Utilizing Servant-Leadership in Public Libraries

Libraries are designed to serve their communities.  If the library, its services and its collections do not serve its patrons, then there is no reason for the library to exist in the first place. For this reason discussions about patron services framed in terms of retail customer service have always frustrated me. While we can certainly learn much from bookstores, their intent is to move merchandise, not necessarily to serve their communities. This caused me to research what I felt was missing from the conversation and explore Servant-Leadership.

Greenleaf and Servant-Leadership

Servant-Leadership is a set of concepts created by Robert Greenleaf (1904-1990) in the early 1970s that sees leaders needing to be servants first, then rising to the call of leadership. Greenleaf, then a retired AT&T executive and business school lecturer, saw the rise of massive institutions leading to a crisis of leadership. In his eyes, the institutions had ceased to serve the public. He wanted to remake the institutions into ones that once again served the public, or at least did no harm. He wanted to move them from being “people-using to people-building.” (Greenleaf, 52).

He wrote that his ideas were inspired by Hermann Hesse’s novel Journey to the East. In the novel, a band of men were on a mythic journey to find truth. They were accompanied by Leo, a servant who did their menial chores. Greenleaf said the character had extraordinary presence among the men and the journey proceeded well until the day Leo disappeared. Without their servant, the journey dissolved into chaos. This alone is an interesting take on how valuable servants are in an organization, providing the glue that holds it together. However, the tale twists. After a long period in the wilderness (both real and mental), the story’s narrator finds the missing servant and only then discovers that their servant was actually the leader of the religious order that originally sponsored the journey, which was a test to join the order.

Greenleaf said the story swirled in his mind for nearly a dozen years as he sorted out the story’s paradox. How can the servant be the leader? Finally, in 1970, he attempted to answer the question in his essay “Servant as Leader.”

“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. He or she is sharply different from the person who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve – after leadership is established… 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 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, will they not be further deprived?” (Greenleaf, 27)

While Greenleaf first wrote of the concept in 1970, it is certainly not a new idea. Indeed, in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus states “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28, NIV)

While the discussion of servant-leadership might seem appropriate as sermon fodder (and indeed many churches have adopted Greenleaf’s concepts), I found the concepts uncannily appropriate for public libraries. Librarians want to help people learn for a lifetime. Libraries want to provide services to make our communities better places. Does this not make us servants? As such, it strikes me how closely public library mission statements match the tests set for Servant-Leadership by Greenleaf.

A study in contrasts

For any library to be successful, every person working there needs to understand and buy into its mission. Strategically and organizationally, everything flows from the mission statement— its goals, objectives, and ideally its attitudes. The mission statement conveys the who, what, why and how the library serves its community. (Stueart, 108)

The mission statement for the Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library is “to promote reading and guide learning in the pursuit of information, knowledge, and wisdom.” This statement is clear and succinct about the library’s mission and notice a few of the words matched Greenleaf’s test of servant-leadership.

In contrast, this is the mission statement for the Seattle Public Library:

“Our mission is to become the best public library in the world by being so tuned in to the people we serve and so supportive of each other’s efforts that we are able to provide highly responsive service. We strive to inform, enrich and empower every person in our community by creating and promoting easy access to a vast array of ideas and information, and by supporting an informed citizenry, lifelong learning and love of reading. We acquire, organize and provide books and other relevant materials; ensure access to information sources throughout the nation and around the world; serve our public with expert and caring assistance; and reach out to all members of our community.”

With greater verbiage, Seattle’s statement echoes Columbus’ in many ways. However, Seattle’s statement takes it to the next level -– it definitively and joyfully states that “caring” service is the overarching mission of the library. I like that everything in the statement flows from the library’s desire to serve its community and its residents with all the tools the library has at its disposal.

It seems a natural that libraries would want to serve their community. Yet, why do so many mission statements leave this notion of service as an assumption?

Because there were so many similarities between Seattle’s mission statement and Servant-Leadership, I was curious if Greenleaf’s concepts had any influence in the discussion.

Jodee Fenton, manager of the Seattle Public Library’s Seattle Room, searched the library archives, but failed to find any working documents from the development of the mission statement. However, she wrote in an email that she remembers when the mission statement was being developed. “The emphasis on public service was the result of many staff discussions about reference service, customer service, and basically institutional culture where the individual transaction is one of the highest priorities.”

Lyn Schnell, the library’s director of human resources, said in an interview that the mission statement still guides the library’s initiatives and services today. “Decisions on everything from budgets to staff are very much guided by the mission of providing exemplary customer service to the patron,” she said. Schnell said this works because there are no other competing missions vying for attention.

Whether Greenleaf influenced the wording or not, I believe that a culture of service at the Seattle Public Library would certainly fulfill his test of servant-leadership.

