What are you in business for? – Robert K Greenleaf (Excerpts from Servant Leadership)

I have confidence that a new business ethic will emerge…There are many parts of the total business ethic that need attention, but the one I will deal with seems the most basic…

Looking at the two major elements, the work and the person, the new ethic, simply but quite completely stated will be.. “The business exists as much to provide meaningful work to the person as it exists to provide a product or service to the customer”. The business then becomes a serving institution – serving those who produce and those who use. At first the new ethic may put these two on par. But as the economy becomes even more productive.. the new business ethic of service to those who produce, may rise in priority, above service to those who use and the significance of work will be, more the joy of doing rather than the goods and services produced.

There must, of course, be goods and services at some level, but in an era of abundance, they need not be the top priority…

… In an overcrowded industrial society. where most people spend their working lives, [business institutions need to ] adopt an ethic in which meaning and significance are the goal – at least on parity with other goals. And to bring it to parity, it must, for a while at least, be the primary goal… Its accomplishment rests on the ability of institution builders and leaders to move these institutions (while keeping them intact and functioning) from where they are, with the heavy emphasis on production, to where they need to be, with the heavy emphasis on growing people. And they have to do this while meeting all the other performance criteria that society imposes for institutional survival.

… The process has already started in some businesses, with the effort to accommodate the very able young people…who have a clear, individualistic style that they are determined to preserve and who need the excitement of a dynamic purpose.

… Motivation then becomes what people generate for themselves when they experience growth. Whereas the usual assumption about the firm is that it is in business to make a profit and serve its customers and that, it does things for and to employees, to get them to be productive, the new ethic requires that “growth” of those who do the work is the primary aim, and the people then see to it that the customer is served and that the ink on the bottom line is black. It is “their” game. The art of course is how to do this in a firm that employs many thousands..

… When the business manager who is fully committed to this ethic is asked “What are you in business for..?”, the answer may be ” I am in this business for growing people” – people who are stronger, healthier, more autonomous, more self-reliant, more competent [and more happy]. Incidentally we also make and sell at a profit things that people want to buy, so we can pay for all this. We play that game hard and well and we are successful by the usual standards, but that is really incidental… We manage the business about the same way we always did. We simply changed our aim. Consequently, as an institution we are terribly strong. In fact we are distinguished. How do I know we are distinguished? Because the best young people want to work for us.. and once they are inside, they never want to leave. Any business that can do that is a winner.

[These words from Robert Greenleaf written three decades ago are more relevant today than ever]

Excerpts from Servant Leadership (1977)

By Robert K Greenleaf

25th Anniversary Edition (2003)

Magna Publishing Co Ltd pp 154-160

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