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I first ran into Robert Greenleaf’s writings in the 90s. I knew there was something truly insightful in his approach to leadership. In fact, he started a whole leadership model that continues to have ardent adherents today. I would like to take this opportunity to list four of my favorite Greenleaf quotes. I hope you can add some more to this list in the comments sections below.
- “Foresight is the ‘lead’ in leadership. Once leaders lose this lead and events start to force their hand, they are leaders in name only.”
This quote reminds me of another by Bertrand de Jouvenel, “The proof of improvidence lies in falling under the empire of necessity.” Both of the statements have to do with foresight as a core leadership capability. While this ability may seem like magic to the some, in fact it is the result of a broad knowledge of the field and a deep concern for the company. Great leaders care enough to peer over the horizon and they have a keen practical sense not only of what they wish could be but also of what in fact will be.
- “It is no challenge to lead when everybody is with you.”
In this quote Greenleaf is just talking about the difficult road that leaders must walk. Foresight can easily be confused with insanity by level-headed pragmatists. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe any leader deserves a pass to do anything he or she wants or to have followers step in line with them regardless. Though there is much I don’t like about the presidential debate system in the U.S., what I do like is that, in our system, great men must submit themselves to inspection by the people. It may not be efficient or always a pretty sight, but I would not exchange that for any of the world’s alternative more efficient systems. Though all world class leaders see the future ahead of others, they still have the obligation to help others see it too, and they are to do this through servant leadership.
- “There are moments that contain eternity.”
With these six words, Greenleaf captures the importance also of living in the moment. Those who always live in the future (or worse yet in the past) deprive themselves of the opportunities of the moment. I know I am guilty of this. I need to write these words on a plaque and hang them in front of my office desk. It’s so easy to let that inquisitive employee’s question go unanswered because we were just too busy, or to fail to bless a child, or encourage a colleague, or to renew ourselves for that matter. As you read this, take a moment right now to look around you. Take a deep breath and think of where you are at this very moment. What can you take in from this very moment that is touched by eternity?
- “Servant-leaders differ from other persons of goodwill because they act on what they believe. Consequently, they ‘know experimentally’ and there is a sustaining spirit when they venture and risk.”
Action is at the heart of servant leadership. It’s not about words and promises, but about concrete actions taken in the service of others and in the service of the organization.
I know that Greenleaf said and wrote a lot more than this. If you’re familiar with his writing, I would love to hear about your favorite quotes. Please share them in the comments section below.