The unexpected benefit of being of service

“Twelve ministers and theologians of all faiths and twelve psychiatrists of all faiths had convened for a two-day off-the-record seminar on the one-word theme of healing,” Robert Greenleaf writes in The Servant as Leader.

The Chairman, a psychiatrist, began the seminar by saying, “We are all healers, whether we are ministers or doctors.  Why are we in this business?  What is our motivation?”

“There followed only ten minutes of intense discussion and they were all agreed, doctors and ministers, Catholics, Jews, and Protestants,” writes Robert. 

“For our own healing,” they said.

One of the definitions of the word healing is “to make whole.”  Robert states: “The example above suggests that one really never makes it. It is always something sought.” 

As servant-leaders, is our own healing part of our motivation?

“There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led, is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share,” Robert suggests.

At PCI, doing community service projects together is part of our culture.  From working in groups at the Angel Tree and delivering gifts to families at the Salvation Army warehouse, to raising money and walking for The Race for the Cure, to cooking dinners for families at the Ronald McDonald house, to putting flowers on veterans grave sites at the Horton Veterans Cemetery.

My personal favorite project was Hearts and Hammers, organized by the city of Dallas, where groups would volunteer to paint, landscape and do exterior repairs on a specific home, usually owned by an elderly person.  Each fall 50 or so PCIers and family members would show up early on a Saturday morning and work all-day fixing up someone’s home.

A highlight of the day was always when the home owner would come outside and express their delight and gratitude for the work that had been done.  

In addition to the camaraderie and team building which results from doing good work together, I always believed the best part of the day was the happy exhaustion and warmth in our hearts that comes with being of service.

It is a similar, albeit more subtle feeling that comes with showing up every day as a servant leader.  Deep, genuine satisfaction results from helping colleagues unlock their potential. 


Reflection: What are the benefits of leading as a servant leader?

Action: Purchase a copy of The Servant as Leader and read it. 

Anybody can lead perfect people…

If there were any.  

“Many otherwise able people are disqualified to lead because they cannot work with and through the half-people who are all there are,” writes Robert Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, his powerful book about leadership.

“It is part of the enigma of human nature that the ‘typical’ person—immature, stumbling, inept, lazy is capable of great dedication and heroism if he or she is wisely led.”

To build a high-performing organization, we must learn to “weld a team of such people by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be,” writes Robert.

Exactly how do we do this?

It begins with acceptance and empathy.

People “grow taller when those who lead them empathize and when they are accepted for what they are, even though their performance may be judged critically in terms of what they are capable of doing.”

Acceptance requires a tolerance of imperfection.  Empathy requires us to project our own consciousness into another being. 

The opposite of both acceptance and empathy is rejection: to refuse to hear or receive, to throw out. 

“The servant as leader always empathizes, always accepts the person,” states Robert, “but sometimes refuses to accept some of the person’s effort or performance as good enough.”

Love the sinner.  Hate the sin.

Great leaders “may have gruff, demanding, uncompromising exteriors.  But deep down inside the great ones have empathy and an unqualified acceptance of the persons of those who go with their leadership,” Robert tells us.  

“The interest in and affection for their followers which a leader has, is a mark of true greatness when it is genuine.”  

Acceptance and empathy build trust which is the foundation for strong relationships.


Reflection:  When in the past have I shown empathy for a colleague while challenging them to perform at a higher level?

Action:  Set a goal to show greater empathy today.

What happens when our actions don’t match our values?

What is the trouble with coercive power?

It only strengthens resistance, Robert Greenleaf writes in The Servant as Leader.  “And, if successful, its controlling effect lasts only as long as the force is strong.”

There is a better way.


Robert shares the story of John Woolman, an American Quaker, who was alive at the time of the American Revolution.  Not many know the story of John Woolman. But we should as he almost singlehandedly rid the Society of Friends (Quakers) of slaves. 

“It is difficult now to imagine the Quakers as slaveholders, as indeed it is difficult now to imagine anyone being a slaveholder,” Robert writes.  “But many of the eighteenth century American Quakers were affluent, conservative slaveholders and John Woolman, as a young man, set his goal to rid his beloved Society of this terrible practice.”

John spent thirty years largely devoted to persuading his fellow Quakers to free their slaves.    

By 1770, nearly 100 years before the Civil War, no Quakers held slaves. 

“His method was unique. He didn’t raise a big storm about it or start a protest movement.  His method was one of gentle but clear and persistent persuasion,” writes Robert.  

