Servant Leadership: Principles
“Robert K. Greenleaf: Concepts and Characteristics”
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack®
1.1 – Exploring the Journey
It was a principle for Greenleaf that the church of all organizations
should practice servant leadership for the sake of individuals, congregations,
and other institutions of society. This article assumes that his high expectation
of the church is on target and worthy to be reviewed for all of us to consider.
From Greenleaf’s primary publication, Servant Leadership:
A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (RG–Robert
Greenleaf), this article reports selected concepts and characteristics
of his understanding of “servant as leader.” It is focused on
his view of the church and servant leadership. The thoughts are drawn directly,
even if abbreviated, from this major work. Hopefully, these selections may
not only be a reading experience, but a working application to your service
The Servant Thesis–Servant First
A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority
deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted
by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly
evident servant stature of the leader. . . . They will freely respond only
to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted
as servants (RG,p.10). The servant leader is servant
first . . . the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first
The best test is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being
served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves
to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society;
will they benefit or, at least, not be further deprived? (RG,pp.13-14)
Glossary: “authority” (Zondervan’s
The legal and/or moral right to exercise power, or power that is
rightly possessed. In the Bible God is presented as the ultimate, personal
authority and the source of all authority (Dan 4:34-35; cf. 2:21; 7:13-14;
Rom 13:1). God gave authority to Israel’s kings, priests, and
prophets, and to the written Word of God (Ps 119). . . Authority (exousia)
and power (dynamis) are related but different (see
Painting the Dream in the Church
Someone in the church must paint the dream . .
. for anything to happen there must be a great dream. The growing edge
church will be a painter of great dreams for all of its people, something
to lift their sights above the ordinary and give them a great goal to
strive for . . . something for each person to strive for (RG,p.88).
Pointing the direction: let us go this way . .
. clearly stating and restating the goal–the overarching purpose, the
big dream, the visionary concept (RG,p.15).
The way some great things get done is to choose
your own role and keep on doing one thing at a time (RG,pp.
The Power of Communication–Listening
Listening and understanding: I have a bias about
this which suggests that only a true a natural servant automatically
responds to any problem by listening first . . . one must not
be afraid of a little silence (RG,pp.16-17).
Language and Imagination: Nothing is meaningful
until it is related to the hearer’s own experience. Meaning in
communication requires the hearer to supply that imaginative link
The ability to withdraw and reorient oneself (pacing
oneself) if only for a moment, presumes that one has learned the art
of systematic neglect, to sort out the more important from the less,
the important from the urgent (RG,p.19).
The opening of awareness stocks
both the conscious and unconscious minds with a richness of resources
for future need . . . gives one the basis for detachment to see oneself
in perspective and context (RG,p.27).
Acceptance and Empathy–Way
Acceptance is receiving what is offered, with approbation, satisfaction
. . . and empathy is the imaginative projection of one’s own consciousness
into another being. The opposite of both is to reject, to refuse to hear
or receive–to throw out . . . great leaders include little people
Glossary: “empathy” (Merriam-Webster’s
The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to,
and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience
of another of either the past or present without having the feelings,
thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit
Intuition, Foresight, Faith
The requirements of leadership impose . . . two
intellectual abilities not usually addressed in an academic way: the
need to have a sense for the unknowable and to foresee the unforeseeable
Intuition is a feel for patterns, the ability to
generalize based on what has happened previously. . . .Their hunches
are not seen as eternal truths (RG,p. 23).
Prescience, or foresight, is a better than average
guess about what is going to happen when in the future (RG,
Living this way is partly a matter of faith. .
. . Foresight is seen as a wholly rational process . . . a constantly
running internal computer (RG,p. 25).
Conceptualizing and Creative Response
History has been remarkably influenced by “prime
leadership talent,” conceptualizing, clearly articulating, and
passionately communicating a vision of what could be. “Today’s
privileged” may often need to “stand aside and serve by
helping when asked” as today’s oppressed “effectively
assert their claims to stature” (RG,pp. 32-35).
Persuasion, one person at a time: Leadership by
persuasion, with gentle, non-judgmental argument “has the virtue
of change by convincing rather than coercion” (RG,p.
30). It is the “power used to create opportunity
and alternatives so that individuals may choose and build autonomy”
Who is the enemy of Servant Leadership?
Not “evil,” or “stupid,”
or “apathetic people”; nor “protestors,” “revolutionaries,”
or “reactionaries.” Rather, in the task of “building
better institutions” . . . the enemy is strong, natural servants
who have a potential to lead but do not lead, or who choose to follow
a non-servant (RG,pp.44-45).
