Sign In  |  Register  |  About Pleasanton  |  Contact Us

Pleasanton, CA
September 01, 2020 1:32pm
7-Day Forecast | Traffic
  • Search Hotels in Pleasanton

  • ROOMS:

The Contribution of Robert Greenleaf’s Book to Servant Leadership

The Contribution of Robert Greenleaf’s Book to Servant LeadershipPhoto from Unsplash

Originally Posted On:


Robert K. Greenleaf was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1904. He studied mathematics at the Minnesota-based Carleton College, where he graduated in 1926. After that, he pursued his career at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. While at AT&T, Greenleaf served in different managerial positions until his retirement in 1964.

From the word go, Greenleaf believed that most big corporations did not serve their employees well. While serving at AT&T, he did all within his reach to change this norm from within. He spent 40 years researching education, development, and management. Greenleaf strongly felt that the power-centered authoritarian leadership exercised in most US institutions wasn’t working.

Robert K. Greenleaf’s “Servant Leadership” book, published by Paulist Press, inspires people who want to be great leaders. Whether you are a small business owner, a church leader, an executive at a large company, or a leader in your community, this is a must-read book for you. Whether you are tight on time or simply would like a recap, let’s walk through the takeaways from the book.What Led Greenleaf to the Concept of “Servant Leadership”?

Greenleaf took his college professor’s advice to “initiate change from within a large institution” positively. When he joined AT&T and became the firm’s hiring and assessment manager barely three years into employment, he got an ideal opportunity to lead differently.

Greenleaf’s Quaker History at AT&T

During his tenure at AT&T, Greenleaf incorporated what many in the corporate world at that time viewed as unique leadership approaches to work. He advocated for deep listening, co-creativity and consultative decision-making, and avoidance of hierarchical structures.

Greenleaf became a Quaker in mid-life. While he claimed that he was influenced in his life by Judeo-Christian ethics, he was clear that servant leadership was for people of all institutions, whether faith-based or secular. There is little doubt when reading his writings that his pursuit of faith and the time he spent thinking about it changed his way of thinking about life and how he should act.He believed it was the pursuit of improvement that mattered.

Deep Listening

Greenleaf taught his team members that they must gather sufficient information, thoughts, and intuitions to do something useful. In his opinion, “listening inside” is imperative in accessing inner knowledge. He argues that listening inside is a revitalizing and pragmatic practice to gain a wider span of awareness. It required gathering enough information and thinking through it to be able to do something useful with the knowledge.

Co-Creativity and Consultative Decision-Making

Being mindful of people’s resistance to change in organizations, Greenfield opined that it isn’t the knowledge of a better way that propels people to change their habits. He believed in co-creativity to drive meaningful change and, as a result, created study teams to enable employees to learn from one another while working on difficult problems.

Greenleaf quoted Robert Frost “All great things are created for their own sake.” He went all in on this authentic leadership style and became an extraordinary presence in the leadership melieu at AT&T. My father, Kent Uhlir, came through as a leader at AT&T’s Bell Labs later and naturally adopted the essence of servant leadership, which he later passed on to me.

Paradoxically, by giving over his ego, he became a legend at AT&T.

Avoidance of Hierarchical Structures

Greenleaf believed in legitimate powers based on mutual agreements. He advocated against the paradigm based on coercive power and control and asked his team to avoid hierarchical structures at all costs.

He insists that King Jethro led Moses down the wrong path when he asked Moses to organize the Israelites hierarchically. As a result, he proposed a Roman model primus inter pares to replace the pyramid scheme.

Primus inter pares is a Latin phrase meaning first among equals. Originally in Roman times, this title simply gave the person the right to speak first with no additional rights or authority. This person sometimes elected to speak last after hearing the vigorous discussion among their peers first. The key is that there was no “rank” among those in the discussion.

Greenleaf’s Inspiration From Hermann Hesse’s Novel Journey to the East

1958 occasioned a paradigm shift as Greenleaf came across Herman Hesse’s novel, “Journey to the East,” a book he admits was a true revelation to him. Leo, the pivotal character in the story, while focusing mainly on serving a group of travelers, ended up taking the role of a guide, teacher, and motivator. Hermann Hesse’s character led to Greenleaf’s formation of the concept of servant leadership.

Greenleaf’s interpretation of Leo’s character is coherent and finds favor with Hesse. He argues that Leo automatically becomes the group’s leader by serving its members. He deduces that true leaders must serve their followers.