John journeyed up and down the East Coast by foot or horseback visiting slaveholders—over a period of many years. 

“His approach was not to censure the slaveholders in a way that drew their animosity,” Robert continues.  “Rather the burden of his approach was to raise questions:  What does the owning of slaves do to you as a moral person? What kind of an institution are you binding over to your children?”

By asking questions, John led the slaveholders to realize and confront the gap between their espoused values and their actions and behaviors.   

Person by person, conversation by conversation, “by persistently returning and revisiting and pressing his gentle argument over a period of thirty years, the scourge of slavery was eliminated from this Society, the first religious group in America formally to denounce and forbid slavery among its members.” 

Previously, we explored why lack of foresight is an ethical failure.  Robert wonders: “What would have been the result if there had been fifty John Woolmans, or even five, traveling the length and breadth of the Colonies in the eighteenth century persuading people one by one with gentle nonjudgmental argument that a wrong should be righted by individual voluntary action. 

“Perhaps we would not have had the war with its 600,000 casualties and the impoverishment of the South, and with the resultant vexing social problem that is at fever heat 100 years later with no end in sight.”

Persuasion creates opportunity and alternatives so that the individual is able to make choices.  Coercion forces someone down a predetermined path.  Persuasion builds autonomy.  Coercion crushes it. 


Reflection: Consider a time in the past where my actions did not match my espoused values?  How did this feel?  What resulted?

Action:  Are there parts of my life where my actions don’t match my values?  Take action.

Why withdrawing and reorienting makes all the difference

We previously looked at the importance of learning to withdraw periodically so we can show up at our best.

Today we look at a second type of withdrawal which gives us the ability to compose ourselves in the moment.

“The cultivation of awareness gives one the basis for detachment, the ability to stand aside and see oneself in perspective in the context of one’s own experience, amidst the ever present dangers, threats, and alarms,” writes Robert Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader.  “Then one sees one’s own peculiar assortment of obligations and responsibilities in a way that permits one to sort out the urgent from the important and perhaps deal with the important.”

This ability to see the big picture and then choose where to focus is key for our overall success.

“The ability to withdraw and reorient oneself, if only for a moment, presumes that one has learned the art of systematic neglect, to sort out the more important from the less important—and the important from the urgent—and attend to the more important, even though there may be penalties and censure for the neglect of something else,” Robert observes.

In the heat of the moment when the circumstances demand a decision, we can learn to reorient ourselves.  We stay with conscious analysis as far as it will carry us, “and then withdraw, release the analytical pressure, if only for a moment, in full confidence that a resolving insight will come,” writes Robert.  “The ability to do this is the essential structural dynamic of leadership.” 

Developing this ability gives us confidence.  “Is there any other way, in the turbulent world of affairs (including the typical home), for one to maintain serenity in the face of uncertainty?” asks Robert.

Robert then shares one of the great stories of the human spirit about Jesus and the woman accused of adultery.  “Jesus is a leader; he has a goal—to bring more compassion into the lives of people. In this scene the woman is cast down before him by the mob that is challenging Jesus’s leadership. They cry, ‘The law says she shall be stoned, what do you say?’ 

“Jesus must make a decision, he must give the right answer, right in the situation, and one that sustains his leadership toward his goal. The situation is deliberately stressed by his challengers. What does he do? He sits there writing in the sand—a withdrawal device.  In the pressure of the moment, having assessed the situation rationally, he assumes the attitude of withdrawal that will allow creative insight to function. 

“He could have taken another course; he could have regaled the mob with rational arguments about the superiority of compassion over torture.  A good logical argument can be made for it.  What would the result have been had he taken that course? He did not choose to do that. He chose instead to withdraw and cut the stress—right in the event itself—in order to open his awareness to creative insight.  

“Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone.” 


Reflection:  Reflect on a time when there was pressure to make a decision.  How did I respond?  

Action:  Intentionally pause today prior to making a decision.

How to deal with stress and pressure

“Stress is a condition of most of modern life,” Robert Greenleaf writes in The Servant as Leader.  

This reality is especially true for us as servant leaders going out ahead, showing the way, and carrying the burdens of other people.

Those of us who aspire to be leaders fall into one of two camps, Robert tells us.

There are those of us who enjoy pressure. We may even seek it out because we know we perform best when the situation is intense.

