Robert K. Greenleaf was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1905. His father was a mechanic, a machinist, a community leader, and Robert Greenleaf’s first influence for his revolutionary contribution, servant leadership.
He started as a young man studying at Rose Polytechnic, later transferring to Carleton College in Minnesota. He graduated with a major in math in 1926, and immediately after, he accepted a job at AT&T, one of the largest corporations of the time. A professor had convinced Greenleaf that large companies were failing to serve individuals and society. So he made it his mission to change that from the inside out.
Greenleaf rose rapidly within the company, transferring to their Manhattan headquarters only three years after being hired. While traveling as a troubleshooter for companies associated with AT&T, he noticed patterns. Thriving organizations had strong leadership, and those leaders tended to look pretty similar. They were supportive of their employees, acting more as a coach than a boss, and they prioritized their employees’ and organization’s’ needs. Greenleaf collected accolades and experience. In his 38-year-long career, he participated in the first management training program hosted by the company, became the Director of Management Development, he was the originator of the world’s first corporate assessment center, and developed a program to expose up-and-coming leaders to studies in the humanities.
His illustrious career became the backdrop for his life as a writer, consultant, and teacher when he retired from AT&T in 1964. His efforts to change how large industries operated found a new outlet when he founded The Center for Applied Ethics (now the Greenleaf Center) to launch the servant leadership movement. Servant leadership was an idea long in the making, beginning with his father, perpetuated by his early professors and career, and manifested in multiple published essays. The first, published in 1970, was entitled “The Servant as a Leader.” In it, he outlined the ideal servant-leader: a servant first, they are good listeners, persuasive, intuitive, use foresight, and use pragmatic measurements to assess outcomes.
Over the years, Greenleaf continued to write, expanding on his idea of the servant-leader and launching the servant leadership movement. In 1976, his book, Servant Leadership, was published. It was a collection of three essays, including his first, exploring leadership from the perspective of of a Judeo-Christian ethic that he aimed to make accessible to everyone. In describing servant leadership, Greenleaf said, “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”
Robert K. Greenleaf: The Legacy
Servant leadership took root and grew, influencing fields like systems thinking, management, and organizational development. Robert K. Greenleaf passed away in 1990. He was buried in Terre Haute, Indiana; his epitaph reads, “Potentially a good plumber; ruined by a sophisticated education.” The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership continues to perpetuate student leadership around the world. Their mission: “to advance the awareness, understanding, and practice of servant leadership by individuals and organizations.”
They host a variety of programs for students, professionals, educators, and organizations dedicated to this mission. The center offers membership programs for any party that makes conferences, workshops, and publications more accessible. They also offer a collegiate honors society, called Golden Key International. Its members are in the top 15% of college and university sophomores, juniors, and seniors. The society has more than 400 chapters around the world that indoctrinate students into the principles of student leadership. A few services cater specifically to organizations. These services include interactive workshops, events hosted by keynote speakers, and consultation that conforms to the principles of “Greenleaf’s Best Test.” Among other things, the test evaluates whether an organization is producing tangible outcomes for those being served and whether the principles of servant leadership are being followed.
Some opportunities within the Center for Servant Leadership are open to everyone. The Greenleaf Academy caters to those looking to expand their leadership skills–divided into three sessions, it explains the foundations, key practices, and the act of implementing servant leadership. The center also hosts an annual, international conference and workshop that helps individuals assess and improve upon their own servant leadership.