Servant Leaders & Building Community

This aspect of servant leadership is for me one of the most fascinating and important of Greenleaf’s insights so I will let him do a lot of the talking. As you read what he has to say bear in mind that he is speaking to you from 1970. A voice ahead of its time.

He entitled this section of his book “Community – The Lost Knowledge of These Times” as he believed society was moving away from community, replacing it with institutions. I can’t help thinking if this was true in 1970, how much more now?

In contrasting community with institutions Greenleaf considers orphanages, prisons, hospitals, schools, mental health care homes and care of the elderly homes. In each case he highlights the shortcomings of these institutions and suggests that community, more specifically family, would be a far more effective place to care for these individuals. His conclusion:

As a generalisation, I suggest that any human service that requires love cannot be satisfactorily dispensed by specialist institutions that exist apart from community, that take the problem out of sight of the community. Both those being cared for and the community suffer.


So what is the difference between community and institution? Greenleaf’s answer is love which he suggests begins with unlimited liability. His view is that institutions limit liability, community doesn’t. He goes to suggest that institutions are usually people-using rather than people-building.

Greenleaf again:

… any human services where he who is served should be loved in the process, requires community, a face to face group in which the liability of each for the other and all for one is unlimited, or as close as it is possible to get. Trust and respect are highest in this circumstance and an accepted ethic that gives strength to all is reinforced. Where there is not community, trust, respect, ethical behaviour are difficult for the young to learn and for the old to maintain. Living in community as one’s basic involvement will generate an exportable surplus of love which the individual may carry into his many involvements with institutions which are usually not communities: businesses, churches, governments, schools.


So what does servant-leadership have to do with community? Greenleaf again:

All that is needed to rebuild community as a viable life form from large numbers of people is for enough servant leaders to show the way, not by mass movements, but by demonstrating his own unlimited liability for a quite specific community-related group.


Using this thought as a springboard I’d suggest there are four ways in which servant-leaders can help to create community:

1. Build relationships with small groups not just rapport with large crowds.

2. Build a leadership team of which they themselves are a part and encourage those they lead to also work in teams.

3. Value and celebrate teams not just individual contributors.

4. Leverage the normalising and healing properties of the community by placing those who need help amongst people who can help them. The dog whisperer wasn’t the first person to leverage the healing power of the pack.

Perhaps the best example we see of small-scale community is family. Any organisation is made up of a number of families. Servant-leaders show value for the families represented within the organisation they lead as well as demonstrating family values. In closing I couldn’t resist returning to one of my favourite topics, women in leadership, as it strikes me women are generally way ahead of men when it comes to building community. How can we be surprised at the absence of community within organisations when the majority of leaders are male?

Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant