An interview with Larry Spears: President & CEO for the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

Author:Dittmar, James K.

Larry Spears was named President & CEO of The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in February, 1990. Spears had previously been Managing Director of the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium, a cooperative association of 12 colleges and universities in the Philadelphia area. He also served as a staff member with the Great Lakes Colleges Association's Philadelphia Center and with the Quaker magazine, Friends Journal, in Philadelphia, PA.

Larry is also a writer and editor. Since 1970 he has published over 300 articles, essays and book reviews, including many for in-house publications. He is the editor for nine texts. He has also been interviewed by numerous publications, including: Fortune, The Indianapolis Business Journal, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, and Advancing Philanthropy. His recent articles include:" Servant-Leadership: Quest for Caring Leadership," and, "Servant-Leadership and Philanthropic Institutions." He is Senior Editor of the Greenleaf Center's newsletter, The Servant Leader.

Under Larry's leadership The Greenleaf Center has experienced tremendous growth and influence. The Center now has nine branch offices located around the world in Australia/New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Korea, The Netherlands, The Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Larry has 25 years of experience in organizational leadership, entrepreneurial development, nonprofit management, and grantwriting, having envisioned and authored 30 successful grant projects totalling several million dollars. He is a longtime member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. From 1988-2000 Larry served as a board trustee for Friends Journal and chaired its advancement committee. Larry is a Fellow of the World Business Academy and serves on the Advisory Board for Perspectives. He and his wife, Beth, have two sons: James, 16, and Matthew, 13.

JD: In his definition, Robert Greenleaf uses this phrase "natural feeling" to describe the starting point for someone to want to become a servant leader. What do you think he meant by that phrase, "It begins with the natural feeling" in terms of becoming a servant leader?

LS: Robert Greenleaf believed that most people have an innate desire to serve others, but he also believed that institutions and society didn't tend to encourage this kind of behavior as much as some others. To some degree, I believe he was also intending to suggest the importance of intuition. We talk more about intuition today than was the case thirty-five years ago when Greenleaf was writing about this. For Greenleaf, that natural feeling was something that he occasionally observed in leaders at AT&T during his 40 years there, and where he was really a good judge of leadership talent. His observation of effective leadership traits led him to identify those who had a natural inclination towards serving others.

JD: So perhaps the idea that assuming the role of servant-leader "came to them naturally," meant that it was part of who they were, as opposed to the belief that every person in the world, by his or her very nature, has the same capacity to become a servant-leader. Do you think Robert Greenleaf would have made that distinction?

LS: Well, yes and no. Greenleaf clearly believed that some people were more predisposed toward being natural servant-leaders than were others. And yet, he also believed that one could learn to be a servant-leader, and that's a very important point from my perspective. We're not all natural-born servants; some of us learn to be servant-leaders only through the school of hard knocks, or sometimes through a slow, internal evolution. I think Greenleaf really wanted to encourage natural servants to perhaps overcome some aspects of their personality that might keep them from seeking leadership positions within organizations. His belief was that if natural servants began to get more involved in leadership then organizations and society would benefit tremendously.

JD: We are very interested in developing servant leadership attitudes and behaviors in our students. You just stated, "Greenleaf clearly felt that you can also learn to be a servant leader." What are some of the most effective methods of developing servant-leaders?

LS: Encouraging people in their own service impulses; doing your best to live your own life as a servant-leader; accepting people for who they are; focusing on personal examples of servant-leadership within each person's life; sharing a variety of learning tools on servant-leadership. I believe that the single best starting point for most people who want to read about servant-leadership remains Robert Greenleaf's essay, The Servant as Leader. The ideas of servant-leadership may be communicated in many ways. The personal development of servant-leaders can be enhanced by showing them love, acceptance, and encouragement. I've also seen the benefits of service-learning projects--deeply grounded in the values of servant-leadership--as a method capable of igniting the servant's heart in students.

JD: How do you view your role at the Greenleaf Center? What are you hoping to accomplish through the work that you do there?

JS: Well, I've been with the Center for sixteen years, having started in early 1990. By the late 1980s Robert Greenleaf had withdrawn from any active involvement with the Center, and serious questions had arisen as to its future. Robert Greenleaf was in declining health, he had operated the center for 25 years as sort of a hip pocket organization with a tiny budget, maybe $50,000 a year, and most of that coming from a series of grants from Lilly Endowment. From its founding in 1964, up until the late 1980s, Bob Greenleaf had utilized the Center in ways that were helpful for him in his own research and writing. In that way, it served a very important function for him as an organization, and as a means to an end. But, he had not ever really sought to develop the Center as a strong organization, and so by 1988, when he had the first in a series of strokes which ended his active work life, the Greenleaf Center board began to look at what might be the future of the Center. There was some disagreement at the time as to what it might become and, in the end, that part of the board which believed that it might have a great mission in the world won out. In late 1989 the board made several decisions aimed at moving the Center into a more active direction. One of those decisions involved moving the Greenleaf Center from the Andover-Newton Theological Center campus (outside of Boston), to Indianapolis. The other major decision was to hire the first full-time director, which turned out to be me. My first few years with the Center were spent, in no small measure, identifying ways of first stabilizing and then growing the organization. I have spent the past thirty years as a non-profit executive and, over time, I've developed some strongly held ideas about the effective development of non-profits in general. The most stable non-profits are those which, when possible, develop revenue streams which are also organic expressions of their mission. That general approach can enable an organization to develop some measure of freedom from having too heavy a reliance upon either individual donations, or grants from foundations. Relying primarily upon donations and/or grants is an iffy kind of way to run an organization. And so I set out to create multiple revenue streams that were also organic expressions of our organizational vision and mission. We started with the establishment of our partnership (membership) program. Next, I began to expand the number of publications on servant leadership. In 1990 the Greenleaf Center sold only Robert Greenleaf's two books, plus a dozen essays written by him from 1970 to 1988. Today, we sell over 140 different essays, books, manuals, videos, etc. to customers around the world. In 1991, we launched an annual conference for servant leadership which has become a major program and a major revenue source for us; and in 1995 we launched our Leadership Institute for Education. Now in its eleventh year, our LIFE program has had over 400 participants from more than 200 colleges and universities. In the early 90s we also created a workshop program which, over time, evolved into what we call today our Servant Leader Speakers Bureau. During this time I've worked to develop a succession of income producing programs which has helped us to grow dramatically. Another major development: In 1994 I was approached by John Wiley & Sons and asked if I would be interested in producing a book on servant leadership. That led to the creation of the first in a series of anthologies on servant-leadership that I've produced over the years. That first book was titled, Reflections on Leadership." How Robert K. Greenleaf's Theory of Servant-Leadership Influenced Today's Top Management Thinkers (1995, John Wiley & Sons). It was well-received and sold well, thus launching a major aspect of my personal work at the Greenleaf Center--the creation of a succession of books and essays which have proven to be a great way of getting the word out on servant-leadership while generating substantive income for the Center. I've developed an approach which basically has found me creating books of one kind or another--two of them: Seeker and Servant (1996, Jossey-Bass) and On Becoming a Servant Leader (1996, Jossey-Bass) were collections of Robert Greenleaf's unpublished writings; two more: The Power of Servant Leadership (1998, Berrett-Koehler) and The Servant-Leader Within (2003, Paulist Press) involved gathering together his separately published essays and publishing them in book form; one book: Servant Leadership." 25th Anniversary Edition (2002, Paulist Press), involved creating a new edition of his classic, 1977 book, and adding substantive new...

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