• Categories: Role of the board
  • Published: Jun 28, 2022
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First published in BoardWorks, #12, 2012

An invitation to speak on the subject of ‘Excellence in Trusteeship’ has been the catalyst for me to revisit the seminal work of Robert Greenleaf. [1] Greenleaf extolled the vital importance of good governance well before a more general public awareness emerged. His essay, The Servant as Leader, was published in 1970, nearly 20 years before the quality of ‘corporate governance’ and trusteeship became a matter of common concern in the aftermath of the 1987 global share market crash.

Greenleaf anticipated the tragic failures in organisational trusteeship that would become apparent, not just in 1987 but many times since. It is surprising, therefore, that Greenleaf’s intellectual legacy is little recognised by corporate governance thought leaders today. A notable exception is US policy governance theorist John Carver. Carver has frequently acknowledged his debt to Greenleaf’s concept of ‘servant leadership’.

A collection of Greenleaf’s essays (Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness) first published in 1977, has been republished a number of times and is easily obtained by anyone with a keen interest in good governance. [2]

My own re-reading of ‘Servant Leadership’ while inspirational was also somewhat confronting. Greenleaf’s expectations of the standards to which all ‘trustees’ (board members) should both aspire and perform, are uncompromising. Those of us who accept the responsibility of organisational trusteeship should periodically ask ourselves how we measure up to Greenleaf’s challenge.

Is trusteeship more than just nominal?

Greenleaf’s primary challenge to trustees is to consider whether we are ambitious enough in our expectations of ourselves and our boards. Is our ‘trusteeship’ more than just nominal?

…the questionable performance of major institutions is not the result of incompetence or poor motives or lack of industry in the internal administration and leadership, but stems rather from an inadequate concept of trust in the governing boards and their failure to accept a more demanding (and a more rewarding) role.

Too many [trustees] 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 tasks of building better institutions in an imperfect world, too little disposition to see “the problem” as residing in here and not out there.

Who are the ‘trustees’?

Greenleaf stressed the special kind of ‘external leadership’ provided by an effective board:

Institutions need two kinds of leaders: those who are inside and carry the active day-to-day roles, and those who stand outside but are intimately concerned, and who, with the benefit of some detachment, oversee the active leaders. These are the trustees.

He described trustees as:

  • the persons in whom ultimate trust is placed
  • those with a prime concern for fulfilling organisational purpose
  • the legal holders of tangible assets, responsible for their good use
  • the ‘court of last resort’ when issues cannot be resolved by the active (internal) leaders.

How do trustees function?

Greenleaf saw the board of trustees as the group working to sustain the organisation’s common purpose and to be influential in it achieving consistent, high-level performance. To achieve that, he expected the board to operate:

  • by influence rather than authority—more by ‘knowing’ and asking questions than by ‘doing’ and issuing instructions
  • by ‘managing’ rather than ‘administering’ (i.e. operating) the organisation
  • by creating a framework within which it delegates authority to others (the active leaders) to operate.

The distinction Greenleaf made between the processes of managing and administering is not a common one today but is potentially very useful. It invites us to re-examine the rather narrow use of the term ‘managing’ that has evolved. Most applicable statutes and corporate constitutions require the board to ‘manage’ the organisation in the broader, overarching sense that Greenleaf uses the term.

What should we expect of trustees?

Notions of ‘good stewardship’ and ‘trusteeship’ underlie our basic concepts of the responsibilities of boards and directors. These are expressed in law as the fiduciary duties of directors. However, Greenleaf saw fiduciary responsibility as relatively passive. He exhorted trustees to go further—to the acceptance of ‘a dynamic obligation to be an insistent driving force obliging an institution to move towards distinction’.

The board, he said, needs to be concerned for the ‘supply of a standard of quality and a determination such that the institution’s contribution to those it serves will be exceptional’. If it succeeds, ‘…if a strong board sets distinction as its goal, invests the time and energy, organizes itself for the task, and stays with it, distinction is practically assured’.

At the heart of this message is Greenleaf’s insistence that:

Trustees must stand as the symbol of institutional quality.

Are we achieving distinction in our trusteeship?

As members of boards, as trustees, can we really say that we stand as a credible symbol of institutional quality? Are we really worthy of the trust that has been placed in us? What are the kinds of questions that Greenleaf’s work challenges us to ask of ourselves? For example:

  • As trustees are we motivated to do the job properly (i.e. to fulfill the trust placed in us)? Are we on this board for the right reasons? Do we really care about this organisation and the purpose and the people it serves?
  • Does the time and attention we pay to the governance of this organisation respect—and justify—the trust that is placed in us?
  • As trustees, do we understand what our job is? Are we doing the right job?
  • Do our staff understand, respect and support our role?
  • Are we exercising trustee judgements (as compared to administrative judgements)?
  • Do we allocate our time according to what is important? Do we apply our attention to matters central to fulfilling the trust placed in us?
  • Do we add value or do we just ‘rubber stamp’ staff work?
  • Does the board realise the value of its distance from day-to-day operational pressures? Or does it get dragged down into operational detail?
  • Do we focus enough on organisation achievement and performance?
  • Do we as trustees actively monitor how the authority we delegate is used? Do we assure ourselves that those affected by the power we delegate are positively helped and not harmed? Do we only exercise our authority in the event of gross and flagrant abuse of power and position?
  • As trustees do we ask the right questions? And do we insist on satisfactory answers?
  • Does our board question the status quo? Does it ensure established patterns are open to challenge and change?
  • Do we as trustees obtain the information we need to do our job? (Information that in Carver’s terms is about the ‘design of the future’ rather than ‘minding the shop’)
  • Is our board doing something with the information it obtains? Does it assess it critically?
  • Does it challenge its own interpretation? Seek verification? Add its own wisdom?
  • Is our board of trustees well led? Is our chair our ‘servant leader’ or does he or she act like the ‘boss’ of the board? Does our chair demonstrate a commitment to organisational achievement and board effectiveness that matches the weight of trust placed in us?

Do we care enough to do a proper job?

In the end, a simple, basic message we can draw from Greenleaf’s writing is that excellent trusteeship mostly boils down to caring. For trustees to build great organisations he says that:

…most important of all is caring. Most trustees I know just don’t care enough. If trustees really cared, ideas and people would blossom all over the place.

Any institution that does not strive with all of its resources, human and material, to achieve the reasonable and the possible…is not being adequately cared for by its trustees.


1. Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) spent most of his organizational life in the field of management, research, development, and education at major US company AT&T. Just before his retirement as Director of Management Research at AT&T, he held a joint appointment as visiting lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the Harvard Business School. He also held other teaching positions. When he retired from AT&T in 1964, Greenleaf launched a new career as speaker, writer and consultant. He has become best known for applying the concept of ‘servant leadership,’ to an organisational context. In his retirement he wrote and spoke extensively on the subject. Greenleaf also founded the Center for Applied Ethics which was subsequently renamed the Robert K. Greenleaf Center. It remains active in promoting his ideas today (see http://www.greenleaf.org).

2. For example: http://www.amazon.com/Servant-Leadership-Legitimate-Anniversary- ebook/dp/B00511JL6C/ref=pd_sim_kstor