Greenleaf First Introduces Servant-leader in His 1970 Essay Titled “The Servant as Leader”

Taking an early retirement in 1964, Greenleaf proceeded to found the Center of Applied Ethics, later renamed to Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. This move was a way of pushing himself to live his philosophy.

Servant leadership is admissibly a timeless philosophy. However, Robert Greenleaf appropriately coined the phrase “servant leadership” in his essay entitled “The Servant as a Leader’ published in 1970. In that essay, he argues that servant leadership begins with being a servant first.

Greenleaf insists that the precursor of servant leadership is a natural feeling of wanting to serve first. This conscious choice then ignites the individual servant to aspire to lead.

book - Servant Leadership- A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness 25th Anniversary Edition

Greenleaf’s Book- Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness

Greenleaf’s publication of this book (get the 25th-anniversary edition here) was a prophetic way of coining the modern servant leadership theory. This practical philosophy aimed at replacing traditional autocratic leadership with ethical leadership and a holistic approach to leadership.

A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, his most famous book, was about helping leaders find true powers and moral authority to lead. In that era of massive institutional failure, his approach was important.

The book’s publication in 1977 occasioned a different leadership paradigm into the minds and hearts of people, society, and organizations. Greenleaf proposed that service should be the distinguishing leadership characteristic in this book. He observed that service would create a more robust and better society, and people would find greater joy in their lives.

Since then, Larry Spears, Stephen Covey (wrote the forward), Peter Senge (wrote the afterward), Ken Blanchard, and others have continued to share the benefits of this style of leadership. Larry Spears has probably done the most to share the meaning and information in Bob’s original writings, including sharing the information with 10 million people on NBC’s Dateline in 2004.We’ve also seen quite a few religious leaders adapt the approaches to leadership into multiple faiths and as a way to describe becoming a community steward.

What Is the Servant Leadership Theory Put Forward by Robert K. Greenleaf?

Here is an overview of different aspects of Robert Greenleaf’s servant leadership.

What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is a philosophical model of approach to leadership anchored in the ethical principle that a leader must first serve those who follow him. The leader is mandated to help the people he serves to thrive and grow as a people. Greenleaf’s philosophical approach to servant leadership is role and behavior-based.

What Are the Tenets of Servant Leadership Defined by Greenleaf?

Servant leadership provides vital support to the team to achieve its vision. It empowers team members to grow and learn and embraces them to table their vision and expertise. It focuses on building authority and influence instead of toxic leadership and control by fear. Authoritative leadership essentially has a “do this or your fired” unspoken in many of the directives from the boss.

The servant leadership tenets defined by Robert K. Greenleaf are that legitimate servant leadership:

  • Focuses on bottom-up empowerment, which means building its members’ collaboration skills, decision-making abilities, and self-confidence.
  • Provides a framework within which its team can flourish rather than prescribing for it specific directions and duties.
  • Ensures the team has the required attention, skills, budget, and resources to make an impact.
  • Encourages ownership of problems/solutions and extends supported trust to the team.
  • Sets the strategic vision for the company and communicates that down to the team level.

What Are the 10 Principles of Robert Greenleaf Servant Leadership

Here are the principles of servant leadership.


A servant leader pays attention to the issues affecting their team members through active listening. This approach enhances communication and understanding.


Servant leaders understand their team and use an empathetic leadership approach to help the team members grow.


Team members may develop trauma because of their previous toxic work experience. A leader must help team members create an ideal work-life balance and give them room to heal. Successful healing provides the team member with wholeness.


Servant leaders recognize their strengths and shortcomings to emphasize efficiency. The leader’s self-awareness enables them to understand how best they fit within the team. This way, they avoid missing leadership opportunities.


Rather than just power, a servant leader should use persuasion techniques and influence to win the members’ support. This way, they will be able to achieve the organization’s goals. This technique sharply contrasts with the traditional leadership style of motivating team members through authority, power, and position.


A servant leader embraces big-picture thinking. With this, the leader can conceptualize great ideas for the team they lead and the entire organization.


A servant leader understands the importance of their team and uses previous knowledge, experience, and trend analysis to improve decision-making.


A servant leader must lead by example so the team can do what the leader does and not just what the leader says. The trustees, staff, and CEOs are responsible for holding their institutions “in trust” for the greater good of society. This helps to establish trust in leaders too.

Commitment to the Growth of People

The leader believes in the intrinsic values of the team members and feels the responsibility to nature the team’s growth.

Building Community

A servant leader must strive to build relationships between co-team members. As a result, each team member will trust one another, resulting in more productivity.