And then there those of us who do not like pressure and don’t thrive under it, but who want to lead and are willing to endure the pressure in order to have the opportunity to lead.

The art of withdrawal serves both. 

“The former welcome a happy exhaustion and the latter are constantly in defense against that state,” writes Robert.  “For both the art of withdrawal is useful. To the former it is a change of pace; to the latter it is a defense against an unpleasant state.” 

As servant leaders, we must constantly ask ourselves, how can I use myself to serve best?

Pacing oneself by appropriate withdrawal is one of the best approaches to making optimal use of the resources we have been given.  


Reflection: Do I give myself enough time to withdraw to optimize my energy and focus?

Action:  Block out time this week to practice withdrawal.

The difference between intent and impact

So, when does communication actually occur?

Many of us assume communication happens when we speak.  For important conversations, we often spend time preparing so we can say exactly what it is we want to say.  We write it down.  We rehearse.

But communication doesn’t happen when we talk.  Communication happens when the other person receives and makes meaning of what has been communicated.

“Nothing is meaningful until it is related to the hearer’s own experience,” Robert Greenleaf writes in The Servant as Leader.

Our job as leaders is to communicate so that the listener makes “that leap of imagination that connects the verbal concept to the hearer’s own experience,” states Robert. 

Differentiating between intent and impact is one of the key messages in the Conscious Communication module which is part of the excellent year-long Stagen Leadership Academy‘s “Integral Leadership Program.”

Imagine an archer lining up to shoot an arrow at the target.

1: We are the archer.  We have a message we want to send to the other person or group.  Intent is what is meant.  

2: The message itself is the arrow, what we communicate.  We are not able to transfer our thoughts directly to the other person.  So, we use words, our body language, and the tone of our voice.  

But these will always be an approximation of our thoughts.  Robert quotes the physicist and philosopher Percy Bridgman says, “No linguistic structure is capable of reproducing the full complexity of experience.” 

“No language can be anything but elliptical, requiring a leap of imagination to understand its meaning in its relevance to immediate experience,” adds Alfred North Whitehead. 

3:  The target represents the impact of the message we sent, how it is heard and interpreted.  If the listener hears and interprets the message exactly as we intended, we’ve shot a bulls-eye.  

Unfortunately, this rarely happens.  More times than not, we hit one of the outer rings.  Other times, we miss the target altogether. 

In our minds, we’ve communicated the message.  We’ve shot the arrow.  We don’t realize we’ve missed the target. 

Why is there so often a difference between intent and impact? 

We may lack the skills to articulate the message accurately to reflect our thoughts.  Or, the other person may interpret what we’ve said differently than what we intended due to their assumptions and beliefs.  

As leaders, we are wise to consider carefully the mindset of those to whom we are communicating.  Our goal is to tempt our listeners to make that “leap of imagination.” 

“One of the arts of communicating is to say just enough to facilitate that leap,” writes Robert.  “Many attempts to communicate are nullified by saying too much.”

Silence, too, is also effective.

“One must not be afraid of a little silence.  Some find silence awkward or oppressive. But a relaxed approach to dialogue will include the welcoming of some silence,” Robert adds.  

“It is often a devastating question to ask oneself, but it is sometimes important to ask in. “In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?’” 


Reflection:  Think of a recent conversation that went off the tracks.  What might I have done differently?

Action:  Check for understanding during a conversation today.  

Why is there so little listening?

We are about to enter a confrontation.  What is our mindset?  

Is our basic attitude of one seeking to understand?

A new leader had recently been named head of a large, important and difficult-to-administer public institution.  After a short time in the role, he realized things weren’t going well.  He decided to do an experiment, Robert Greenleaf shares in The Servant as Leader.  

For three months, he stopped reading or watching the news.  Instead, he relied wholly upon those he worked with to tell him what was going on.  

In three months his administrative problems were resolved: “No miracles were wrought; but out of a sustained intentness of listening that was produced by this unusual decision, this able man learned and received the insights needed to set the right course,” writes Robert.  

“And he strengthened his team by so doing.” 

Why is there so little listening? Why is this example so exceptional? 

When faced with difficulty, many time we react by asking: Who is to blame?    

As servant leaders, when we have a problem, we ask a different question:  “What can I do about my problem?” 

When we choose this path we will likely respond by listening.  Many times someone will tell us what the problem is and recommend a path forward.  Or, perhaps we hear enough to get an intuitive insight to resolve it.

