Who was Robert Greenleaf?

Robert K. Greenleaf was an American original, an essayist in the tradition of Emerson. Back in 1970, he wrote a small essay called The Servant As Leader, which introduced the term "servant-leadership." That and other writings have influenced an entire generation of management experts and institutional leaders. 

Bob Greenleaf (1904-1990) spent his first career in management research, development and education at AT&T. After retirement, he began a second career teaching and consulting at institutions ranging from Harvard Business School to the Ford Foundation to scores of churches and not-for-profit institutions.

During the tumultuous 1960s, Greenleaf tried to understand why so many young people were in rebellion against America's institutions, especially universities. He concluded that the fault lay with the institutions: they weren't doing a good job of serving, therefore, they were doing a poor job of leading.

In 1970, Greenleaf wrote The Servant as Leader, a powerful little essay that continues to gain influence today. In it, Greenleaf described some of the characteristics and activities of servant-leaders, providing examples which show that individual efforts, inspired by vision and a servant ethic, can make a substantial difference in the quality of society.

Greenleaf said true leaders are chosen by their followers. He discussed the skills necessary to be a servant-leader, the importance of awareness, foresight and listening, and the contrasts between coercive, manipulative, and persuasive power.

A few years later, (1972) Greenleaf published a second essay, The Institution As Servant, which was based on the idea that institutions could also be servants. Greenleaf said that much of the caring for persons in today's society is mediated by large, complex institutions. The Institution As Servant challenges conventional wisdom about hierarchical organization and the use of power in our major institutions. Trustees and leaders in churches, businesses, and universities will think about organizational structure in a fresh way after reading this essay.

As he continued to reflect on the way organizations operate, Greenleaf realized that institutions were controlled by trustees. This reflection prompted a third essay in 1974, Trustees As Servants. It is a must-read for any trustees or directors who would venture to become powerful forces in regenerating trust.

This essay seeks to address the needs of senior executives for sustained, caring (but demanding) assistance from able trustees. Drawing on a lifetime of experience in institutions, Greenleaf addressed the ambiguity of the trustee role and offered ideas on how each trustee group can claim its rightful functions.

Until his death in 1990, Robert Greenleaf kept writing on the themes of management, servanthood, organizations, power and spirituality. The Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership sells many of these essays, including the original three described above

The Greenleaf Center has just released the fruit of three years of labor in the Greenleaf archives: two new books of previously unpublished writings by Robert K. Greenleaf, On Becoming a Servant-Leader, and The Seeker and Servant, both published in April, 1996, by Jossey-Bass Publishers, Inc. The Greenleaf Center also offers the authoritative anthology Reflections on Leadership: How Robert K. Greenleaf's Theory of Servant-Leadership Influenced Today's Top Management Thinkers, published in May, 1995, by John Wiley and Sons.

Robert Greenleaf's ideas sound "soft" to some people. They go against the grain of common wisdom about organizations and power. But after reading him and reading comments of people who knew him, you will realize that in addition to being a pragmatist--he said "management is the study of how things get done"--Bob Greenleaf was also a man of great spirit. He believed that spirit was a practical thing, and that belief shone through in all of his writing.