How Is Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership Theory Practical (Or Viable) Today?

Here is how people apply Robert Greenleaf’s servant leadership today.

Applicable for Organizations

Greenleaf’s servant leadership theory benefits organizations by enhancing strategic thinking, accountability, productivity, and leadership.

Servant leadership encourages strategic thinking and innovation. Leaders are always willing to follow and not just be in charge. They’re ethical and civic-minded. An organization becomes successful if it exercises servant leadership and encourages the team to think strategically and become innovative.

When individual team members are held accountable, they become self-reliant and, in the long run, become more productive in their line of duty. They also acquire leadership skills and become dependable members of the larger team.

Peter Drucker, Jungian analyst Ira Progoff, and other key people were among the friends Bob and Esther spent time with during their later years. They all believed in success both at work and with family life. I have little doubt that this leadership melieu between these that the interaction between leaders have changed as a result.

Today, the Harvard Business School, the Sloan School of Management, and many other schools use Greenleaf’s and Larry C. Spears’s books to teach people how to become better leaders. They also use them to teach people how to run a business.

Benefits for the Community

Servant leadership is viable in a community setup because it promotes personal responsibility, people-focused culture, motivation, and inclusivity. It challenges each member of the community to become their best self. The style provides stewardship to the community members as the leader tends to have a strong sense of empathy and foresight.

Servant leadership also inspires community members to take personal responsibility. The leaders care for the community members holistically and serve them by providing them with autonomy. This way, community members get inspired to grow into leadership to become accountable for all their actions and decisions.

This stands in contrast to the contemporary leadership of many political philisophies that believe that a small few can make better decisions for the masses than those individuals can make themself.

But Isn’t Servant Leadership a Biblical Concept?

Greenleaf’s servant leadership principles inspire people aspiring to become servant leaders. Although Greenleaf didn’t invent this theory, he succeeded in putting a name to it. Christians from various theological convictions and denominations have wholeheartedly embraced the servant leadership theory, as have many from other religions as well as atheists.

The spread and popularity of Greenleaf’s servant leadership ideas among Christians is partly due to the fact that many people think it comes directly from the gospels.

In Matthew 23:11, Jesus challenges his disciples to be others’ servants by telling them that the greatest among them will be their servants. Jesus himself demonstrated servant leadership by washing their feet. This leader concept stands in stark contrast to the archaic leadership models of that time.

What can be better than leading like Jesus Christ and reaping huge spiritual and financial profits? It would enable you to bring powerful manifestations even to your non-Christian team members.

Regardless, one does not have to be a person of faith to see the value of serving others as the best way to lead a team and find business success.


Here are some frequently asked questions about how Robert Greenleaf defined servant leadership.

Who is the best example of a servant leader?

One of the best examples of a servant leader is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She prioritized people’s needs and focused on developing them to perform their best. Martin Luther King Jr is widely credited with being another great example.

What is the opposite of servant leadership?

The opposite of servant leadership is autocratic leadership. This model of leadership involves a leader who looks out for themself primarily and their advancement.

What are the disadvantages and limitations of servant leadership?

The disadvantages of servant leadership include the following:

  • Potential for misalignment among team, if the leader does not create a shared vision first.
  • Slower initial decision-making speed due to high team involvement.
  • Confusion may result from different leadership styles across teams, and this can be increased in a fast-moving environment when hiring those of position from outside the company.

What are the advantages of servant leadership?

The advantages of servant leadership include the following:

  • Improves work pride.
  • Team members feel appreciated and valued.
  • Leaders earn respect from team members.
  • Boosts team members’ morale.
  • Develops future leaders.
  • Enhances a high level of internal growth.
  • Delivers significant positive impacts on organizational performance.
  • Develops a people-focused culture.
  • Encourages greater responsibility and ownership among team members.
  • Encourages creativity, curiosity, and innovation.
  • Enhances deeper, trust-based relationships.

Why is servant leadership considered a paradox?

Servant leadership is considered paradoxical because it says that we should treat our staff as our clients, even though we hire, promote, pay, and have great power over them.


A genuine servant leader often has a great desire to serve his team. Such a leader is a charismatic decision-maker and is always effective. To be a great servant leader, you must strive for utmost clarity when setting expectations.

Visit this guide to explore more about servant leadership.




Data & News supplied by
Stock quotes supplied by Barchart
Quotes delayed at least 20 minutes.
By accessing this page, you agree to the following
Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions.
Photography by Christophe Tomatis
Copyright © 2010-2020 & California Media Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.