Robert K. Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership


Don Frick’s biography of Robert Greenleaf is an exemplary journey through Greenleaf’s life and work.  If you want to know how the expression servant-leadership evolved, from whom, when and why, this is the book for you.  Don does a masterful job relating Greenleaf’s life story in great detail including many (if not all) of Greenleaf’s primary influencers.

I can no longer imagine anyone working in Agile, Lean or Leadership in general while using servant-leadership as a foundation of her or his practice without having read Don’s book.


Title: Robert K. Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership (2004)
Don M. Frick, Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
ISBN: 1-57675-276-3
Pages: 432

Wading In

Peter Senge contributed the Forward, and Don Frick included a Preface.  Each voice contributed their own perspectives on Greenleaf, his impact on their lives, and servant -leadership as a practice and lifelong commitment.  These sentences stood out:

  • Being genuinely committed means knowingly taking action that shifts the locus of my attention towards what I seek to create, and away from myself and what my creating will bring me. (Senge)
  • One must learn how to stop the flow of thought and then, when needed, think. (Greenleaf)
  • Develop the capacity to see what we have not seen before. (Senge)
  • Live life in a slightly unconventional way, choosing to respond to one’s inherent personal genius and mastery. (Frick)
  • There is no master plan for living as a servant leader. (Frick)

Already, before I reached Chapter 1, I was stunned at how introspective Senge and Frick were and their clear acknowledgment of the impact of Greenleaf’s life and work on their own.   I knew I was in for some engrossing reading, and I wasn’t mistaken.

Greenleaf In Detail

Don Frick takes the reader through the major and minor influences on Greenleaf’s life and work starting with his parents, George and Burchie, and their life in Terra Haute, Indiana. All three are lifelong influences on Greenleaf and are explored in rich and engaging detail. Throughout the book, we’re reminded of how Greenleaf’s early life influenced his decision-making and choices.  Included in these early influences is the Methodist religion.  A telling observation: The Methodists shared a ‘genius for a methodical approach to religion.’  Greenleaf explored many religions and belief systems in his lifetime.  Carlton College was another early and lifelong influence and reflection point for Greenleaf.

Greenleaf’s tenure at AT&T (and Bell Labs, in particular) formed the nucleus of his lifelong work, thought, writing and speaking on a variety of interrelated topics for the remainder of his life.  This period included many outside-the-workplace experiences, friendships and acquaintances that added to what Greenleaf eventually identified and defined as servant-leadership.  This was Greenleaf’s formative period (for what we’ve come to associate with him.)  Greenleaf became aware that AT&T was not operated according to conventional corporate norms: The President of AT&T, Theodore N. Vail, was outspoken about profit not being his #1 priority nor that of the modern enterprise and that profit was only one of a myriad of success factors.  Vail also said that management should be honest, and he established a meritocracy system for promotion.  These were both very unconventional for the times and help awaken in Greenleaf additional aspirations for a different form of leadership.  Greenleaf’s time at AT&T showed him that institutions could be servants to their employees versus the opposite view (which was very common and widely held at that time.)

Greenleaf’s Four Tenets

  1. Servanthood: Make things better in your corner of the world (Primary Influence: George, his father)
  2. The importance of seeing things whole (Primary Influence: E.B. White)
  3. It is possible to nurture spirit even in corporations (Primary Influences: AT&T, Nicholaj Grundtvig)
  4. Deep learning should be practical and experiential, a life long adventure (Many Influences)

Greenleaf’s Approach to Training

Greenleaf developed and delivered training and workshops throughout AT&T from the linemen levels through senior leadership.  He developed a unique style that proved to be very engaging both for the audience and for Greenleaf’s ongoing development, too

  • Start with the learner’s own experience
  • Model what you’re attempting to communicate and impart
  • Combine content, experiential learning and reflection
  • Relate material, discussion and each lesson to current conditions
  • Refused to indicate that (Greenleaf) had the final answer

For some, especially those accustomed to defaulting to the instructor having the final answer (and knowing all the answers), Greenleaf’s style could be frustrating.  The majority of participants (and Greenleaf taught prolifically) were very empowered by this form of teaching.


Greenleaf adopted the work entheos to reflect the form of strength be believed livelong leaders (and learners) needed to manifest:

    • Emerges not as the result of calculations
    • An essence, the power from an inspired person
    • The result of selection, the right aim
    • Accept responsibility
    • Hold fast to the inner person
    • Find personal significance outside of the complications of property and achievement
    • Engage in the process of growth

Greenleaf continued to weave his beliefs and theories into his training, workshops and talks (outside of AT&T) and continued to find wide acceptance.

Post-AT&T Era

Greenleaf retired from AT&T and committed to avoiding being on anyone else’s payroll ever again.  In 1964, he established the Center for Applied Ethics (Boston, Massachusetts) as a vehicle for his writing and speaking.  During this period, Greenleaf developed a form of a test for an effective (and true) servant-leader.

Best Test for A Servant Leader

    • Some things that were deemed impossible to measure were in fact measurable
    • Do those led people grow as persons?
    • Do those led become healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous?
    • Whom are those led benefiting?

Greenleaf also concluded that no one should be powerless in an organization.  Greenleaf firmly believed that each person could create the vision for servant-leadership in their own space.

Greenleaf starting publishing prolifically through the Center and distributing his publications widely.  The more widely be shared his works, the more influence he developed and the more invitations he received to speak and to teach.  This is a partial list of those publications I can recommend:

I highly recommend reading Don Frick’s biography of Greenleaf before tackling Greenleaf’s own publications.  The story-behind-the-story (so to speak) is very helpful when reading Greenleaf’s own words and attempting to mature your servant-leadership stance.


This is one of the most compelling and stirring professional books I have read.  My highlighting, note taking and re-reading of paragraphs and sections attests to its impact on me.  I highly recommend this book for those of us engaged in working with individuals, teams and organizations to support their continued growth and experience in life.

Greg Tutunjian

Greg Tutunjian is a leadership and performance coach specializing in team-centric innovation. Greg is a former software and systems engineer, technical program manager and director, and now advisor to organizations ranging from small and medium-sized software product and service companies to Fortune 10 multinationals.

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