Original Servant Leader:
Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990)
by Don M. Frick, author of the forthcoming biography, Robert K. Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership
Robert K. Greenleaf has emerged as one of the premier figures in leadership, education, management, nonprofit and religious circles. Greenleaf wrote the book Servant Leadership (Paulist Press, 1977) in which he proposed that a leader a true leader who is trusted by followers is a servant first. This is very different from the person who believes leadership only comes with fancy titles. To be a true leader a servant-leader all you need to do is serve. Today, the headquarters of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership is in Indianapolis, with locations in nine other countries. Greenleaf's writings have been translated into dozens of languages.
Robert Greenleaf has been hailed by the top organizational leaders, people like Stephen Covey, Peter Senge, Warren Bennis and Margaret Wheatly. Peter Drucker called him "the wisest man I ever met."
Servant leadership is simple idea, with many implications. And it all started in Terre Haute.
Bob Greenleaf was born on July 14, 1904, in his parents home at 1810 North 11th Street. His father, George Greenleaf, was a machinist and master mechanic who eventually ran the "Practice Shops" at Rose Polytechnic (renamed the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in 1971) where students could help with the construction and repair of machines for commercial accounts.
George Greenleaf was also a community steward, someone who loved Terre Haute and wanted to leave it better than he found it. He was involved in union work and was a good friend of Eugene Debs. He served on the school board and the city council, and was one of a group of civic-minded citizens who worked to get the corrupt Terre Haute mayor Donn Roberts indicted and sent to Leavenworth Prison.
When the 1913 flood and tornadoes hit, George Greenleaf helped coordinate recovery efforts. He was modest and fiercely honest. He was also his son's model of a servant-leader.
Robert Greenleaf, president of his high school senior class, graduated from Wiley High School in 1922, attended Rose Polytechnic for two years and Indiana State Normal School (now Indiana State University) for one summer. He completed college in Minnesota and took a job at AT&T, then the world's largest corporation.
At AT&T he was eventually put in charge of management development and research for the company. Greenleaf took an early retirement in 1964 and began his "second career" of writing, consulting and teaching.
Robert Greenleaf's first book was published when he was sixty-six years old and he continued to write and publish until his death in 1990. His ideas about management and organizations, the ethical use of power, intuition in business, consensus decision making and dozens of other topics are still gaining worldwide power.
During his lifetime Bob Greenleaf was friends to many famous people of his time: Aldous Huxley, the Menninger brothers, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, "Bill W.," the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Thomas Watson, Jr., son of the founder of IBM, Rabbi and author Abraham Joshua Heschel, Psychiatrist Dr. Ira Progoff, adventurer and philosopher Laurens Van der Post, and many others. He always considered himself a Hoosier though, and honored the people, culture and values that he gained from a childhood in Terre Haute.
Robert Greenleaf is buried in Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute. His unusual epitaph reflects an identification with the solid, unassuming people of Indiana. It reads:
"Potentially a good plumber; ruined by a sophisticated education."
Quotes from Robert K. Greenleaf:
(Unless indicated otherwise, all quotes are from Servant Leadership: A Journey Into Legitimate Power and Greatness. (Paulist Press, 1977).
"The servant-leader is servant first...It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead."
"The best test (of a servant-leader) and difficult to administer, 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 he benefit, or, at least, will he not be further deprived?"
"The work exists for the person as much as the person exists for the work." (On Becoming a Servant Leader)
"Not much happens without a dream. And for something great to happen, there must be a great dream. Behind every great achievement is a dreamer of great dreams. Much more than a dreamer is required to bring it to reality; but the dream must be there first."
"Who is the enemy? Who is holding back more rapid movement to the better society that is reasonable and possible with available resources?...Evil, stupidity, apathy, the "system" are not the enemy...The real enemy is fuzzy thinking on the part of good, intelligent, vital people...In short, the enemy is strong natural servants who have the potential to lead but do not lead, or who choose to follow a non-servant."