Servant Leaders & Persuasion
Leadership by persuasion has the virtue of change by convincement rather than coercion. The advantages are obvious.


To explain what he means by persuasion Greenleaf cites the example of John Woolman, a Quaker who spent 30 years of his life (he died at age of 52) persuading the Quaker movement, one person at a time, to rid itself of slavery which it did in 1770, nearly a 100 years before the Civil War.

Greenleaf suggests the hallmarks of Woolman’s approach to cultural transformation (my words not his) were:

– Gentle, clear and consistent persuasion.

– Time spent face to face with individuals and small groups.

– Non judgmental argument.

– Encouraging people to ask why.

I think it’s helpful to think about these in the negative. He didn’t:

– Start a protest movement or incite overnight revolution

– Rely solely, if at all, on addressing large crowds.

– Try to make people feel guilty.

– Tell people what to do.

What does Woolman have to teach today’s leaders about leading cultural transformation?

1. Cultural transformation takes time. In today’s instant world where even the fast food outlets have express lanes, leaders can fall into the trap of thinking that cultural transformation can be effected overnight. This leads to short term thinking, planning and execution that doesn’t affect lasting change. Servant-leaders understand that beauty takes time and lead for the long term goal not the short term gain.

2. Cultural transformation is best effected one person at a time. In today’s multimedia world where technology makes it possible to communicate with millions of people at a time it’s easy for leaders to over rely on presentations to large crowds as a means to win hearts and minds. Servant-leaders understand the power of winning people in person one person at a time. 

3. Whilst it’s relatively easy to make people feel guilty. Guilt is rarely if ever a motivation for lasting change. People change because they want to (hearts). People change because they have a reason to (minds). Servant-leaders don’t guilt people into change they win their hearts and minds instilling in them the desire to change and giving them a reason to change.

4. Hearts and minds is about “why” not “what”. Servant-leaders help people to ask and answer the why question and in the process give them reasons to change rather than seek to exert control over those they lead or demand they change.

5. Servant-leaders convince through persuasion rather than control through position. They are able to build consensus by winning one person at a time. They don’t rely on title or hierarchy to coerce people to change.

Reflecting on my experience of leading in business Greenleaf’s insight into persuasion resonates strongly. I have relied on persuasion not positional power to lead and I have found this approach very effective in the context of cultural transformation. I would encourage business leaders to consider how they might adopt more of Woolman’s approach in effecting the kind of change they long for in the culture they lead.

Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant