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Don M. Frick, Ph.D.

Grateful Leadership is Servant Leadership

In her book Grateful Leadership, Judith Umlas gives homage to Robert K. Greenleaf, who first articulated the principles of servant leadership for our time. Greenleaf (1904-1990) was a businessman whose job at AT&T was to find and develop management talent at the world’s largest corporation. As part of that quest, he noticed that leadership made a positive difference in the efficiency, morale and profit margins of Ma Bell’s several hundred subsidiaries—not the kind of autocratic leadership that was popular at the time, but leadership based on listening, coaching and supporting workers. What he learned from these unusually effective leaders meshed with his own practices in working with his staff, and many of those lessons eventually made their way into his writings on servant leadership.

Servant leadership is not a formal academic theory of leadership or even one among many models. Rather, it is a grounding philosophy of ethical leadership based on a simple idea: we trust leaders not because of their positions but because their behaviors show that they have at heart our best interests, and those of the organization. They serve all stakeholders, and because of that service, are granted the moral authority to lead.

The way they lead is key. Servant-leaders listen with deep presence; they use persuasion as the preferred mode of power rather than coercion or manipulation; they practice the art of withdrawal and reflection. Servant-leaders access intuition in order to practice foresight, tend to see things holistically, demand accountability and build community.

Like Judith W. Umlas, Greenleaf knew that you cannot build community, much less earn trust, without acknowledging colleagues, expressing gratitude and offering recognition. If Greenleaf was alive today, I believe he would say that you cannot be a servant-leader without being a Grateful Leader. Put another way, Grateful Leadership is a way of putting into practice the core value of servant leadership.

Bob Greenleaf was not a gushy guy; in fact, he was a natural introvert, yet one friend said he was the most enjoyable person to be with he had ever met. How was that possible? Because Greenleaf acknowledged others with deep listening, and specific, genuine statements of appreciation. He not only acknowledged behaviors, but also attitudes. His purpose was not to simply grease the wheels of human interaction but to promote the growth of another.

Two examples: When the medical community thought Dr. Patch Adams was nuts for promoting laughter in a health care setting, Adams read Greenleaf’s essay The Servant as Leader and realized that the term “servant-leader” gave language to who he was, deep down. He began a correspondence with Greenleaf and later said that Bob’s acknowledgment of the medical truths he had discovered and the foresight he displayed was critical for him at a time of near despair.

Bob developed the habit of sending 3 x 5 notecards of encouragement to friends around the country. One of those friends was Jim Morris, whom Bob met when Jim was Director of the Lilly Endowment. People in Indianapolis know Mr. Morris as a behind-the-scenes guy who was a key player in developing the city from sleepy “India-no-place” to a vibrant metropolis worthy of hosting a Super Bowl. He is a natural servant-leader who says, “I know it sounds corny, but all I ever wanted to do in my life was to be useful.” After he contacted Bob and explained a scheme of public-private partnerships to further community development, Bob sent a notecard expressing his approval and acknowledgment of Jim’s work. When Jim showed me the card, this man who once directed the United Nations World Food Program choked back emotion because he had been acknowledged by a person whom he admired.

There is another lesson from this story. These days, so many communications are sent and received via electronic versions that a written note sent through office mail or the U.S. mail can hold more power than it did twenty years ago.

Let’s look more closely at the principle of acknowledgment, which is one of Judith Umlas’s enduring contributions to leadership practice. The truism you learn in Management 101 is “What gets rewarded gets done,” not “What gets criticized gets done.” This is as true for workplace colleagues as it is for children. Grateful Leadership takes the reward principle to another level by explaining that rewards are mere strategies unless they are part of a heartfelt acknowledgment of the other person. I am reminded of the phrase the isiZulu people in South Africa use when greeting each other: Sawubona! It means “I see you,” and is an acknowledgment that I am present to you, here and now. That is the kind of acknowledgment a Grateful Leader offers on a daily basis, not as a strategy but as an authentic, soulful connection.

Your grateful acknowledgments can come in various forms, and for surprising reasons. When I consulted with the Minnesota Department of Transportation after the I-35W bridge collapse, their goal was to regain public trust and rebuild their internal culture. I suggested they acknowledge, recognize and celebrate servant-leaders in their midst by telling their stories. Out of that came a series of articles and videos about people who served first, chief among them the snowplow drivers who rolled out of bed early, fired up their machines in 20-below weather, and went out and saved lives.

My friend Dr. Ann McGee-Cooper, a specialist in servant leadership and creativity, once participated in a project with NASA at Clear Lake, Texas, near the Johnson Space Center. At the time — 1968 — NASA was inventing totally new technologies and needed to reward creativity. Ann remembers what she found:

“To my amazement, I learned that astronauts, scientists and engineers were taught imaging, meditating and “day dreaming” various pictures of the future—what might be and how things might unfold. They began with 20 minutes a day and worked up to 2 hours a day of imaging. They were learning to use their subconscious mind to guide their conscious mind as they literally invented the future.”

When is the last time you acknowledged someone for daydreaming?

Greenleaf’s “best test” of a servant-leader is one you should consider to measure your own leadership efforts:

“Are those being served, while they are being served, healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged? Are they helped, or at least not further harmed?”

What fruit is borne by your Grateful Leadership? If you are an authentic Grateful Leader, you are well on your way to creating the outcomes of the “best test.” Guaranteed.

You can learn more about servant leadership by visiting the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership website at

Don M. Frick, Ph.D. is a teacher, speaker and workshop leader. He is author of the authorized biography Robert K. Greenleaf: A Life of Servant Leadership, the book Implementing Servant Leadership, and co-author of The Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership. You may contact him at [email protected]


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