Servant Leadership: Principles
“Robert K. Greenleaf: Pioneer on His Journey” (SL#21)
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® 1.1 - Exploring the Journey

Robert K. Greenleaf has been acclaimed by this generation of grateful students and mentors as the “grandfather of servant leadership,” a pioneer, prophet, pathfinder, teacher, and a practitioner of its precepts. He not only coined the phrases (1970: “servant leadership” and “the servant as leader”), but over decades forged ahead into a wilderness of institutions and organizations with principles and disciplines of inestimable impact on the whole practice of leadership. To examine the work of such scholars is yet another principle, or approach, to gaining knowledge.

Since he made such major contributions to schools, churches, other nonprofit organizations, and generations of other leaders, a thumbnail sketch of his life is considered a significant component of this series of articles. (See also Spears’ Reflections on Leadership, pp. 1-14)

  1. Robert K. Greenleaf, a Summary (1904-1990)
    Let me encourage you to read for yourself about this remarkable life; several source books are entered in the Bibliography/Web Links section.

1904--Robert Greenleaf was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, of practical, principled parents.
1920’s--When Greenleaf was a senior at Carleton College, a sociology professor advised students to choose a career in one of the large institutions and seek to influence it from the inside. Upon graduation, he chose not to pursue higher formal education, but intentionally settled for a bachelor’s degree.
1926--His first job out of college was as a lineman on a crew for AT&T, a choice growing out of the concept of his professor. He began at his starting place, a common laborer carrying tools, digging holes, and stringing line. However, he soon became a crew leader.
1929--Before long, Greenleaf moved to New York where he spent the rest of his 38-year career with AT&T. He served as director of training; and, for his last seven years was Director of Management Research. It is noteworthy that he refused a position title as Vice President at AT&T, essentially because he wanted to make an impact on the organization more that belong to its hierarchy.
1964--Greenleaf chose early retirement from AT&T at the age of 60. Why did he do so? He wanted to pursue a second career--a broader field of research consulting, lecturing, and writing.
1964-1990--Intellectually and professionally Greenleaf continued to invest himself. A leadership group was founded, later to be named the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana. He published extensively, held a joint appointment as visiting lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the Harvard Business School. As a premier consultant, he had an impact on Ohio University, MIT, Ford Foundation, R.K. Mellon Foundation, Lilly Endowment, Inc., the American Foundation of Management Research, and the Mead Corporation.

  1. Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership Concept
    Greenleaf considered that one of his “life markers” came in the early 1960’s with the reading and reflection on a novel by Hermann Hesse--Journey to the East. Briefly summarized from his own writing (Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, p. 7, RG), we capsule the story’s essence:

    Among a traveling band on a mythical journey to the East, Leo is a menial servant of chores, spirit, and song. Into the journey, when Leo disappears, the group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned. Years later, the narrator discovers that Leo the servant was in fact the titular head of the Order that had commissioned the journey: the lowly servant was in fact, its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader.

    From Leo’s journey, and sixty years of his own experience, Greenleaf concluded that the meaning of the story was that great leaders must first serve others. Do you have a book, a person, an experience that has greatly influenced the foundational concepts and direction of your life? Why not record your own sense of discovery about your journey?

  2. Publications: The Servant as Leader (RG) This first essay, published in 1970 at age 66, was Greenleaf’s first of a dozen essays and books on servant leadership. His collection published in 1977 was titled Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. More than 500,000 copies of his works have been sold around the world (See Reflections, Spears, editor, p. 3).

  3. Influence on Others
    Peter Drucker, a premier authority on management and leadership, wrote that “Bob is one of the few truly wise men I ever met” (Reflections, p. 51). Greenleaf’s influence is readily and enthusiastically claimed by other significant leaders and authors:
  4. As a Quaker
    Greenleaf made a life-long discipline of reflection on and contribution to The Religious Society of Friends. An emphasis on the “human spirit” was greatly influenced by this Quaker alliance. Many of his lasting contributions were to churches and nonprofit organizations. His last residence was in a Quaker retirement village in Philadelphia. Greenleaf’s son, Newcomb, reveals a very personal, family happening that demonstrates something about his father’s self-image and humility:

    My father wrote his own epitaph: “potentially a good plumber, ruined by a sophisticated education.” We don’t know how seriously he intended this, but after mulling it over we decided to go ahead and put it on his headstone (from Reflections on Leadership, p. 13).

    This feature article is a vignette about Greenleaf, but it does not stop there. It underscores a principle that we can learn servant leadership from the experience and wisdom of others along the way. Others provide us guidance as we explore our own journey. Much of his “sophisticated education” was not inside a graduate institution, but self-directed around servant leadership that lives on and on. In fact, there has been a recent renewal of interest and practice around his pioneering contribution. But what about your servant leadership journey? And mine? That is really what this article is about. What contribution will your life and mine make to the expansion and practice of servant leadership after the pattern of Christ? Are we not, in reality “writing our own epitaph?”

As a minister in a local congregation, I first came across Greenleaf’s writings, and at least became a student of his printed legacy. Perhaps you have too, or you will read and share with others, even briefly, Greenleaf’s servant leadership life and story. In article SL#22, a presentation of his major concepts will be reported, especially focusing on the life and ministry of the church. Reflect on your own journey into servant leadership. By whatever terminology, write down your thoughts--especially about your own servant leadership practice.

Close this window 

 © 2006; hosted and copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership