Robert K. Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership

Robert K. Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership

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by Don M. Frick

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Thousands if not millions of people have heard the term “servant leadership,” introduced by Robert K. Greenleaf in his landmark essay The Servant as Leader, published in 1970. There are now Centers for Servant Leadership in ten countries and counting. His work is regularly cited by some of the most prominent business writers and leaders in the world, such


Thousands if not millions of people have heard the term “servant leadership,” introduced by Robert K. Greenleaf in his landmark essay The Servant as Leader, published in 1970. There are now Centers for Servant Leadership in ten countries and counting. His work is regularly cited by some of the most prominent business writers and leaders in the world, such as Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Peter Senge, Margaret Wheatley, and Peter Block. And yet until now there has been no biography of the man who first developed this revolutionary idea.
Don Frick was given unfettered access to all of Greenleaf’s papers and correspondence. The result is a fascinating book that details the sources of Greenleaf’s thought, describes his friendships with dozens of well-known people, and shows how he influenced business history well before his first book was published at the age of 73, and lived his own life as a servant leader.
As Director of Management Research at AT&T for 38 years, Greenleaf was known as “AT&T’s Kept Revolutionary.” Among other unusual initiatives, he oversaw a novel program which taught executive decision making through great literature, established the first corporate assessment center using knowledge gleaned from the OSS’s approach to training civilian spies during World War II, and invited leading philosophers and theologians to have conversations with AT&T executives.
After a period of soul searching and some surprising experiments in consciousness, Greenleaf retired from AT&T and began to develop the concept of servant leadership, the then-heretical notion that leaders lead best by serving their followers rather than “commanding” them. He continued to promote the idea through teaching, writing, and consulting until his last years, and was instrumental in creating a score of important organizations such as The Center for Creative Leadership and Yokefellow Institute.
Always, Greenleaf was a seeker opening himself up to novel experiences and astonishing people. He was a complex person—an introvert who served in public roles, a wise person who refused to give others “The Answer,” a brilliant thinker who often declared, “I am not a scholar.” His grave carries the epitaph he wrote for himself: “Potentially a good plumber; ruined by a sophisticated education.”

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Robert K. Greenleaf


Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Don M. Frick
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-276-0

Chapter One

Breakthrough to a Paradox

Great ideas, it is said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps, then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Albert Camus

No one knows what triggers a revelation, or even an insight. Some say it is a mechanical combination of existing ideas. Others argue that inspiration comes from beyond, a luminous gift of God. Many believe dreams conspire with the non-conscious mind to dramatize fresh possibilities. Breakthroughs often come when the mind is relaxed and the doors of perception are open.

Bob Greenleaf had the revelation of his life while driving an Arizona highway, his wife at his side, with a sense of frustration gnawing at him. It happened in the unsettled October of 1968. America's university campuses were in an uproar because of the Vietnam war, racial unrest, riots, assassinations, and the alienation and fierce idealism of youth. College presidents were worried; faculties were divided.

The charter class of Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona was entering its junior year. The school had been founded in 1966 as an experiment in the advanced educational theories of the time: experiential learning, personal development through independent living (no residence halls), open classrooms that welcomed adults with established careers and recent high school graduates, opportunities for independent study, and shared governance. Ronald Nairn, a teacher in his first administrative job, was the school's president. He invited an unlikely consultant—sixty-four-year-old Robert K. Greenleaf—to facilitate ten days of voluntary afternoon seminars with freshman students on the subject of leadership.

Before beginning a career as consultant, Greenleaf had served as head of management research at AT&T. He retired in 1964 to found the Center for Applied Ethics and begin a peripatetic journey among the leaders of America's universities, corporations, and foundations. Greenleaf had gray, thinning hair and a certain severe look that was softened by his devilish wit and a habit of listening intently, often responding with a twinkle in the eye rather than with words. Bob's wife Esther was with him in Arizona. She was a first-rate visual artist, Bob's intellectual equal, and his lifelong teacher about the practical uses of intuition.

The consultancy did not go well. Even here, in the fresh Arizona air full of possibility, there was conflict in 1968. The faculty, up in arms about the very idea of student seminars, exerted influence to sabotage the project. When the misadventure ended, Bob and Esther began the drive to their next destination in California. Bob was frustrated. He accepted the lion's share of the blame. A natural introvert, he always welcomed the opportunity to be alone with Esther, with whom he could be quiet or think out loud. He told Esther the experience was "a total failure. I couldn't get over to young people the notion of their opportunities to lead. Maybe I should just start to write and let it go where it wants to go."

Earlier that year, Bob had given a series of lectures to the Dartmouth Alumni College on the topic "Leadership and the Individual." In them, he criticized universities for fostering anti-leadership attitudes. By Bob's reckoning, universities had lost sight of their purpose, which he believed was to serve the needs of students. Worse, they tended to kill spirit, the deep impulse of the soul, the gift of ultimate mystery. Without spirit, which made life worthwhile, and without overarching goals to direct the energy of spirit, universities could be coercive, staff and students cynical, and consultants irrelevant.

The car droned westward, following the weaving the roads that would take the Greenleafs from the mile-high town of Prescott, which was experiencing its driest season in twenty years, to the moist, sea-level city of San Francisco. Both sat in quiet reflection. For Robert Greenleaf, reflection was not so much an active process of thinking about details of an issue as a mental emptying to make space for his whole self to contribute. He trusted the deep nudgings of intuition. For him, this was not a mystical approach to problems, but a practical one. Then, as had happened so many times before in his life, Bob had a flash of insight that changed things forever. He remembered the Hermann Hesse book Journey to the East, and the story of Leo. The narrator of the book described how Leo, who began the tale as a menial servant to a traveling band of seekers, was in fact the leader of the mystical order the group was seeking. Suddenly, a two-word phrase popped into his mind: servant-leader. That said it all. It described what he was trying to communicate to the people at Prescott; they should all lead by serving each other. True servants operate out of love. True leaders seek to serve those who are led. People who serve are, in fact, leaders and followers. This one paradoxical phrase seemed to sum up the goal of his entire career: to lead through service and encourage people and institutions to serve first. In fact, it described—in spite of all his personal foibles and internal contradictions—the underlying theme of his whole life.

Esther knew that this idea, like so many proposed by her unusual husband, would steep in his mind until it found the right time for expression. He treated ideas like she treated the visual images of her art, using them to strike out in certain directions to see what happened. Even though an end result is in mind, one does not block the gifts of inspiration by planning each detail in advance.

The servant-leader idea matured more quickly than most. Soon after they returned to their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bob's internal clock told him it was time to sit down and write. He let the words flow with little concern for academic methods of linear outlining or exposition. He called his little essay, The Servant as Leader.

Robert Greenleaf didn't know it at the time, but from the date that seminal work was published in 1970 until his death in 1990, he would continue to write more essays—and a novel—on the servant theme. He would do more than write, though. He would teach, encourage, listen, reflect, and disseminate ideas like a bumblebee on a life-sustaining pollinating mission. Bob Greenleaf's work was destined to directly affect religion, education, government, and for-profit and not-for-profit organizations and foundations. His thinking would inspire efforts as diverse as the Center for Creative Leadership in North Carolina; the Yokefellow Institute in Richmond, Indiana; the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis; and the TORO Company in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Before his death, Bob's ideas would advance the disciplines of management theory, organizational development, service learning, assessment theory, and leadership studies, to name just a few.

None of this activity was part of a master plan when he sent two hundred copies of The Servant as Leader to selected friends and colleagues around the country for their thoughtful responses. He was simply doing what he had always done—responding to the promptings of an inner gyroscope. He knew he had hit upon a catchy phrase—servant-leader—but could not suspect that it would allow him to turn his life's experiences into a practical philosophy of service, excellence and inspiration for others.

His own life had embraced all the elements of a servant philosophy, plus a few darker themes. It had done so since his earliest days in Terre Haute, Indiana, a city and a state that offered glory and paradox that paralleled his own inner struggles.

