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Servant Leadership – Robert K. Greenleaf

Robert K. Greenleaf advanced the servant leadership through his writings, his life, and his work. Greenleaf espoused his ideology about servant leadership through his work The Servant as Leader.  Robert Greenleaf‘s (1904-1990) introduction of servant leadership came through his work at AT&T.  Greenleaf initially started at AT&T as a lineman digging postholes and retired in 1964 as Director of Management Research.  Greenleaf confirmed in his writings the observation of a decrease in creative and critical thinking at work.  People were separating themselves from their work.

In his work on management, Greenleaf noted that people desired to align personal growth with his or her work.  This was not a comfortably embraced concept by the workplace or education at the time.  Therefore, after his retirement, Greenleaf began a second career, which lasted 25 years, as a consultant educating institutions, churches, and businesses.  Greenleaf served as a consultant to major organizations, such as the American Foundation for Management Research, and Lilly Endowment Incorporation.  Greenleaf gained valuable insight into management practices, challenges, and practitioner insight while working as a consultant.  Because of these insights, Greenleaf started the Center for Applied Ethics in 1964, (renamed the Center for Servant Leadership in Indianapolis, Indiana).

Greenleaf said his servant leadership theory was crystallized by the novel, Journey to the East, a work that deeply moved Greenleaf.  In the story, the servant, Leo, was the caring leader.  Leo’s leadership style was that of a caring spirit such that the people claimed that they did everything themselves.  On the journey, Leo disappeared.  The group fell apart and abandoned the spiritual quest.  The group realized they needed Leo.  Years later, the narrator found Leo and learned Leo was accepted as the head of the noble order.  The narrator had only known Leo as a servant.  Indeed, Leo was a great and noble leader.  A leader who exemplifies servant leadership, such as Leo, can see the effect of his or her leadership through the growth of the people.  Greenleaf defined servant leaders as passing a test if the people are wiser, freer, and healthier.  If the people served by the leader become servant leaders, the leader is a practitioner of servant leadership.

This story provided the foundation for Greenleaf’s servant leadership theory.  Greenleaf’s interpretation of the story was the key to the servant leader’s greatness, which is the willingness to serve first.  Other of Greenleaf’s writings highlighted his commitment to grassroots organizations that worked on issues of social injustices of that time.  Apparent in his writings was his commitment to the Judeo Christian and Quaker faith.  Greenleaf was a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1935 and wrote an unpublished manuscript related to his faith.

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