Using servant-leadership in libraries

In addition to being a college lecturer, Greenleaf went on to a successful consulting career through the Center of Applied Ethics of Indianapolis. He worked with universities such as MIT and organizations such as the Lilly Foundation. When he died, the center was renamed the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership. Larry Spears, the current chief executive officer at the Greenleaf Center, is heading the effort to continue his work.

Spears, in an essay entitled “On Character and Servant-Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders,” wrote what is today considered to be an outline for servant-leadership. The ten characteristics included listening, empathy, awareness, healing, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people and building community. In reading about these characteristics, I see how they could be amplified for the decision making process in a public library setting. The process, because the leaders are acting as a servants, would be dramatically different from that of a traditional organization where decisions are made at the top and handed down through a chain of command.

To make decisions, libraries, much like a computer, need to gather input, compute the data and output positive results. While it is impossible to implement the binary logic of a computer in a setting where library managers have to deal with a complex biological entities, the analogy still holds for a specific reason. If the library fails on any of these characteristics it could result in the computing aphorism “garbage in-garbage out.”

The input: Listening, empathy and awareness

Of the 10 characteristics listed by Spears, I think listening, empathy and awareness provide the foundation for implementing Servant-Leadership. These are the inputs and intelligence gathering. If public libraries are to serve their communities, all three must be present in every employee from the frontline to the director.

Spears notes that leaders have “traditionally been valued for their communication and decision-making skills. Although these are also important skills for the servant-leader, they need to be reinforced by a deep commitment to listening intently to others.” The Seattle mission statement echoes this sentiment noting they want to be “so tuned in to the people we serve” that they can provide exemplary service.

Being this in tune with the community requires listening at every level. When a patron walks in the door to ask a reference question, there has to be a solid interview to insure the patron is receiving the information they truly need. We need to follow up that they are satisfied and have found their materials. The desk clerk needs to double check that the patron is indeed content. At each step, they need to stop and listen.

This listening must also carry an attitude. Seattle covers this by stating they want to provide “expert and caring assistance.” To fulfill this goal, librarians must cease protecting their domain. I have met librarians who force the patron to give up something of themselves in exchange for services. It was as if they were saying “bow down to me as I am the protector of information.” Rather, librarians should be as kind, open and as understanding as possible. A patron should not have to give up a shred of dignity to attain information. As Greenleaf wrote, we need organizations that are people-building and not people-using. By being kind and listening to our patrons, we gain their trust, which will in turn lead them to tell us what they think about our library, at which point we listen again.

Middle management, in turn, has to listen intently to the frontline employees and the information gathered in this process has to easily work its way through the organization to the policy makers. Spears wrote that these leaders are important because they need “to identify the will of a group and help clarify that will” so it can be communicated throughout the organization.

The policy makers, in turn, need to use this information to form and evaluate services and policy. If the managers or policy makers fail to listen to the people on the frontline, there is no means to orient services toward the patron.

This process also requires everyone to actually understand and empathize with the people they are listening to. If at any point library employees cease to empathize with their patrons, the patron’s needs and the input being offered by these people could be discounted and lost.

While many might expect a breakdown in communication between the frontline and the policy makers, it is more dangerous for this to happen between the patrons and the frontline. For example, if the frontline librarians discount the jobless as lazy bums, will they stop looking for ways to give their patrons a leg up in the job market? Will they forget the library’s ability make connections with other community services? A breakdown at this level means the library immediately loses the trust of its patrons.

Spears noted that management should realize that no employee is perfect and that they should coach employees to build up their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. This should also be a consideration of frontline staff and the library’s patrons.

Listening and empathy together result in awareness. Only by doing the former can you gain the latter. Greenleaf writes that leaders should work towards “opening wide the doors of perception” so they are more in tune with the everyday life of the library and its patrons. Yet this is not necessarily a comfortable place to be. Indeed, Greenleaf wrote that “awareness is not a giver of solace– it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener. Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed.” (Greenleaf, p. 41). Greenleaf’s observation reminds me of the bumper sticker that reads: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Being unaware allows librarians to be comfortable, but comfort never results in change. As such, Greenleaf argues that being disturbed is a good. Libraries should never be comfortable lest they cease looking for ways to solve what disturbs them. In turn, they would cease building up their patrons and their community..

Computing the input: conceptualization and foresight

Once library leaders are aware of community needs, it is time to digest the information they have gathered and create a plan for future action. Spears writes that “servant-leaders seek to nurture their abilities to dream great dreams.” This can often be a difficult process for librarians because they are often busy trying to meet the day-to-day needs of the library. Yet, if the library fails to dream today, they will fail to meet patrons’ needs tomorrow.

