If congregations and seminaries are to find new life, leadership is crucial; but what is leadership, and how is it practiced? These are questions I connect most of all with Robert K. Greenleaf, whom I first met through his book Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. For many years, Bob Greenleaf was an in-house consultant for AT&T serving in different roles as teacher, advisor, and occasional speech writer. Most of all, he was concerned with how AT&T and other organizations actually worked. At the same time, he read widely and leaned toward the Quaker faith and practice. Early in his career Bob decided that when he became sixty, he would retire from corporate life in order to work as a consultant to nonprofit institutions, colleges, and universities. In his later years he worked increasingly with churches and theological seminaries.

Over the years, I met with him for what became a continuing seminar on leadership and the nature of institutions. He was a teacher and a tough mentor in his own soft-spoken way. There was plenty of idealism in Bob Greenleaf, but little sentimentality. He was encouraging, yet unrelenting in not allowing any retreat from reality. In particular, he helped me see that regardless of how much we might want to define leadership on our own terms, the fact is that the distinctive needs of a school, church, or any other organization create the setting in which the actual form of leadership is shaped. What we might like to do could be interesting and important, but it could also be very much beside the point of the leadership that is called for in a particular moment of institutional life. The hard edge of leadership is recognizing and accepting the cost of the work you may be called to do. This takes insight, no little courage and, most of all, faith.

Leadership centers in the care of the people who make up an organization and the mission of the organization itself. It focuses on the development of a shared vision through the continuing analysis and interpretation of the assumptions on which an organization bases its work. It pays attention to the systems and connections that comprise the culture of the institution. Obviously, the kind of leadership that Robert Greenleaf calls us to consider is transformative. This work of leadership is to help the people of an institution discern their calling and envision what it means for organizational life. Bob used the word “lead” in the sense of going “out ahead to show the way” rather than in the more typical focus on administration and management. Neither maintenance of the status quo nor coercive or manipulative tactics to achieve goals had anything to do with what he perceived as leadership. Leading, in his view, had to do with courage and risk. “To lead is to go out ahead and show the way when the way may be unclear, difficult, or dangerous—it is not just walking at the head of the parade,” he said in The Servant as Religious Leader. It requires the willingness to live within the vision of a new possibility, but it insists on the patience to let that vision unfold and by its own power persuade others to follow in that direction. In this regard, leadership at the deepest levels is a matter of Spirit.

Beyond Stereotypes
One of the most common stereotypes of leadership is the image of the enthusiastic troop leader—a kind of corporate cheerleader conducting group building exercises before the doors open at Wal-Mart. On a more sophisticated level, the image is that of the motivational seminar for executives, which is characterized by leadership posed with unrelenting good humor and positive appeal. There is nothing wrong with good humor or positive appeal, but neither necessarily has much to do with leadership rooted in spirituality.

Instead of enthusiasm, Robert Greenleaf suggests that we should bring back into usage the word entheos, which means “possessed of the spirit.” We more commonly employ “enthusiasm,” which originally had the connotation of being a more superficial form of entheosEntheos refers to the fundamental spirit that informs our sense of self, provides energy, permits us to go beyond our own self-imposed boundaries, and helps us connect our individual concerns with public issues. In a theological perspective, entheos draws upon the Holy Spirit, which gives us life; it is the energy and imagination of God that can redeem our outworn images and tepid commitments.

The primary level of leadership is at the level of vocation: the basic calling of the institution. For religious institutions, this sometimes suggests a form of long-range planning that has little to do with the life of the organization itself. We dream of what we would like to be and create a long list of goals that are far removed from the reality of the institution we serve. To consider vocation, however, is to deal with the actual context and to trust that, within this setting, God calls us to discern the vision and the mission out of which we will shape the work of the institution. This means struggling with the reality of the institution, looking at its data, testing the quality of its service, and reading all this information as a clue to what God might be saying, even if the message is one we do not want to hear.

Vital Questions
The work of leadership is a matter of living within questions that raise the issue of vocation. There are essentially four persisting questions:

  1. Who are we and where did we come from? 
  2. Where are we going? 
  3. What will it take to get us there? 
  4. How will we know how we are doing?

These are basic, strategic questions. Given the unpredictable economic and social climate in which organizations now have to function, these questions help an institution pay attention to its context and constituency. A fifth question that might be added to the basic four is one that Robert Greenleaf often asked of organizations, “Who would miss you if you no longer existed?”

The constant temptation of all institutions, especially religious ones, is the desire to be something other than what they are called to become. Instead of looking at the uniqueness of the mission that is ours, we tend to imitate existing models and try to transplant those ideal models to our own organizations. More and more we try to do all sorts of things that we have seen other institutions do successfully, only to find that we do not do them distinctively very well at all. In the effort to imitate, we lose sight of what we are called to be and to do.

A primary responsibility of leadership, then, is to see that the continuing inquiry into the nature and purpose of the institution is sustained and supported. It is not the leader’s responsibility to answer all the questions, but to maintain the institution’s ongoing conversation about things that matter—its fidelity to the vision and the people it serves. Most important, this level of leadership is expressed in telling the story of the institution, interpreting its history, and searching for the metaphors and symbols that embody its vision and mission. The best theologies and theories of leadership have always known that organizations are communities of learning and that teaching is the central role of leadership.

In this regard, Robert Greenleaf saw that the leader’s work is essentially that of equipping the members of an organization for the work of discerning the vision that calls it to life. It is the effort to help an organization recognize the reality in which it lives and the ways in which that reality calls the institution to rethink its purpose and reexamine its practices. This is shared work that requires a sense of collaboration and mutuality.

A few years ago, I was on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky. At an early morning service, I heard one of the monks begin a homily with the words: “If you take your life seriously, it has style.” The kind of style that the Trappist monk was referring to has nothing to do with fads or fashion; rather, it refers to the cultivation of an ordered life that comes from faithfulness to purposes that shape our commitments and form our practices of work and relationship. Style, in an institutional sense, refers to cultivating a distinctive way of being that clearly expresses the purposes of the organization.

It is difficult to think of this sense of style in regard to institutions. We know that institutions have a character and a culture, but mostly, we see these elements as something given and inherited. Seldom do we consider that we need to cultivate and nurture the style of the institution. The fact is that without an intentional sense of attention to the forms and symbols of institutional life, the culture of a congregation will change in often unintended ways over time. The nature of policies, governing ideas, symbols, and vision are central to the institution’s style of life. The inquiry into this foundational level of institutional life is the responsibility of the whole institution, but especially it is the teaching office of the leader.

Anyone who has experienced this kind of leadership knows it is a complex affair. It is one thing to crunch numbers, pass resolutions telling others what to do, or make sure the institution is running smoothly. It is quite another to raise questions about the relationship between the institution’s purposes and its practices. It is one thing to respond to the pressure of an interest group; it is something else to keep diverse voices at the same table. The question finally comes down to what defines the sense of the whole and how the institution is formed by the whole rather than the sum total of its parts. Leadership that initiates and sustains this kind of inquiry is best characterized as prophetic. It is not a matter of predicting what lies ahead; rather, it is the question of where we are going if we continue in the direction we are currently moving. What are the values and commitments that shape our use of resources as well as all the decisions we make along the way? Ultimately, this kind of questioning examines the vision out of which these questions are raised and the practices that express the purposes of the institution.

Often the experience of leadership is lonely and isolated. The hope expressed by Bob Greenleaf is that leadership is shared. What sustains our energy and rekindles our imagination should be a sense of trust in the promise of God, who calls us to participate in the continuing creation of the world.

