Concluding our reading of Robert Greenleaf’s classic work, from a followership perspective…
I’ve spent nearly 8 months reading and reflecting on this book; the first post in this series is dated January 23. It has surprised me in its presentation and encouraged me in its content…but I’m not entirely sure where to go next.
My post on the book’s Introduction lists key themes and reflections for each chapter of the book, so I won’t repeat those here. But surveying that list, I believe that Greenleaf has indeed surfaced most of the central issues in considering leadership, followership, and organizations. To be honest, his approach—often consisting of reprinting lectures or offering biographic sketches of his preferred exemplars—didn’t necessarily produce a masterwork of literature, but it did present his passions and concerns, and create a picture of service and institutional engagement that absolutely remains relevant today: 42 years on from its initial publication.
Have we made any progress since Greenleaf first shared his vision with us? Perhaps not massively, but ‘servant leadership’ has become a mainstay of organizational discussion, and the more recent development of thinking about followership certainly supplements and facilitates exploring and implementing the concept of service and the development of servant leaders.
What’s the next step, though? Related works on my to-read shelf include The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business (Lencioni), Leadership is Half the Story (Hurwitz & Hurwitz), and The Anonymous Leader: An Unambitious Pursuit of Influence (Mayhew); which way to go?
For all of the content, for all of the vision, for all of the affirmation that Greenleaf provides, I’m not sure what to do next. I resonated with many of his thoughts, finding that many of his servant-leadership-based ideas mirrored my own thoughts which arose from my consideration of the other side of the dynamic: followership. That’s always nice: to feel validated and in accord with a renowned expert.
But what can my/our contribution be so that additional progress will be made in the next 40 years? How can we build upon Greenleaf’s thoughts and legacy in order to create more service-oriented institutions and cultures, and to promote and value the virtue of servanthood in leaders and followers alike?
It’s here that the Afterword, by Peter Senge (MIT professor), touches on a final important theme.
Producing change will not be a quick fix. Living lives that reflect Greenleaf’s thinking will require no small adjustment. Listen to Dr Senge…
- “I expect Servant Leadership to become more important in the future because it is one of the very few books that illuminates the depth of commitment required to build truly innovative organizations” (p.345).
- “Learning requires change…. But change does not require learning…. Significant capacity-building takes months and years, not hours” (p.347).
- “Most self-proclaimed ‘change leaders’ are busy seeking ‘buy in….’ But ‘buy in’ is often a superficial type of commitment…. ‘the nature of the commitment’ required in order to build a great enterprise…must start with a commitment to be willing to change myself” (p.351).
- “True commitment actually creates choice for others” (emphasis original; p.356).
So what are the commitments for me? I look especially at the last two bullet points above.
First, is there a commitment to change myself? As I present in Embracing Followership, followers must (as a true obligation) be willing to become the best versions of themselves, to pursue personal and professional development, along with clarity of vision and role. These elements are essential if we are to be the most excellent stewards of our gifts and talents, offering our necessary and valuable contributions to the group endeavors that we are involved with.
How might I change? I am certain that I have not always valued and encouraged my own leader’s attributes of servanthood. It is easy to be dissatisfied, to desire being served in different ways than what’s on offer. But a sense of gratitude and encouragement from me might be more effective in promoting servant leadership than lackluster comments on a 360-eval.
Second, does my commitment create choice for others?
For my leader, would my commitment to affirmation enable more choice for him to be who he is in how he leads and serves? I think that it would.
For my followers, how might I commit to servant leadership in a way that opens choice for them? I tend to have a highly facilitative bent, viewing some of my primary contributions as enabling the vision my followers have for their own teams and working groups, facilitating the projects they are pursuing by connecting them with resources and networks which might enable fruitfulness in their efforts.
But perhaps there’s something more. Perhaps, despite my clear inclination toward followership, I need to be a strong enough servant leader that the choice that’s created for them is whether to follow me or not. If I’m not pushing strongly toward a desired outcome, a hoped-for organizational culture, a radical degree of participation, then it is fairly easy for them to continue to follow: it requires little of them, asks for little change or adaptation in themselves or their plans, does nothing to restrict (or to guide) their own natural leadership proclivities. It’s really not a choice that even has to be made.
If I had a passion for the kind of institutional culture that Greenleaf envisions, my own servant leadership should be something substantial, something that requires a response or reaction. Something that creates, and calls for, a choice: do you want to build this kind of organization with me?
Could there be a temptation to becoming heavy-handed, strong-arming subordinates according to my own whims or fads?
Here’s where Greenleaf’s oft-repeated metric, highlighted again by Senge, would need to be part of both commitments (personal change & creating choice for others): “How do you tell a servant-leader is at work?—‘Do the people around the person grow?'” (p.357).
I’ll be meeting with my subordinates for an annual review in less than two months’ time. I’ll be sure to ask them.
Previous entry: Servant Leadership, Chapters 11 & 12
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) —