Where does this conceptualizing take place? In an institutional setting, Greenleaf writes this is the role of the board of trustees. The trustees are “trusted” by their community to set the mission, goals and objectives of the library. In turn, the trustees charge the management team to translate these objectives into the day-to-day action. (Greenleaf, p. 54). While good trustees are out listening in the community, they do not have the day-to-day exposure experienced by the frontline and administrative staff. Thus, the trustees must not only listen to both the public and the management, but also to the frontline staff. For this reason, every employee needs to think beyond the day and dream. Similarly, the management structure needs to be porous so these dreams make their way to the board.

Once these dreams are in mind, the library (staff, management and trustees inclusively) needs to implement foresight. This is not unlike a game of chess where a player looks at all the variable several moves ahead of his turn. The trustees and management needs to pull back and see the big picture in order to calculate the possible impact of the dreams several steps ahead of the action with the aim of maximizing benefits while minimizing any negatives. Spears writes that this foresight to “understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future” is a very intuitive process and, like chess, must practiced repeatedly to gain efficiency and benefits for the leader’s community.

Taking action: persuasion and listening yet again

Once a course of action has been decided upon by the trustees and the management team, the course still has to be implemented. In traditional top-down management, the edict is simply handed down and the underlings implement the policy whether they like it or not. Feedback, if there is any, may be casually disregarded or marginally noted. Stephen Covey calls this the “ping-pong” model of communication “because each party is exchanging ideas under rapid fire without processing the meaning.” (Douglas)

Servant-Leadership on the other hand encourages persuasion rather than force of personal authority. Spears calls this element “one of the clearest distinctions between the traditional authoritarian model and that of Servant-Leadership.”

Persuasion requires a good deal of communication. The servant-leader needs to clearly explain why the policy is being adopted and more importantly work to build the consensus that it should be adopted. The aim is to win overall buy-in so everyone aggressively pursues the new policy’s aims. This process is critical because a half-implemented policy may not function properly or worse cause a negative impact.

At this point, the whole process returns to square one because the leaders once again have to listen intently to their front line to see whether the policy is working. Any new policy, no matter how well thought out, needs to be tested by reality. Software developers offer pre-releases for people to “beta test” and report bugs back to the developers. The beta testers for the library are the patrons and the frontline employees. This is yet another place where lack of communication in the system can quash the best laid plans.

The intent: It’s all about healing and growing people and places

Where does this all lead? The obvious answer is that this mindset, which Greenleaf and Spears acknowledges takes a lifetime of learning, forces the library staff to be aware of its surroundings and work collaboratively toward solutions that make the public feels they are being understood and served. Yet, there should be something more.

In reading about Servant-Leadership, one of the most surprising concepts was that of healing. While healing outside of medicine can have negative connotations, Greenleaf uses the term in the meaning of “to make whole.” Spears writes that healing “is a powerful force for transformation and integration” to make people and communities whole. The intent is both inward and outward looking because by serving, Greenleaf argues you not only help make others whole, you in turn make yourself whole.

I am reminded of a reference question from a patron who asked me to help him find medical information. He had just come from his doctor’s office with a diagnosis. His doctor had explained the basics, but he wanted more information. By helping him find sound information, it help him mentally deal with a physical condition. Especially with recent studies showing mental outlook being an important part of healing, the library service helped him in that process.

Thus from an outwards perspective I can see this as a valid concept. Anytime we help provide answers to the unknown, we are helping the person we are serving become more whole. If the library staff repeats this process often enough, I believe it could help make our community more whole as well. Flipping that around, serving helps us improve who we are professionally. With every reference question we help answer, we too gain knowledge and learn to more effectively use our tools. This in turn helps us serve the next patron that much better.

Servant-leadership and the organization

I have covered how Servant-Leadership could work in a public library towards creating policy and working with patrons and the community. However, for any of this to work, an organizational structure needs to be in place that allows this to happen.

In his essay, “The Institution as Servant,” Greenleaf had much to say about how the organizations themselves should be formed. He classifies organizational structure in two classes– formal and informal. The formal structure is comprised of the rules and policies that dictate how the organization is operated. Informal structure is “building purpose and challenging with opportunity, judicious use of incentives, astute ordering of priorities and allocating resources where they count the most.” It is the informal structure that responds to leadership, he writes. (Greenleaf, 73).

The informal structure allows for the creative thinking to filter through an organization because everyone is vested. Greenleaf calls this progressive openness the “glue” that holds the organization together. When this glue is missing, organizations tend to compensate by implementing more formalities. This in turn results in greater bureaucracy that makes it even harder to function and communicate.

For this reason, Greenleaf wrote that he would abolish all forms of autocratic management structures. For him, the optimum organization would be led by a board of trustees that works with a management “team of equals” to perform day-to-day operations. This team would be lead by a primus inter pares — a first among equals. (Greenleaf, 74)

The main reason behind this structure is communication. Members on the team can more freely communicate with each other because they are equals. You cannot shoot the messenger because you shoot yourself. Similarly, Greenleaf writes that the primus can think out loud without the worry of his thoughts being taken as gospel. This method mandates that policy is generated by consensus because you need greater buy-in before a decision can even be made. Management by committee also spreads the responsibility. Group checks and balances help avoids corruption and prevents burnout.