Leadership, then, in the community of Jesus Christ is the servant ministry of those called to live in the Spirit and in the forms of hope that bring new energy and imagination to the institutions, movements, and occasions in which we lead, serve, and follow. Bob Greenleaf rediscovered the power of this image of leadership through a story by Herman Hesse. In The Journey to the East, Hesse tells the story of Leo, a servant to a group of pilgrims who are trying to find their way to the center of a religious order. Leo looks after the needs of the group and enlivens them with his stories and songs. The journey continues on its way until Leo leaves the group. Then the pilgrims are thrown into confusion, and the journey ends, for they cannot continue without the servant, Leo. Years later, the group member who tells the story is taken to the place where the pilgrims had been headed. Here he finds that Leo, the servant, turns out to be the leader of the order itself.

In reflecting on this story, Bob writes, “This story clearly says—the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness. Leo was actually the leader all of the time, but he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down inside.”

Malcolm L. Warford is professor of the practice of ministry at Lexington Theological Seminary and director of the Lexington Seminar.

Excerpted from Becoming A New Church: Reflections on Faith and Calling, from Pilgrim Press in April 2000.

Toward a Gentle Revolution
By Robert K. Greenleaf

Institutions, regardless of their missions, perform best when they are governed by a shared vision, rather than by the idiosyncrasies of whoever happens to be in power and presumes to lead. 

“The leader leads best,” said the ancient Taoist Lao-tzu, “when the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” In contemporary terms, in our vast complex society, it might be said that the leader leads best when she or he is seen as serving, and subordinate to, a shared vision; when a great idea that is widely shared governs and the leader is clearly seen as helping that idea to be realized in day-to-day practical affairs—and when the leader is not seen as pursuing a private agenda, however noble.

I see lack of vision as epidemic in our society. And it is on this score that I believe we are failing to achieve the quality of life for all our people that is well within our grasp with available human and material resources. We talk a lot about freedom but we do not use the freedom we have, while we still have it, to build the kinds of institutions that would make our society more impregnable and more serving to all of our people and give us the exportable model of vision-inspired institutions that could give hope to the world.

The strength of our nation today does not reside so much in our Congress, or in the vast apparatus of the executive branch, because all seem to be so lacking in vision, and we seem not to have the resources to rebuild those visions. Our real strength is in our Constitution, the court system that our legal profession has (so far) been watchful to maintain, and the legions of free institutions that flourish under the umbrella of these two powerful protectors. Feeble as so many of these free institutions are, they are the main sinews of strength we have to bind over to our children and grandchildren. And we do not have the resources to quickly rekindle vision in these free institutions. But if that can be done gradually, there is hope that our free institutions may achieve a spiritual force that will ultimately infect our Congress and executive branch. The initiative, as I see it, rests with our legions of free institutions.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18 KJV).

I do not have a precise definition for vision. To me, the full meaning of vision, like the meaning of spirit that is used here as the driving force behind the urge to serve, lies beyond the barrier that separates mystery from what we call reality. Vision, in these pages, is seen as awareness of what is there in good, able people, in a great potential to be realized in building optimally serving lives for people and optimally serving performance in institutions which these vision-inspired people will lead or influence. The stuff of vision has been there all along, and its emergence in conscious awareness is therefore a revelation. Hope that someday one’s vision will be achieved in practice is what sustains a vision and makes one watchful and persevering, while one lives under its guidance.

Far too many of our institutions—and, of course, far too many people—are failing to serve at a level that is reasonable and possible for them. If the main reason for this deficiency in both people and institutions is, as I believe, that they are not inspired by a sufficient vision of greatness, then what is the remedy? 

The two categories of institutions that should be most sensitive to deficiencies in vision, churches and schools, also appear to be a part of the problem. They seem as deficient in vision about their futures as any others. Therefore they lack the perspective to advise the rest who might look to them for guidance.

A deeper reason for the widespread lack of vision may be that, in the process of industrialization in the last 150 years, we seem to have become a manager-dominated society (managers being the people who get things done). Able managers are required in large numbers to keep our vast complex of institutions viable. And all of our institutions—churches, schools, businesses, philanthropies, governmental units—need able managers to get the work done and keep the places solvent (if not profitable). I have come to respect managerial acumen, but I also see a limitation that accrues with years of good performance. Managers seem incapable of generating the much needed visions, the dreams of future greatness which might be approached in prudent steps over time.