Others have found what the servant leader might
also acknowledge: that the motivation for such serving is healing “to
make whole”; the mutual search for the servant and the served
Growing Edge Church (from
Greenleaf expresses the hope that many will move
out on the growing edge and seek new opportunities for service . . .
to become the chief nurturing force, a “conceptualizer”
of the opportunity, value shaper, and moral sustainer of leadership
everywhere: in business, school, government, health and social service,
The dynamics of leadership–the vision, the values,
and the staying power–are essentially religious concerns, and fostering
them should become the central mission of the growing edge churches.
What is asked of growing edge churches is that
they add to their historic mission of caring for persons, and to their
more recent regard for the social order, the mission of caring for institutions–quite
For the servant who has the capacity to be a builder,
the greatest joy in the world is in building. Will not the growing edge
church become the chief nurturer of servant leaders, institution builders
for the future? (RG,p.248)
Church, as a Model Institution
From the chapter on “Servant Leadership in Churches,” Greenleaf
gives his use of the word institution: An institution is a gathering
of persons who have accepted a common purpose, and a common discipline to
guide the pursuit of that purpose, to the end that each involved person
reaches higher fulfillment as a person, through serving and being served
by the common venture (RG,p.237). His strategy for
building a model institution:
First, there must be a goal, a concept of a distinguished
serving institution (RG,p.240).
Second . . . an understanding of leadership and
Third . . . organization-structure-modus-operandi.
. . . the ultimate authority should be placed in a balanced team of
equals under the leadership of a true servant who serves as primus inter
pares, first among equals (RG,p.241).
Fourth . . . is strategy of institution building:
the need for trustees. . . . The trustee role is to monitor closely
the movement of the institution toward its goals and to act both as
critic and advocate, defender and court of last resort (RG,p.241).
Caring is the essential motive. What we have learned
about caring for individual persons we must now learn to give to institutions.
. . . Caring [for institutions], we know, is an exacting and demanding
Leadership means that one individual has a better
than average sense of what should be done now, and is willing to take
the risk to say: Let us do this now . . . this leap of faith. . . .
Inspiration is usually received by the best prepared individual who,
for this immediate act, is the leader (RG,p.244).
“Followership” is an equally responsible
role because it means that the individual must take the risk to empower
the leader and to say that, in the matter at hand, I will trust your
insight. Followership implies another preparation in order that trusting,
empowering the leader, will be a strength-giving element in the institution
Read and re-read this article along with the previous one (SL#21),
with a couple of exercises in mind: First, what immediate leadership functions
will I shape by these concepts, if any? Second, make an outline of a few selected
Greenleaf concepts; print a copy and discuss them with a fellow minister or
© 2006 servantleaderstoday.com; hosted and copyrighted
by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at www.servantleaderstoday.com
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church
“Servant-Leadership Training and Discipline in
By M. Scott Peck (author of The Road Less Traveled)
Chapter 7 of Reflections on Leadership, edited by Larry C. Spears
(Abstracted by Lloyd Elder from pp. 87-98)
M. Scott Peck, a creative contributor to the literature of
Servant Leadership, and his wife, Lily, have for years worked with the Foundation
for Community Encouragement (FCE). This abstract reporting key findings, concepts,
and practices of Peck and this group, applies the powerful impact of servant
leadership to authentic group life, which could be a congregation.
Servant leadership is more than a concept. . . any
great leader, by which I also mean an ethical leader of any group, will
see herself or himself primarily as a servant of that group and will act
accordingly (p. 87).
By definition, everyone who is working in a true community
is struggling, learning to know something about how to be servant leaders
Using computer technology as a favorite analogy, Peck asks us to consider
six points about installing servant leadership as software for the operation
of an authentic community; summarized only from pp. 88-90:
There is a technology for training servant leaders,
just as for community building, peace-making, and decision-making.
This technology is analogous to software that teaches
computer hardware how to operate.
There is nothing magical about technology. Just so,
there are rules in the complicated business of servant leadership.
Technology works–if you can get a group to work the
. . . the technology of servant-leadership training
can be learned only by doing, and can be sustained only by practice.
There is currently enormous resistance worldwide to
learning and practicing [servant-leadership] technology. The resistance
is greatest in the United States.
Abstract Reflection and Application
Peck’s chapter continues with insights and practices worthy of your
study from the book being cited. How much do you agree with Peck’s “technology
analogy”? How would you revise or enlarge his basic concept? If there
is such a technology, what are some things you are doing to “install
this software” (servant leadership) on the “hardware” of
your life and leadership?