A Fresh Look at the Benefits and Dangers of Servant Leadership

When starting Leading To Serve a decade ago I was inspired by Robert K. Greenleaf’s (1904-1990) idea of servant leadership.   It’s a cause worth advancing.

In the late ’70’s I heard Greenleaf talk about the The Servant as Leader.   He was troubled that our institutions and leaders were not serving us well.   He believed that for the good of society servant oriented people should become leaders, and that leaders everywhere should make servanthood a priority.  

Greenleaf knew that servant leadership would require radical change for followers as well as leaders and their institutions.  This he anticipated would not necessarily be popular and warned of its dangers.

“As I ponder, the fusing of servant and leader,” he reflected, “it seems a dangerous creation:  dangerous for the natural servant to become a leader, dangerous for the leaders to be servant first, and dangerous for a follower to insist on being led by a servant.   There are safer and easier alternatives available to all three.”

He recognized that servants and leaders may be quite different.    

Servants don’t seek attention, they look for ways to help others performing unnoticed and under appreciated tasks.   They are reluctant to promote themselves or broadcast their ideas.   

Leaders by contrast seem to have some innate disposition to get out front, to say follow me.   They look for ways to change the world by casting vision, taking responsibility for action and implementing change.   Good leaders are transformational, seeking the best for their followers and the common interest.   At their worst they are autocrats and demagogues. 

Nevertheless Greenleaf was convinced, as are those of us who have learned from him, that servant leadership, however unpopular, difficult, and dangerous it may be, is essential for individuals and institutions to flourish.

What are the dangers?   I’m not sure all Greenleaf had in mind but I suggest the following.

  • One is underestimating the effort it takes for servants to become leaders and leaders to become servants.    Greenleaf thought the later was more difficult.   It is best he thought to seek leaders from those who have a proven record of serving well, people who might eschew leadership as usually practiced.   
  • Servant leadership is difficult and dangerous because we may overlook some of the best potential leaders among us.   Some of those may not be willing to lead unless and until our institutions change for the better.
  • Servant leadership is dangerous since it requires much of followers.    As followers we are required to notice, identify and engage with those we would have lead us.  Without that cooperation it won’t work.  Servants can lead only in a partnership with followers around a common mission.
  • In institutions the role of the servant leader is not to cast the vision but to serve as a catalyst to help followers find their common mission.    Where followers would rather be told what to do and need to be shown the way forward a servant leader may face frustration and opposition.

Greenleaf warned that “the outlook for better leadership in our leadership-poor society is not encouraging.”  

He urged us to look for leaders among natural servants, for instance among students and their teachers, and within our faith communities.

And he appealed to institutional leaders, “who,” he predicted, “would find greater joy in their lives if they raised the servant aspect of their leadership and built more serving institutions.”

For Leadership in Turbulent Times, as in the title of the recent book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, now more than ever we need to find those who are leading to serve. 

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Are We Voting for Leaders or Ideologues?

As I stood in an early voting line at our local library last week I was thinking about the recent report that the vast majority of Americans distrust and are disgusted with politicians, including those we will elect on Tuesday, November 6. 

As reported in the August 2018 issue of Forbes magazine, research by James Davison Hunter and his team at Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture revealed that:

  • Ninety percent — nine of ten Americans — believe that “most politicians are more interested in winning elections than in doing what is right.”
  • Over 70% believe that while the “system of government is good… the people running it are incompetent.”

In spite of that we keep voting, and hoping that those elected to office are leaders or at least become the leaders we need and for which we hope.

In The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf suggested that only those individuals who are proven and trusted servants should be chosen as leaders.   While he recognized that leaders can become servants he thought it best to find leaders among those whose natural disposition is to serve the common interest.

I wondered who the people around me were voting for and why?    It was a quiet, polite line with a few friendly conversations.   No one was shouting their preferences or insulting one another even though I’m sure we were a cross-section of political parties and persuasions. 

I wondered if we were voting for the best leaders or for ideologues who view their opponents as enemies to be mocked, vowing to their supporters never to cooperate or compromise with the other side?    

Our political deadlock is driven by ideologues from both the left and right rather than by servant leaders to be found among all constituencies.    

A couple of what ifs –

What if we followed Greenleaf’s advice to seek the servants among us rather than supporting extreme partisans.    We need political debate, but when partisans become ideologues and demagogues the democracy is threatened.

What if in voting for democrats, republicans, independents – or whomever – we took the time to find and support within our groups servants who as patriots put the well-being of the country before special interests?   

That would go a long way to remove our distrust and disgust with politicians.

Is that not what our founders had in mind when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and framed the Constitution for a revolutionary democracy?

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Of Pipe Bombs and Pittsburg

Cesar Sayoc, Jr., the Miami pipe bomb sender and Robert Bowers, the murderer at the Pittsburg Synagogue last Saturday have something in common.

They believed that society would be better off if they killed the people they hated – Democratic Party leaders and Jews.    Both have a known history of white supremacy and anti-Semitism openly broadcast on various social media platforms.   They became home grown domestic terrorists radicalized by incendiary political rhetoric stoking hatred and violence.

Now that they have been arrested and face prosecution for hate crimes I’m struggling with what to say beyond the obvious –

  • that white-supremacy, racism and anti-Semitism are anti- and un-American
  • that deranged people like these should be prevented from violence including access to guns,
  • that we need better ways of anticipating terrorist threats,domestic and foreign,
  • ‘thoughts and prayers’ however sincere are not enough.

But what do I say to my children and grand children, some of whom are Jewish, about a culture where white supremacy is encouraged by some, resulting in a recent increase in hate crimes including anti-Semitism?    As elders we are responsible to pass on what what the years have taught us about life and well-being.

I would like them to know there are a few things that can be done to make our communities safe, if not sacred for everyone.

  • Be aware of, but not surprised by hatred – it has always been with us – it is the human situation.
  • Don’t allow yourself to believe that you are better than others.
  • In your conversations let it be known that you do not tolerate intolerance.
  • Listen to people with whom you disagree.
  • Be a good citizen – join with others working for the common interest.

Perhaps our best advice is in the words of Pittsburg Rabbi Jeffery Myers –
“Stop The Words of Hate.”



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‘Tell Me A Story’ – from Alan Alda’s new book on how 60 Minutes succeeds

In his recent book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face:  My Adventures in the Art and Science of Communicating, Alan Alda (Hawkeye
Pierce on the war television series M*A*S*H – 1972-1983) tells of a conversation he had with Don Hewitt, the inventor of the television show 60 Minutes.

“It went like this:  when a producer would come into his office to pitch a segment, if they started telling him about an issue, or a law that needed to be changed, or a scam that was making the rounds, he would put up his hand to stop them, and he’d say, “Tell me a story.”

Alda writes that “Don was certain that those four words were what kept 60 Minutes at the top of the ratings for years.”   If you’ve watched the program you know that Hewitt was right.

Building on his acting career, Alda’s life’s work now is about teaching communication – through his new podcast Clear+Vivid.  

When I read Don Hewitt’s directive “Tell Me A Story,” I immediately thought of speeches I’ve heard, and given, in my lifetime.   Most of them in church.   How many of them could I or anyone else remember?   Not many.

But I do remember stories, some I used to tell myself.   Most of them about the changed lives I saw at the Community of Hope.

Now that I listen more to speeches and sermons than I give, I wish that some of the speakers I hear would learn the art and science of communicating by story telling.  Unless a speaker can illustrate a theme or topic with a story, their presentation, in Alda’s words is neither Clear nor Vivid.

When Navy Chaplain Brian Weigelt was preaching at the U.S. Navy Academy Protestant worship service he would often put a picture without description in the bulletin.  I waited eagerly for his sermon knowing that the picture was about a story he was about to tell.

I’ll never forget some of those insights communicated by pictures and stories.

When sitting through speeches and sermons occasionally I would like to do like Don Hewitt – put up my hands and say stop –  “Tell Me A Story.”

Then I might listen and maybe remember.

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Reversing The Injustice of Mass Incarceration — an interview with prison chaplain Kendall Hughes

The recent unprecedented increase of inmates in U.S. jails and prisons is commonly referred to as mass incarceration.

The increase is a result of racial injustice for people of color as documented by Michelle Alexander in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow.  (revised in 2012)   It is also economic injustice as described by Peter Edleman in his 2017 book Not a Crime to be Poor.   For some in America it has become a crime to be poor.

In this edited interview prison chaplain KendalI Hughes identified actions that can and must be taken to change the justice system to prevent counterproductive imprisonment and offer hope for redemption and rehabilitation to millions of inmates and their families.   The complete interview is available upon request to tomnees@me.com.

Hughes has 20 years of service in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and is now a hospital chaplain at the federal prison in Rochester, Minnesota.

How extensive is mass incarceration?

In 1972, 161 U.S. residents were incarcerated in prisons and jails per 100,000 population; since then the rate has more than quintupled to a peak of 767 per 100,000.Over 2.4 million people are currently incarcerated in the US, which is the highest percentage in the world.

 Our percentage is 8 to 10 times higher than several countries in Europe which have lower crime rates. In the US  688,000 people are released from prison every year and almost 12 million people cycle through local jails. And those numbers can be multiplied by the number of children and other close family members that are devastated by the incarceration of their parent, spouse or child.

 Even though prisons are often hidden from view and prisoners ignored, how does mass incarceration affect society?

So it is naïve to conceive of prisons and jails as separate from the rest of our society.  There is both a huge economic and personal cost to separating so many families. Any prison chaplain can tell numerous heart rending stories of the suffering mass incarceration is causing.

 Study after study is indicating that the costs exceed the benefits of locking up many of the people who are currently behind bars. The longer someone is incarcerated, the more likely they are to recidivate.  As one judge said about the US prison systems, “We are winning at losing.”

What needs to change?

The majority of those behinds bars are not there for violent crimes.

They are not people society is afraid of, so instead of giving non-violent offenders lengthy sentences, (without the possibility of parole for Federal Inmates) courts could be given the option of using Risk Needs Assessments tools that have been rigorously tested to predict the probability of recidivism. 

 Inmates could then be given the option of participating in programming that addresses their needs and decreases their risks of reoffending. They could thereby earn the opportunity for supervised release.  Both the Senate and the House currently have legislation before them that would accomplish this.

 What is the role of for-profit prisons?

 For-profit prisons have a powerful lobby in Congress and are seeing their revenue and market shares soar as a result of mass incarceration.  The policies that permit powerful corporations to profit by locking up more people for longer periods of time need to be changed.

 How does the U.S. justice system disadvantage people of color?

There is a large racial disparity in the percentages of those who are incarcerated. Disadvantage accumulating at each step of the process contributes to blacks and Latinos comprising 56% of the incarcerated population, yet only 30% of the U.S. population. A variety of policies need to change to rectify this disparity.

 How does poverty contribute to mass incarceration?

 Over 95% of criminal cases result in a plea bargain. Prosecutors have tremendous leverage in getting lower income defendants to plead guilty and accept long sentences instead of going to a jury trial without the resources for an adequate defense and facing an even more onerous sentence.

Are compassionate release programs working?

While there are policies in place to allow for the compassionate release of inmates who are terminally ill or of advanced age, only a minute fraction of inmates ever benefit from these policies.  It is common for totally incapacitated inmates and those in their late 80s and 90s to be refused a compassionate release.

What is your present assignment?

My assignment is to care for the spiritual needs of the 681 men who are incarcerated in this prison hospital.  The primary focus of my ministry here is to prepare the men to successfully return to their communities as men of integrity.

Are chaplains assigned to all federal prisons?

All federal prisons have at least one full time chaplain. There are currently 257 chaplains serving the 122 federal prisons (which the BOP calls institutions).

What was the purpose and result of the ‘Life Connections Program (LCP) you initiated at Leavenworth?

The purpose of the LCP is to decrease both inmate misconduct and recidivism and humanize the correctional environment. In the fourteen years I supervised the program at Leavenworth we achieved a nearly 50% reduction in serious prison misconduct and in the recidivism of LCP graduates. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the LCP housing unit in Leavenworth was significantly more integrated, safer and wholesome than the rest of the prison, and that over time the LCP also helped reform the prison environment.

How can faith communities help inmates during incarceration and upon release from prison?

A primary way faith communities can help is by volunteering to mentor inmates both during their incarceration and post incarceration.  On the BOP.Gov website under “Religious Services” there is a link and a training video for anyone wishing to volunteer as a mentor.

You can also contact Prison Fellowship or the Salvation Army and ask for training as a mentor to inmates.

They can also contact Congress and encourage the passage of either Senate Bills 1917 or 1994 – (a bill to reduce recidivism and increase public safety) and House Resolution 3356 – Prison Reform and Redemption Act.



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“”Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism?”  an interview with Al Truesdale

Since evangelicals have voted as a block in recent elections supporting questionable politicians and partisan social issues, most Americans view evangelicalism as a right-wing political movement rather than a theological tradition.

In response, theologian Al Truesdale (PhD, Emory University) has edited Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism? an anthology of articles by several religious leaders who identify as evangelicals and yet are eager to correct what they see as a misrepresentation of evangelicalism.

I began my interview with Dr Truesdale by asking him to answer the question in the title of his book – indeed, whatever happened to evangelicalism?

As with any other part of the Christian faith, ‘evangelical’ and ‘evangelicalism’ are subject to misrepresentation and abuse.  One thing that has happened to “evangelicalism’ is that some of its proponents let evangelicalism escape prophetic judgment.

Why did you write this book?

The purpose was to clarify a central part of Christian doctrine by placing it in its proper biblical, historical, theological and global context.

What should evangelical leaders be telling their constituents?

Inform them that being identified as evangelical must be thoroughly governed by the New Testament and Apostolic Christian faith, not by political interests and parties, not by nationality or ethnicity, and not by the media.

In the Introduction you quote the Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, who no longer identifies as an evangelical.   Do you claim to be an evangelical?  

I do identify as an evangelical.  I understand why Russell Moore no longer identifies as one.  But if in the past 2,000 years the Church had abandoned all parts of its vocabulary that had been misrepresented, abused or ridiculed, we would have no vocabulary left.

How do you describe evangelicalism for a popular audience both in and out of the church?

Evangelicalism describes that expression of Christianity which sees itself as transformed by the good news (euangelion) of the kingdom of God, inaugurated in Jesus of Nazareth.

How do popular expressions of evangelicalism differ from this historic root?

Popularly, too often the term lacks theological, moral and intellectual depth. Often it collapses into an anthropocentric and utilitarian soteriology, it lacks intellectual rigor and a vision for social justice and it cozies up to narrow political ideologies.

In your Conclusion you warn of the danger of ‘political alliances.’   To what degree do you think evangelicals have fallen prey to that danger?

Extensively. The sin of idolatry is one we can easily recognize in others. Perhaps nowhere does our fallen condition reveal itself more grotesquely than in our disposition to identify God with narrow political, economic, national and ethnic interests. Evangelicals seem to be no more astute and discriminating at this point than anyone else.

Why do you think the majority of Americans who identify as evangelicals are Republicans and voted for and continue to support President Trump?

 I am not sure. I suspect that some of the reasons will not pass Christian “muster.”  Many Evangelicals do not so much support President Trump, as oppose the radical secularism that liberal ideology champions. But they err grievously when they attribute righteousness to the Republican Party and make uncritical league with it.

What have you learned from the other writers included in the book?

What I learned from all the contributors is that thoughtful evangelical scholars know how to anchor the term evangelical in thoroughly responsible biblical and historical analysis. And they know how to retain the name while also submitting its abuses to sustained criticism.

What message do you think this book has for the current controversies about evangelicalism in the United States?

The message is that the term evangelical is central to our Christian vocabulary and mission; it is neither to be abused nor surrendered. Instead, the term must be repeatedly clarified by submitting it to instruction by the New Testament and Christian tradition.


Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of Philosophy and Christian Ethics at Nazarene Theological Seminary.   He is an alumnus of Nazarene Theological Seminary and Emory University.   Truesdale has published numerous articles and books, including With Cords of Love.   He and his wife Esther live in the historic South Carolina Lowcountry.

For the complete interview contact tomnees@me.com

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When Kate Bowler Learned The Truth

It was not until she was diagnosed with terminal cancer that Kate Bowler realized that some of the leaders she had been following were not telling the truth about what really mattered most to her.    Like the lie in the title of her book – Everything Happens For A Reason. 

She wanted to believe that along with other mistruths – as in her subtitle – And Other Lies I’ve Loved.  She had hoped that the power of positive thinking and her faith would cure the cancer.

Now in her late 30’s Nate Bowler teaches the history of Christianity to students preparing for ministry at Duke Divinity School.    Her continuing battle with cancer has convinced her that leaders, especially religious leaders, should tell the truth about the life and death issues we all face.

She would like to enjoy a long life, loved by her husband, see her daughter grow up and fulfill her calling.   Right now she can’t count on any of that.

Like the biblical Job, who learned that he had done nothing to cause his misfortune nor could he do anything to reverse it, she came to understand that she had done nothing to cause her cancer nor could she cure it other than to pursue the best treatment available to her.

However, her attitude and faith can and do contribute to how she thrives with unanswerable questions including the uncertainty of life itself.

Her 2013 book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel received widespread media attention as the first history of the movement based on divine promises of health, wealth, and happiness.

Even though not from a prosperity gospel tradition she had absorbed some of its misguided assumptions – found in both secular and religious thought.

During my own recent diagnosis and treatment for lymphoma (now in remission) I have faced similar questions.   Too many of my good friends, men and women with strong faith, have died from cancer before their time for me to think it would or will be different for me.

And as I look back on my life as a ministry leader I wonder.   What did I say in hospital rooms and even at gravesites?

Did I tell the truth?    Did I offer false hopes?

Did I help people develop a faith that would provide the strength needed in their time of struggle, even death itself?

I hope so.

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Leadership Lessons from Don Quixote

I’ve learned something about leadership from the novel Don Quixote from two unexpected recent events involving leaders I know well.

First was Newell Smith’s retirement address as Superintendent of the Philadelphia District Church of the Nazarene in May.

Early on he mentioned how the novel Don Quixote by the 16thCentury writer Cervantes has been an inspiration since his college days as a literature major.

The fictional knight-errant Don Quixote was a dreamer fighting for justice, civility and chivalry – to right wrongs and punish evil.  In the story some thought he was goofy if not crazy – tilting at windmills of all things.

Near the end of his address, having talked about his personal aspirations and dreams for his post-retirement life, Newell did something that surprised everyone; something he had never done before and no one knew he could do.  He sang a solo – To Dream the Impossible Dream from The Man of La Mancha, a Broadway musical based on the Don Quixote story.

Before the last note the crowd was on its feet in a standing ovation.   Not simply because Newell dared to talk and sing about his own dreams for making this world a better place, but, I think, because all of us were inspired by what our dreams might be if we had the courage to talk and sing about them.

The second event was a Leading To Serve sailing cruise in June off the coast of Spain for 25 Kenyon leaders in a flotilla of four sailboats conducted by captain James Copple, the principle of SAI and Servant-Forge.  This was one of several action learning cruises Jim has organized to mentor young leaders.


Leadership lessons from Don Quixote was the assigned topic for discussions at sea: how imagination and vision help shape our work and our lives.    The world’s problems, they observed, are similar to Cervantes’ time – political corruption, economic despair and hopelessness of the masses.

Jim said that they also talked about Don Quixote’s chivalry.  One of the young men said, ‘I now see that my role is to advocate for and even protect the women in my world.’

 We could use more of that in this @metoo era.

Newell Smith, Jim Copple and these young Kenyan leaders believe there is hope for a better world when men and women begin to follow such dreams.


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And Now Annapolis

Add Annapolis to places of mass shootings – 154 so far in 2018.

We paused in disbelief when it happened on Thursday, June 28, about 10 minutes from my home.  Busy roads were blocked.  An adjacent shopping mall was closed.    In silence we watched a TV view of the crime scene from hovering helicopters.

The first responders arrived within 60 seconds, arrested the shooter, rescued wounded survivors, escorted to safety over 100 employees in the building and finally removed the bodies of five Capital Gazettejournalists killed in this horrific mass murder from gun violence – by a young angry white man.

What is there to say?   The following day the editorial page in the Gazette was blank other than the names of the five journalists – with the words “we are speechless.”

The shooter planned to kill as many as he could in retaliation for a story the Gazette  had printed years ago about a harassment charge to which he pleaded guilty.

Wendi Winters, a prolific journalist and respected community observer was a victim: age 65, mother of four, an active member of a church attended by two of my friends.  The day after the shooting I attended a vigil for Wendi at their church.

It provided a time for her faith community and family, as well as the community to grieve together.

Vigils are important.   Hundreds more marched in Annapolis that evening in a civic vigil.

If we hunker down in fear we tend to become fatalists – thinking that nothing can be done about mass shootings.   We tend to give in and give up.

Together, we know that there are things that can and must be done.

The majority of Americans who don’t own guns along with those who do, favor reasonable gun regulations including effective screening for ownership and making military style automatic weapons illegal.

We can improve our mental health resources including responding to threats of angry, mostly young white males.   The Annapolis shooter had well known mental health issues that should have been addressed.

It seems to me that every faith community would benefit from vigils like the one I attended whether or not one of their own is a victim.

Vigils provide a safe place for people to connect with tears and hugs when there are no words to express grief.    They save us from lonely fatalism giving us the courage to advocate for change and renew our hope for a better world.

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How Growing Older Can Become a Good Thing

How is retirement going?  It’s a question I’m often asked these days.   Since I’m well into my 80thyear I don’t think about it that much.

Retirement was very much on my mind in my 60’s as I neared the end of my institutional employment. I knew it was coming before age 60 when like everyone else at 55 I received an invitation to join AARP, about the time gerontologists suggest we join the ranks of the elderly.

Then in my early 70’s I woke up one morning and found myself unemployed without a pay check, no corporate credit card, dependent upon Social Security and Medicare.   And the familiar work-related phone calls ceased.

I’ve adjusted to all that.   This life without a boss and without having to be a boss seems like the way it should be right now.   It’s a life of freedom, challenge and yes, hope for the future.

I’ve learned much about this time of life from the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, (1924-2014) rereading his 1995 book ‘From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older.’

His life’s work was to change the way we think about aging, and the way we behave as “elders” – a term he prefers to “the elderly.”  An elder for him is ‘a person who is still growing, still a learner, still with potential, still in pursuit of happiness, joy and pleasure.’

He reminded us that age alone does not make one a wise elder.  ‘People don’t automatically become sages,’he wrote, ‘simply by living to a great age.’  We become wise by undertaking the inner work of what he calls ‘spiritual eldering.’

He admits that it is not easy given how we unconsciously internalize the negative images of aging in our youth-oriented society.   He warns that ‘ageism’ is as degrading as sexism and racism.  The inevitability of life’s end can be overwhelming.

I’ve found that the work of ‘spiritual eldering’has given me the tools needed to face my own mortality.   It’s not for the faint of heart.

During my 80thyear I’ve undergone chemo treatment for lymphoma. Thankfully it is now in remission. Which makes me a cancer survivor twice over having survived prostate cancer earlier in life.

This inner work requires commitment.  As Rabbi Zalman wrote, it’s a process during which, ‘our identity comes not from what we do, but from who we are.’  Elders learn that they no longer need to rush around to prove their self-worth by performance in the work world.

From this new identity, moving from “age-ing to sage-ing,” elders continue learning and leading by giving back, or as some now describe it – giving forward, particularly through mentoring younger people and engaging in worthwhile projects that will outlive us.

That’s a good thing!


Posted in Leadership, Serving | 9 Comments