I speculate that it would not be useful to a manager to indulge in very much visionary thinking. Managers are necessarily short range in their thinking, bounded by the recent past and the immediate future. Years of managerial work tend to be limiting for anything but the managing that requires great concentration on keeping the institution afloat from day to day. Doing this well is enough to ask of a person, and it is unrealistic to expect that most successful managers would be visionary thinkers. This is a judgment I have come to quite late in life.

A variety of gifts are required to make a good society. But in the guidance of our institutions we seem to have accepted that management is all that is needed to build and sustain serving institutions. It will profit us to accept that trustees who are not managers are needed to supply a complementary gift of vision that is absolutely essential to the long-run health of any institution. 

How, the incredulous may ask, will visionary trustees ever become influential when trustee bodies today are generally peopled by managers? The obstacles to taking those steps are formidable:

  • Managers, especially chief executives and other high-level officers, are loath to accept that managerial excellence inhibits their capacity to produce visions as well as their appreciation of the importance of visions. As they see it now, management is all. 
  • There is little understanding, among people who are not managers, of the potentially powerful relationships between managers and trustees in which trustees provide the visions managers are not likely to have. 
  • The resources do not exist for a frontal challenge to the widespread condition of limited vision throughout our society.

If the problem of limited vision is crucial and epidemic in all our institutions, what then can be done even gradually and in a small way to begin to raise the acceptance of the importance of visions, and to cause visions to emerge in the top leadership of more of our institutions?

I believe that the people most likely to begin to think about the need for greater visions in the leadership of all institutions are the chairpersons of trustees of theological seminaries of all faiths, for two reasons.

First, I see seminaries generally as missing their opportunities by the widest margin of any category of institution I know about. While some seminary trustee chairpersons may bridle at so bald a statement, there is an uneasiness that is evident in their awareness of the difficulties most seminaries are having financing themselves. Institutions that are seen as truly serving do not have that level of difficulty.

Second, among the trustee chairpersons of seminaries there are some who will accept at least part of the criticism made above. They would welcome an opportunity to discuss visions for their seminary in order that the seminary could stand as a model for other institutions and better serve churches and church-related institutions that depend on seminaries for both intellectual and prophetic guidance.

The suggestion here is that a start be made by convening a seminar with a group made up of chairpersons and executives, in pairs, from several seminaries. The primary focus of the seminar might be a concept of leadership in the seminary in which the vision-generating role of trustees will be understood and accepted, and, secondly, that a clearly articulated and shared vision, under the leadership of the executive, will become the governing instrument in the seminary.

The initial proposal is for a modest seminar. The larger view is that this venture would be seen as the start of an Institute of Chairing that would, with experience, slowly expand. One immediate consequence of Institutes of Chairing might be the explicit preparation of those now in key positions of leadership to mentor the potential young leaders. These key leaders have a chance to help so that stronger and more serving institutions than we are able to achieve in the present may have a better chance to evolve in the future.

I have a vision of a nation, while still far from perfect, that can move steadily and in prudent steps toward a new dream of what it can become, one institution at a time. The prime lead-in for this new movement may be chairpersons of trustees, not superpeople but good, solid, ethical folk who have a new vision of their roles and the role of the institutions in their care, and who have the skills and knowledge of processes that enable them effectively to lead their fellow trustees toward achieving stronger and more serving institutions.

What is proposed here is a gentle revolution, but a revolution nevertheless. 

Excerpted from Seeker and Servant: Reflections on Religious Leadership, edited by Anne T. Fraker and Larry C. Spears (Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco), 1996.


More information about Greenleaf and his philosophy is available from The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership in Indianapolis, Indiana (founded by Greenleaf as the Center for Applied Ethics in 1964). The current executive director is Larry C. Spears. Contact the Center at 921 East 86th Street, Suite 200, Indianapolis, IN 46240. Phone: 317-259-1241. Website: <www.greenleaf.org>

Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

Back to Issue  Read Previous Article Read Next Article

Advertise With Us

Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!

Learn More