Chapter Two

First Light

This is a most peculiar state. Almost invariably, on so-called clear days in July and August out here, an indescribable haze over everything leaves the horizons unaccounted for and the distance a sort of mystery. This, it has always seemed to me, is bound to produce in certain types of mind a kind of unrest. In such light, buzzards hanging high above you or crows flying over the woods are no longer merely the things that they are but become the symbols of a spiritual, if I may use the word, or aesthetic, suggestiveness that is inescapable.... Franklin Booth, quoted in A Hoosier Holiday, by Theodore Dreiser

In the early morning hours of July 14, 1904, George Greenleaf settled and opened the Terre Haute Morning Star. Medical matters were on his mind today, and that's why the story about Carl Kitchner caught his eye. It said that Kitchner, "a patriotic little American lying on a bed of pain" had been diagnosed with lockjaw [tetanus]. The four-year-old was hurt on July 4 when he was injured by wadding from a toy pistol. Unfortunately, tetanus was not one of the diseases treated by Dr. Ward, "The Old Reliable Specialist," who advertised cures for rheumatism, nervous disability, stammering, and diseases of men. His ad boasted that "he does not treat all diseases but cures all he treats." Mr. Greenleaf was relieved that his family physician was Dr. Charles F. Gerstmeyer, an able man who was admired in the community both for his medical skills and his untiring efforts in promoting technical education. George's wife Burchie was already showing signs of labor, so today was likely the day when his good doctor friend would be called to the Greenleaf home.

George Greenleaf was intensely interested in politics and noted the Star's report that well-known Hoosier author Booth Tarkington had written from Europe saying he'd like to be nominated as a state senator from Indianapolis—as if he could have the nomination just for the asking! There was a story that Terre Haute was eagerly awaiting the visit of labor leader Mother Jones, "The Angel of the Mines," who was scheduled to speak on Saturday evening.

As if on cue, distant whistles interrupted George's reading, announcing the beginning of a coal mine's morning shift. Good! Lord knows coal miners needed all the work they could get. With six mines near the city, and coal running the steam engines that gave primal energy to the factories and locomotives, King Coal's future in Terre Haute was unlimited.

George took a moment to reflect on the growth of the city of his birth, a model of Midwestern industry. Terre Haute (French for "high ground"), located on the western edge of Indiana and the eastern bank of the Wabash river, sat at the intersection of two of the country's most important highways: the east-west National Road (now U.S. 40), and the north-south Dixie Bee Highway (U.S. 41). Swift electric streetcars and interurban lines moved people cheaply and efficiently between destinations. Horses pulled carriages and delivery trucks through the raucous streets, but they had to avoid the new horseless carriages, like the one bought that year by Dr. George L. Dickerson, a physician who listed office hours in George's morning paper as, "every day in the year from 8 to 12, 1 to 5, and 7 to 8 o'clock." Nine railroad lines radiated from Terre Haute to all parts of the state and country. Seventy-five years of industrial development had attracted a polyglot population with heritages as diverse as German, Irish, African-American, Jewish, Syrian, French, Italian, Hungarian, and other Southern and Eastern European nationalities. It was a city of factories and tradespeople and robust working men—laborers and craftsmen who knew how to use their hands, muscles, and machines to make a living and forge a future. Men of common sense and hot, sweaty work. Men whose hard lives were leavened by the civilizing influence of their women and a few public-minded community stewards. George Greenleaf understood these men. He was one of them, with experience as a grocer and skills gained working as a machinist and steam-engine mechanic.

George returned to reading the Star and noticed a story that made him wonder whether the growing prohibition movement would affect Terre Haute's largest industries—her distilleries. His city was home to some of the largest whiskey distilleries in the world. The front page story, in its entirety, read:

CARRIE NATION SPOKE (By Star Special Services)

MADISON, Ind., July 13 - Carrie Nation addressed a large audience here tonight.

During the day she destroyed several liquor signs.

George heard the rooster cock-a-doodle in his back yard and looked up to see dawn breaking over Terre Haute, drenching his beloved city with the yellow-white light of progressive optimism that would banish shadows all across this great land. Yes, Terre Haute was booming, and Indiana was humming. Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House, and America was on the move. Mr. Greenleaf believed every person in America could make a difference, so he expected the world to shift imperceptibly when a new Greenleaf appeared on this fine summer day, joining older sister Lavinia June Greenleaf, who had been born four years earlier.