In a public library, the management team could be the department heads with the director as primus. This structure could be a beneficial towards breaking down the barriers between the various library departments. In addition to the increased avenues for communication to reach the management group, I like that this arrangement could force inter-departmental cooperation. If each department head was also charged with thinking of the library as a whole, than the departments would be more likely to think of ways they could benefit each other to further the library’s mission.

In addition to operating the library, the main purpose of this team is to “grow” the staff. Spears writes that “servant-leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As such, the servant-leader is deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual within his or her organization.” From encouraging continuing education and listening to their ideas to motivating employees and including them in the decision making process, this is an extremely important task. Without frontline employees to carry forward the mission, the library might as well not exist. As Brownsburg Public Library director Wanda Pearson noted, an employee who is not happy immediately has a negative impacts on service to the community.

Who me, a leader?

In the end, who are the servant-leaders? The answer is another reason I find Servant-Leadership appropriate to libraries— anyone and everyone. Everyone in the library has the capacity to serve, so everyone has the capacity to be a leader in some fashion.

For example, the circulation clerk may do the same dozen tasks day after day, but they can listen to patrons and be aware of the library around them. Indeed, clerks are among the best people for this task. With encouragement and training, they too can dream, see the big picture and offer solutions or attitudes that can make the library a people- and community-building place. Stephen Covey would call this person is a “trimtab.”

Covey compared large organizations to large ocean-going vessels. Because of strong resistance, both can be hard to steer. Thus, instead of using the rudder, Covey says to use the trimtab.

“The trimtab is the small rudder on the big rudder of a ship… Sometimes the resistance of the ocean is so strong that you can’t turn the rudder directly so you can turn a small trimtab, which is easier to turn. It gets leverage against the water, and that can enable the rudder to turn; and where the rudder turns, you can direct the ship to its destination. I love this image…because every one of us can become a trimtab figure -– inside our families, inside our communities, inside our organizations. It doesn’t make any difference what your position is. (Covey, p. 30)

Some would argue that not only are trimtabs are missing in libraries, but so are rudders. A recent paper in the journal Library Review examined how 30 supervisory librarians from Great Britain, Ireland and the United States viewed leadership and management in public libraries. Only eight of the 30 said their job entailed leadership. If the supervisors are not exhibiting leadership, who is? A British librarian interviewed in the study noted that “leadership and management are different. Leadership is far more important than management. For a successful organization, one has to do more than manage; one has to lead, one has to be out front and one has got to bring people with them.” (Mullins, 240)

That is exactly what Servant-Leadership espouses, yet that is not always welcome in libraries. Library Journal editor-at-large John Berry wrote that true leaders are rare in libraries because they want to step outside the boundaries of library rules and policies and see the big picture and make changes that are often outside those boundaries. “Not every enterprise or organization can tolerate such action or behavior. That is why there are, alas, plenty of leaderless libraries and plenty of libraries that would be intolerant of that basic quality of the leader — that unwillingness to abide by the structure at hand, that unwillingness not to change.” (Berry)


Servant-Leadership asks a lot of its practitioners. Greenleaf advocates an entire reset in thinking and in our institutions. Indeed, some of its elements are nearly mystical. Acquiring the ability to step outside day-to-day management and envision the future using intuition built upon facts is a study of a lifetime.

Yet, by not exploring, leading and implementing these practices where possible, we become the enemy:

“The real enemy is fuzzy thinking on part of good, intelligent, vital people, and their failure to lead, and to follow servants as leaders. Too many settle for being critics and experts. There is too much intellectual wheel spinning, too much retreating into ‘research,’ too little preparation for and willingness to undertake the hard and high-risk task of building better institutions in an imperfect world, too little disposition to see ‘the problem’ as residing in here and not out there. In short, the enemy is strong natural servants who have the potential to lead, but do not lead, or who choose to follow a nonservant. They suffer. Society suffers. And so it may be in the future.” (Greenleaf, 59).

While these words were written 37 years ago, I think these words still hold very true for both libraries and the people who work in libraries. Yet, I do not see an option for libraries to follow the lead of other servant institutions. Thus, we must take the lead or close.

I believe this is the case because the pace of technological change is amplifying social change. Raised on technology and instant access to information, the needs and expectations of today’s children are very different from those of their parents. If we wait for this generation to ask for services, it will already to too late. We will have lost their attention, trust and confidence. Then we may as well close. As a result, we not only need to provide services for today, but anticipate tomorrow. I believe Greenleaf’s concepts of Servant-Leadership can provide a framework for us to succeed in this environment.


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