“The servant-leader is functionally superior because he or she is closer to the ground,” writes Robert.  

When we seek to understand, we hear things, see things, and learn things that give us intuitive insight.  Because of that we are dependable and trusted.

“The best test of whether we are communicating at this depth is to ask ourselves, first, are we really listening?  Are we listening to the one we want to communicate to?” asks Robert.  “Remember that great line from the prayer of St. Francis, ‘Lord, grant that I may not seek so much to be understood as to understand.’” 

Roberts suggests that learning to listen first is a key strategy for us who aspire to servant leadership.  He writes: “I have seen enough remarkable transformations in people who have been trained to listen to have some confidence in this approach.”

Why does this approach work?

“It is because true listening builds strength in other people,” he states. 

Learning to listen also transforms the listener.  The servant leader “views any problem in the world as in here, inside him or herself, not out there,” Robert writes.  “And if a flaw in the world is to be remedied, to the servant the process of change starts in here, in the servant, not out there.”

As we enter the holiday season, let us consider and appreciate some additional words of wisdom from Robert:  “So it is with joy.  Joy is inward, it is generated inside. It is not found outside and brought in.  It is for those who accept the world as it is, part good, part bad, and who identify with the good by adding a little island of serenity to it.”


Reflection:  What’s my default setting: seek to understand, or to be understood? 

Action:  Talk less.  Listen more today.

Past, Present, and Future as “now”

How do we become better leaders?

How do we become better servant leaders?  


What skills do we need to develop?  What do we need to focus on? 

Those are the questions we are exploring this week as we look at the key lessons from The Servant as Leader by Robert Greenleaf.

One key element of leadership is foresight.  “A mark of a leader, an attribute that puts them in a position to show the way for others, is that they are better than most at pointing the direction,” writes Robert.

Foresight is what gives leaders their “lead,” what qualifies us to show the way, Robert tells us.

“Leaders must be more creative than most,” Robert states.  “And creativity is largely discovery, a push into the uncharted and the unknown.”

To be a servant leader, we must develop our ability to “have a sense for the unknowable and be able to foresee the unforeseeable.”


And how exactly do we do that?

Part of the answer, Robert explains, is by expanding our understanding of “now.”

“The common assumption about the word ‘now’ is that it is this instant moment of clock time now,” Robert writes.  

Instead, what if we think of “now” like the spread of light from a narrowly focused beam?

“There is a bright intense center, this moment of clock time, and a diminishing intensity, theoretically out to infinity on either side.  As viewed here, now includes all of this—all of history and all of the future,” Robert writes.  

Foresight involves having an understanding of what has already happened and an intuition about what will happen hereafter.

The servant leader “constantly thinks of “now” as the moving concept in which past, present moment, and future are one organic unity,” writes Robert. “What we note in the present moment of clock time is merely the intense focus that is connected with what has gone on in the past and what will happen in the future.”     

“The prescient [person] has a sort of “moving average” mentality (to borrow a statistician’s term) in which past, present, and future are one, bracketed together and moving along as the clock ticks. The process is continuous,” writes Robert. 

Developing this mindset allows us to know and foresee what we were not able to know and foresee previously. 

Which is the mark of a servant leader.


Reflection:  When in the past has my intuition proved to be correct?  Analyze how my thoughts unfolded.  

Action:  Consider a current challenge.  Journal about what I think will happen.

Why Able Leaders are Sharply Awake and Reasonably Disturbed 

“Most of us move about with very narrow perception, sight, sound, smell, tactile and we miss most of the grandeur that is in the minutest thing, the smallest experience,” writes Robert Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader.

We also miss leadership opportunities.

“A qualification for leadership,” Robert writes, “is that one can tolerate a sustained wide span of awareness so that [we] better see it as it is.'”

So far this week we’ve explored how going out ahead to show the way is the essence of leadership.  This capability requires us as leaders to be open to inspiration which means we must live with a heightened sense of awareness.  

“When one is aware,” Robert writes, “there is more than the usual alertness, more intense contact with the immediate situation, and more is stored away in the unconscious computer to produce intuitive insights in the future when needed.” 

Living this way is not for everyone.  

“Awareness is not a giver of solace it is just the opposite,” writes Robert. “It is a disturber and an awakener.  Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed.  They are not seekers after solace. They have their own inner serenity.”

For those of us who aspire to leadership, Robert reminds us of the importance of cultivating and living by a core set of values. 

