“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.

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