3-2 Part I: Concept and Spirituality of Servant Leadership
In 1970, retired AT&T executive Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term servant-leadership to describe a kind of leadership that he felt was largely missing from organizations. It was Greenleaf's belief that leadership ought to be based on serving the needs of others and on helping those who are served to become "healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants." Over the next 20 years, Greenleaf wrote a series of highly influential books and essays, which have helped lead the way for the emerging model in leadership and management.
The idea of the servant-as-leader came partly out of Greenleaf's half-century of experience in working to shape large institutions. However, the event that crystallized Greenleaf's thinking came in the 1960s when he read Herman Hesse's short novel, Journey to the Eastan account of a mythical journey by a group of people on a spiritual quest. The central figure of the story is Leo, who accompanies the party as the servant and who sustains them with his caring spirit. All goes well with the journey until one day Leo disappears. The group quickly falls into disarray, and the journey is abandoned. They discover that they cannot make it without the servant, Leo. After many years of searching, the narrator of the story stumbles upon Leo and is taken into the religious order that had sponsored the original journey. There, he discovers that Leo, who he had first known as a servant, was in fact the head of the order, its guiding spirit and leader.
After reading this story, Greenleaf concluded that the central meaning of it was that the great leader is first experienced as a servant to others, and that this simple fact is central to his or her greatness. True leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a deep desire to help others.
In Greenleaf's own words, "First, I did not get the notion of the servant as leader from conscious logic. Rather it came to me as an intuitive insight as I contemplated Leo. Serving and leading are still mostly intuition-based concepts in my thinking."
Religious leaders. Over the course of his life, Greenleaf studied and met many people whose lives exhibited the inner strength and spirit of servant leaders and influenced his writing. Foremost among these "great spirit" images as he called them were a number of religious leaders. We credit them here briefly to document the religious heritage inherent in Greenleaf's work.
In a 1980's essay on the inner city church as a servant to its community, Greenleaf cites the lives of two pastors who invested over fifty years of their lives in building community institutions, Nikolai Grundtvig (1783-1872) known as the father of the Danish folk high schools, and John Frederic Oberlin (1740-1826) for whom Oberlin College is named. In a 1982 paper on church leadership of the United Methodist Church Greenleaf writes of John Woolman, an American Quaker who almost single-handedly rid the Society of Friends of slaves in the middle years of the eighteenth century. In a 1986 essay, he