Monday, September 6, 2010


Robert K. Greenleaf shunned a code and instead articulated traits that would guide people in ethical leadership

Whether or not you’ve read it, you’ve no doubt heard of Servant Leadership, the book and approach to leading articulated by Robert K. Greenleaf that has shaped some of the best practices in the for-profit, nonprofit and public sectors.  True leaders are those who lead by serving and empowering others, Greenleaf taught.  Leaders sense their stewardship and commit to growing people and building community.  They are people who “seek to seek,” not just seek to find.  “The search is the thing,” he said, “only then is something likely to happen.

I recently came across an article by Anne T. Fraker that described Greenleaf’s approach to ethics among managers and leaders.  At the heart of this approach is Greenleaf’s conviction that a leader and manager accepts a high level of personal responsibility.  One is “to think, speak, and act as if he or she is personally accountable to all who may be affected by his/her thoughts, words, and deeds.”  Wow!  But, instead of detailing a code of ethics, Greenleaf notes five traits that guide leaders to soundly ethical behavior and practices.

1.       Strength.  To Greenleaf, this is “the ability to see enough choices of aims, to choose the right aim and to pursue that aim responsibly over a long period of time.” Fraker says that he believed that “making the right choices must include individual judgments tested by one’s one frame of reference for life’s meaning and by traditional ethical and moral values.”  This strength is not something that comes through corporate ladder climbing, but in personal search and development.  In Greenleaf’s way of thinking “strength” is very different from the “strong man, strong arm” machismo-oriented approaches of leadership.  Greenleaf is pointing to depth and breadth, consideration and reflection, and the soundness, conviction and readiness that come from such contemplation.  This, to me, is the most critical of all other traits and one that seems to be too-quickly passed over by many would-be leaders who control lots of power and destinies.

2.      Openness to knowledge.  Fraker notes that Greenleaf taught three ways of openness to knowledge: “take reference from the available formal knowledge,” cultivate one’s “own resources of intuitive knowledge,” and contribute what one can to “the general pool of management knowledge.”

3.      Foresight.  A manager and leader “must see future events that will involve him or her before other people see them,” said Greenleaf.  Digest this: “Serious ethical compromises are often attributable to yesterday’s failure to see today and take the right action yesterday.”  Foresight, according to Greenleaf, “is the central ethic of leadership.”

4.      Entheos.  Beyond mere enthusiasm, entheos is “the essence, the power actuating one who is inspired.”  This is what develops strength in a person.  Greenleaf considered entheos a sustaining force.  Entheos supports “venturesome, risk-taking action,” prods the conscience to keep open to knowledge, is an influence to keeping the future in the present, and is a vital link between one’s religious beliefs and one’s workday actions.  Greenleaf considered status, social, material and family success all invalid measures of growth via entheos.  Instead, he named dissatisfaction with the status quo, centering down, broadening of responsibilities, a “growing sense of purpose--an overriding purpose--in all that is undertaken.”

5.      Sense of purpose combined with the ability to laugh.  Balancing the very serious trait of purpose is the readiness to laugh and have fun.  “One can cultivate purpose to the point of having a glimpse of the ultimate and still remain connected with people and events IF one has humor, if one can laugh with all people at all stages of their journeys.”  “Purpose and laughter are twins that must not separate,” he said, “Each is empty without the other.  Together, they are the impregnable fortress of strength.”

It seems to me that all of these are necessary and that if you take Greenleaf seriously, you can’t pick and choose two or three of these.  They belong together.  And they assume one is already rooted in traditional ethical and moral values and engaged in a search for life’s ultimate meanings.  These are critical caveats to consider.  It would be much easier just to follow a “do’s and don’t’s” code.  But the capacity for creative good unleashed in what Greenleaf describes is worth the risk of cultivating traits and living forwardly as leaders who embody high ethics.

The Greenleaf quotes are from Anne T. Fraker’s chapter “Robert K. Greenleaf and Business Ethics: There Is No Code” in Reflections on Leadership: How Robert K. Greenleaf’s Theory of Servant-Leadership Influenced Today’s Top Management Thinkers, 1995, John Wiley & Sons.

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