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Chapter 1: Servant Leadership

A Culture of Servant Leadership

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servant leadership

Foundations and nonprofits in the state of Michigan enjoyed a culture of servant leadership during a 40-year period (1969 to 2009), remarkable for the development of a sophisticated network of initiatives focused on increasing and improving philanthropy.

robert-greenleafThis leadership philosophy, in which the leader’s goal is to serve, was defined by Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the Center for Applied Ethics (retitled the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in his honor in 1985), and modeled by key positional and inspirational leaders. A generation of volunteers and professionals adopted this style of working in philanthropy, as well.

Evidence of a servant leadership orientation resides in the implementation of projects and programs where the ability to listen, trust, and empower individual leaders working at the local community level was demonstrated. A core belief was to value all philanthropy without imposing personal preferences – no matter the size of a gift of money or service, without prejudice about the form in which it was given, and honoring the intent of the donor. Senior leaders in positions of power established an atmosphere and expectations that encouraged and rewarded individuals and organizations for working together toward larger shared goals rather than relying on the institutional dominance of any one organization in the field. This same cadre of key leaders also encouraged and supported fearless creativity and innovation with an understanding that real, systemic change takes time – not months, or even years, but decades.


Michigan’s culture of servant leadership focused on promoting and improving philanthropy, which resulted in an array of vibrant foundations and nonprofit organizations that continue to be supported in their work by internationally recognized associations and commissions. Together, leaders and their organizations implemented initiatives with local, state, national, and global impact.

Chapter 1 explores how a servant leadership philosophy supported Michigan’s dynamic philanthropic culture.


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