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How a Quiet Man from Terre Haute, Indiana, Changed the Meaning of Leadership

23 Feb 2017

Sometimes, it's the quiet people who have the greatest effect in changing the world.

If you don't believe me, consider the life and work of Robert Greenleaf.

Robert was born in 1904 in Terre Haute, Indiana, a non-descript city, sometimes called the Crossroads of America.

Robert's father was a mechanic who acted as a steward for his community.

There was nothing extraordinary in Robert's early life. He went to engineering school, following in his dad's footsteps and graduated as a maths major in 1926.

He promptly got a job with the telephone giant, AT&T, where he became fascinated by the effect that large corporations had on individuals and the larger societies in which they operated.

In 1929, Robert moved to the AT&T headquarters in Manhattan, New York where he became drawn to what we would now call "management development", something which in the 1920's and 30's was an unrecognized Cinderella function.

Robert then travelled across America delivering management training programmes and working as a troubleshooter for AT&T and its associate businesses.

During these travels, he noticed one thing above all else: that the businesses that thrived were those that served the needs of both employees and the organisation. As he later put it, "The organisation exists for the person as much as the person exists for the organisation".

Robert continued to work at AT&T for 38 years, rising to become Director of Management Development. In 1964, he left AT&T and a few years later published his seminal work, "The Leader as Servant", based on his years of working with all levels of leaders, managers, and workers.

With time, the idea of "the servant leader" has taken hold in large numbers of organisations across the world. Today, it is an ideal that thousands of organisations actively pursue.

You can find out more about Robert Greenleaf in our Models of Management Slide Topic called, "Servant Leaders". You'll also be able to learn about the 10 principles of servant leadership and fill in a worksheet to assess how well you measure up.

Robert Greenleaf died in 1990 and, as befits his quiet life, was buried in his home town. His epitaph is also self-deprecatingly humble and says: "Potentially a good plumber; ruined by a sophisticated education".

Yes, but what an education!

(Attribution: the above image was taken from pixabay here.)