Later on that cloudy Thursday of July 14, 1904, Dr. Gerstmeyer delivered a blue-eyed boy into this seemingly ordinary Terre Haute working family residing at 1810 North 11th Street. Mother and son were both healthy. The child was promptly named Robert Kiefner Greenleaf, Kiefner being his mother's maiden name. On the day of Bob's birth, George Washington Greenleaf was thirty-four years old, and Burchie Mae Greenleaf was twenty-seven.

George stepped out of the house into the humid July air, leaving behind the cries of a small life astonished to be part of a new and confusing world. Mr. Greenleaf was a man of high integrity and deep beliefs but not one who gushed emotions. He was, in fact, a person who trusted his interior life, who pondered before he spoke and meant what he said. Still, his emotions were running high today. He had a son! A son to teach and mold. A son who would tag along with him on work and community activities that only a male could enjoy in this enlightened time. A son who would grow up to live nearby, give him grandchildren, and be there for him in his old age. George looked forward to getting to know this new life, this son. Would he have the temperament of his father or of his mother? Time would tell, but George hoped for the best. He did know one thing: a son changes a man's life in ways that are different than the changes wrought by a daughter.

Back in the house, something was also changing for Burchie Greenleaf. Mrs. Greenleaf was an attractive but volatile woman. Her ways were often mysterious and troublesome to her soft-spoken husband. For four years, she had dutifully stayed home with her daughter June, caring for her adequately. On the day of Bob's birth, Burchie Greenleaf oddly began to lose interest in June. This disaffection went beyond the usual family dynamic of focusing more attention on the newest arrival; it was simple neglect. No one knew why this dynamic evolved, and young Bob would not realize that it had happened until after his mother's death. In later years, Bob would find a family picture that told the whole sad story. It was taken when he was about four years old. His reflections on it yielded a surprise:

The two children were seated in front of the parents. In front of Father, I was well dressed and looked happy. My sister, in front of her mother, looked sad, was poorly dressed, hair unbrushed—a shocking contrast. I marvel that she was a constructive contributor to society and lived such a long life.

George Greenleaf's intuitive genius with machines provided the prospect for his family's long-term security during this zenith of the Industrial Age, but the family was not yet secure, either physically or emotionally. For one thing, the Greenleafs did not live long enough in any location to feel settled. Soon after Bob's birth, they moved to an old one-story house on Washington Avenue. Bob's first faint recollection was of that home.

Mr. Greenleaf was a gentle, soft-spoken man with a steel backbone when it came to matters of principle. Still, he could be angered. For the rest of his life, Bob would remember two times when his father spanked him. The first was when Bob called him "a redhead." The second occurred when Bob popped a cracker into his father's mouth while he was taking a nap and snoring. In those days, even mild-mannered fathers expected more than a modicum of respect from their children.


Excerpted from Robert K. Greenleaf by DON M. FRICK Copyright © 2004 by Don M. Frick. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Don M. Frick is coeditor of the book On Becoming a Servant Leader. A trainer and consultant, he lives in Indianapolis.

PETER M. SENGE is the founding chairperson of the Society for Organizational Learning and a senior lecturer at MIT. He is the co-author of "The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, The Dance of Change," and "Schools That Learn "(part of the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook series)" "and has lectured extensively throughout the world. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

LARRY C. SPEARS is the Chief Executive Officer of The Robert K. Greenleaf Center, which was founded in 1969 and originally called the Center for Applied Ethics. The Center's mission is to carry the message of servant-leadership originated by Greenleaf, who was the Director of Management Research at AT&T, where he worked for thirty-eight years. Mr. Spears is also the editor of Insights on Leadership and Reflections on Leadership (both from Wiley).
MICHELE LAWRENCE has been with the Greenleaf Center since 1993, working in many programmatic capacities, including directing their annual international conference and editing their quarterly newsletter.

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