can engage here. This is what it is. Life. The hand we’ve been dealt. Us in our circumstances.

Despite the less-than-perfect alignment between ourselves and the world, such a perspective doesn’t prompt us to either change ourselves (to accord better with our environment) nor to change the environment (to make it better than what it is). It is just acknowledgement; for me, it is usually resignation…which is really just giving myself permission not to act, not to expend energy on the pursuit of change. And so, “we may be involved in a way that blocks our growth.”

The second reality is that the nature of the world itself does not necessarily facilitate growth, at least not towards our most positive and healthy versions of ourselves. “Survival of the fittest” may indeed prompt change—adapting to the provisions (and expectations) of your surroundings—but that change doesn’t necessarily lead to your movement in the direction of being more servant-oriented, or, as Greenleaf has several times said, becoming “healthier, stronger, more autonomous”—which doesn’t mean becoming more independent or self-sufficient, but rather more counter-cultural and free within an environment that does not naturally promote the virtue of service.

How do we instead positively pursue growth? Greenleaf advises, “You must be lost enough before you can find yourself. The test, maybe, is: If you can’t find yourself, you’re not lost enough” (p.334; emphasis original).

There is a sense that the impetus toward positive growth requires a certain context of desperation. Necessity is the mother of re-invention. Changing yourself comes from a sense of profound awareness about the true nature of reality and our current place and our likely trajectory, with a sense of urgency to make necessary changes now rather than waiting (hoping?) for the environment to change instead and then happening to be in better alignment with it and thus experiencing a more fulfilling engagement with our lives. (I’m currently in the midst of this awakening myself.)

To what end does this process of growth aim? The Postscript (chapter 12) speaks to the opportunity for influence. “Is not every servant a leader because of influence by example? Walt Whitman may have answered this when he wrote, ‘We convince by our presence'” (p.341).

EmbracingFollowership_CoverTextureSuch sentences are the reason why I reject definitions (such as Bobby Clinton’s) equating leadership with influence. Whitman is right: our presence matters, our presence speaks. The first contribution of followership that I identify in Chapter 6 of Embracing Followership is ‘lending credence to an endeavor’; our engagement gives life and substance to a group effort. It impacts others and makes our pursuit a thing to be reckoned with.

So it is not just leaders that influence, but anyone who is present and engaged (see “Leader: the ideal human being?“). Positive influence comes from those who are present and engaged as servants.

For Greenleaf, “All have the opportunity to convince by their presence” (p.341)—there is no limitations from role or personality or skillset.

But profoundly interesting is one of the mechanisms Greenleaf puts forward for exercising that convincing presence: “by being more hospitable to servant-leaders” (p.342).

Notice that he doesn’t say here that one must be a servant-leader (though undoubtedly his aim is to convince us all, individually and corporately, to pursue that outcome), but rather the opportunity for our presence to be positive is in the way that we respond to and welcome servant-leaders.

As we followers expect and appreciate servant-leadership, our engagement in this manner communicates (and establishes) a culture which serves as a powerful apologetic for seeing more servant-leaders. That is convincing influence.

Greenleaf also states what happens if we don’t exert our presence in this way. “In the absence of solid evidence of such initiatives [i.e. of followers demonstrating our culture-building favor of servant-leadership], servant-leaders may stand alone, largely without the support of their culture, as a saving remnant of those who care for both persons and institutions, and who are determined to make their caring count—wherever they are involved” (p.342; emphasis original).

Let us, as followers, not be guilty of making the best type of leaders stand alone, unsupported and without validation. Rather, let us also be people who “care for both persons and institutions…wherever [we may be] involved.”

Next entry: Servant Leadership, Afterword & Action

Previous entryServant Leadership, Chapter 10

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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