“A leader must have more of an armor of confidence in facing the unknown—more than those who accept his or her leadership.  This is partly anticipation and preparation, but it is also a very firm belief that in the stress of real-life situations one can compose oneself in a way that permits the creative process to operate.” 

Living with a heightened sense of awareness has its risks, Robert tells us.  But it makes life more interesting and certainly strengthens our effectiveness as leaders. 


Reflection:  What stands in the way of me becoming more aware?

Action:  Be intentional about being more aware today.

How Servant Leaders Build Trust

As servant leaders, what is the relationship between taking action and building trust?

This week we are looking at key learnings from Robert Greenleaf‘s seminal work on leadership The Servant as Leader.  Yesterday we looked at the primacy of initiative: everything begins with the initiative of the individual.  Leadership is about going out ahead and showing the way. He or she says, “I will go, follow me!” when we know the path is uncertain, even dangerous, writes Robert.

Taking action is step one.  Building trust is step two.  

“The one who states the goal must elicit trust, especially if it is a high risk or visionary goal, because those who follow are asked to accept the risk along with the leader,” Robert writes.

To build trust, we must engender confidence in (1) our values, (2) our competence (including our judgement) and (3) what Robert calls “our sustaining spirit (entheos) that will support the tenacious pursuit of a goal.”

Robert’s formula for building trust mirrors that which Stephen L. Covey outlines in The Speed of Trust: character and competence.  Robert adds, however, the sustaining spirit which is so often required for success over the long-term.

The servant leader builds trust and trusts those who go with us.

These character strengths are captured in the story of Nikolaj Grundtvig.  Robert writes: “What he gave was his love for the peasants, his clear vision of what they must do for themselves, his long articulate dedication—some of it through very barren years, and his passionately communicated faith in the worth of these people and their strength to raise themselves—if only their spirit could be aroused.  It is a great story of the supremacy of the spirit.”


Reflection:  How would I characterize the level of trust in my relationships? 

Action:  Take a specific action to build trust today.

Why Aren’t There More and Better Leaders?

“Who is responsible for the mediocre performance of so many of our institutions?” Robert Greenleaf asks in The Servant as Leader.

His answer is surprising.

“Not evil people. Not stupid people. Not apathetic people. Not the “system,’” Robert writes.  “The better society will come, if it comes, with plenty of evil, stupid, apathetic people around and with an imperfect, ponderous, inertia-charged “system” as the vehicle for change.” 

The real reason for the mediocre performance?

Too many people are content to be critics and experts.  Rather than taking action, we are content to stay on the sidelines criticizing and pontificating.

 “There is too much intellectual wheel spinning, too much retreating into “research,” too little preparation for and willingness to undertake the hard and high-risk tasks of building better institutions in an imperfect world,” Robert writes.  And: “Too little disposition to see ‘the problem’ as residing in here and not out there.”

What can we do instead?

“Everything begins with the initiative of the individual.”

Everything.  Begins.  With.  The.  Initiative.  Of.  The.  Individual.

There is so much truth and wisdom in that short sentence.

Robert’s sharp writing brings to mind Teddy Roosevelt‘s wonderful speech about the person in the ring (one of my all-time favorite quotations):

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Robert writes: “The very essence of leadership is going out ahead to show the way.”  

The servant leader “initiates, provides the ideas and the structure, and takes the risk of failure along with the chance of success. [They] say, ‘I will go, follow me!’ when [they] know that the path is uncertain, even dangerous.”

A servant leader is “better than most at pointing the direction,” Robert writes.  As long as we are leading, we always have a goal: “By clearly stating and restating the goal the leader gives certainty and purpose to others who may have difficulty in achieving it for themselves.”

Robert has a very specific meaning for the word “goal.”  Here is where it gets really interesting.

“The word goal is used here in the special sense of the overarching purpose, the big dream, the visionary concept, the ultimate consummation which one approaches but never really achieves. It is something presently out of reach; it is something to strive for, to move toward, or become,” Robert writes.  “It is so stated that it excites the imagination and challenges people to work for something they do not yet know how to do, something they can be proud of as they move toward it.

“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.”

Another of my favorite quotes!  Pure poetry.

Note: check out Brene Brown‘s perspective on T.R.’s powerful speech   Daring greatly, indeed! 


Reflection:  Are there times when I show up as the critic or expert?

Action:  Is there an initiative I’ve been putting off?  Take action.  Today.