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Chapter 1: Servant Leadership

Applied Servant Leadership

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Changing or creating large-scale private sustainable systems to promote public good is extremely difficult. In the state of Michigan, remarkable progress was achieved over the course of 40+ years through a culture of activism that helped shape and support the state’s philanthropy. An extraordinary group of interrelated philanthropic organizations were created, defined by a culture of servant leadership.

michiganA series of initiatives, for example, ensured that every county in Michigan would be served by: a community foundation with youth-focused grantmaking resources — the Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project (MCFYP), a United Way, and a volunteer center.

These three community-level resources continue to capture local wealth: as endowed assets for use across generations, annual gifts to support operating expenses for nonprofits, and the human resources of volunteers.

Rather than provide a single anticipated solution to a social problem (such as importing a project from another state without modification), a successful strategy in Michigan was to provide philanthropic leaders with tools to meet current, ongoing, and future needs. The mission was to increase and improve philanthropy itself.

The Council of Michigan Foundations discussed improving philanthropy in several board meetings:

Historical_DocsHistorical Document: CMF Board Book, 02-19-1991, Michigan Community Foundation Youth Project

Historical Document: Historical_DocsCMF Board Book, 03-07-1989, Improving Philanthropy

Historical Document: Historical_DocsCMF Board Book, 11-02-1988, Improving Philanthropy

In Michigan, a generation of philanthropic (foundation, nonprofit, and volunteer) leaders understood and applied the philosophy of “servant leadership” – both in theory and in practice. For example, senior program officers of grantmaking foundations often served in “hands-on” roles on boards, commissions, and committees. They served as secretaries and took notes, and “went into the woods” with youth grantmakers at summer camp.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss wearing “multiple hats” in philanthropic leadership.


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One of the reasons for Michigan’s unusual success in improving and increasing philanthropy may be this commitment to servant leadership. Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the Center for Applied Ethics (renamed the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in 1985) defined “servant leadership” in an essay The Servant as Leader (1970):

The servant leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions… The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and most difficult to administer is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived? [Excerpt from Greenleaf, R.K. (1991). The servant as leader ([Rev. ed.]). Indianapolis, IN: Robert K. Greenleaf Center.]

Greenleaf’s second major essay, The Institution as Servant, focused on the behavior of institutions:

This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them. [Excerpt from Greenleaf, R.K. (1976). The institution as servant. Indianapolis, IN: Robert K. Greenleaf Center.]

Greenleaf’s work emerged during the development of Michigan’s philanthropic infrastructure. The Center for Applied Ethics was founded in 1964, Greenleaf’s first essay published in 1970, and his point of view on individual and institutional leadership was familiar to Michigan foundations.

Working in and collaborating with the State of Indiana, Greenleaf’s clarity of thought and experience as a business leader gained the attention of Michigan philanthropic leaders. While no direct evidence has been found to support that Greenleaf directly changed the behavior of individual philanthropic leaders in Michigan, it is clear that his insights both defined the nature of Michigan’s philanthropic leaders and provided a language for discussing and self-evaluating their approach.

VideoVideo: Leaders discuss servant leadership.


As important to the understanding of servant leader behavior as the definition, are the examples and lessons learned from the actions of Michigan’s philanthropic leaders. Throughout the discussion of Our State of Generosity are a myriad of specific illustrations. A general overview of the leadership philosophy in Michigan includes the following practical applications:

  1. Listen, Trust, Empower Local Leaders
  2. Value All Philanthropy
  3. Play Well with Others
  4. Be Fearless, Be Patient

Michigan has an unusually sophisticated and strong interconnected network of support structures designed to increase charitable giving, support civic engagement through volunteerism, and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of philanthropic efforts. This ethic of support is embodied in four major institutions:

  1. Council of Michigan Foundations
  2. Michigan Nonprofit Association
  3. Michigan Community Service Commission, and
  4. Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University

What may be the key characteristic defining the leadership behaviors of individuals and institutions that created this powerful and complex web of civic engagement is servant leadership.

VideoVideo: Leaders discussing Michigan’s culture of servant leadership.


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