An Examination of Community Change Through the Lens of Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership is a philosophy that inverts the traditional hierarchy of leadership by emphasizing peoples’ authentic desire to do what is best for their organization and employees.  Robert K. Greenleaf, an early theorist and proponent of the servant-leadership paradigm, highlights the role of service:

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 the 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. (Greenleaf, 1970)


Greenleaf created this definition of Servant-Leadership in 1970, after a 35-year career with AT&T.  As the director of management research, he studied and implemented training and education related to values, attitudes, organization and personal growth. 

The same crisis of ethical leadership Greenleaf recognized forty years ago still exists today.  Scholars, organizations and communities recognize there is a crisis of ethical leadership propelling Greenleaf’s philosophy in to the 21st century.  This crisis of leadership has, in part, been blamed on the traditional command and control model inherent in the structure of traditional organizations (Horsman, 2013).  In a traditional leader-only model, the powerful leader asserts demands and expectations on the subservient follower.  A hierarchal leader-only design often goes unchecked and without reign. 

Changes occur so rapidly in today’s organizations that structural change cannot respond rapidly enough to be effective.  Management acts to command and control the organization through “tighter controls, greater pressure, more clearly defined jobs, and intensified supervision produces distrust, resistance and burnout” (Horsman, 2013).  Servant-Leadership inverts the hierarchy placing the servant-leader in the role of the wise elder who leads from serving and example.  Adding the “servant” to leadership places a different set of expectations requiring dyadic leadership.  Servant-Leadership is profoundly relational requiring the servant-leader to be authentically true to oneself, a fundamental shift from serving oneself to serving others first(Horsman, 2013). 

            Servant-Leadership scholar Larry Spears summarizes Greenleaf in an essay titled “The Ten Characteristics of Servant Leadership”:

In countless for profit and non profit organizations today we are seeing traditional autocratic and hierarchal modes of leadership yielding to a different way of working – one based on teamwork and community, one that seeks to involve others in decision making, one strongly based in ethical and caring behavior, and one that is attempting to enhance the personal growth and workers while improving the caring and quality of our many institutions. (Spears, 2004)


Servant Leadership has existed for over forty years.  Previous generations found value in Greenleaf’s work; following the Great Recession of 2008, Servant Leadership has gained value and momentum. 

In 2010, Dan Buettner’s book Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way thrust San Luis Obispo, California (SLO) onto the world stage as a leader in thriving, healthy community development.  Are the principles outlined in Thrive applicable to the philosophy of Servant-Leadership?  Now that SLO has received recognition, can the community put Servant-Leadership principles in to action and lead other communities towards holistic development? 

 Buettner identified four places worldwide where happiness is significantly greater than average.  Buettner draws from over ten million research studies collected over the last seventy years that represents 95% of the world’s population (Buettner, 2010).  He explores each place through the lens of how culture, geography and government influence happiness.  The history of SLO sets the stage as a community, “at the forefront of American planning renaissance” for a discussion on servant-leadership (Buettner, 2010).

 SLO hasn’t always been a thriving small town.  At the time Greenleaf defined servant-leadership, SLO more closely represented, “Anyplace, USA, a nondescript western community of 14,000 controlled by a few powerful property owners and conservative business leaders” (Buettner, 2010).  By all appearances Greenleaf’s work and San Luis Obispo had yet to formally meet. 

 The transformation of SLO started in 1968 when three Cal Poly architecture students made a presentation to the city council.  Inspired by a junior college art project given nearly twenty years earlier, these Cal Poly seniors created a schematic that involved closing the road in front of the historical Mission, creating a central plaza and gardens.  These seniors received a $500 grant through America the Beautiful and the city council matched the funds on the condition that they leave the road in front of the historical Mission open.  This controversial idea captured the community’s attention, and the topic became a public battleground.  It is this foundation towards change that I relate the ten characteristics of servant-leadership. 

            Listening: A servant-leader listens with the heart.  This requires deeply listening to the needs, wants and desires of others.  A servant-leader listens to what is spoken and unspoken and to her/his own inner voice.  The development of Mission Plaza in 1969 is an example of both listening and failing to listen as servant-leaders.  The legacy of the Cal Poly students’ senior project did more than radically transform the structure of SLO; “it was also that city government became more transparent and approachable, and SLO’s citizens became galvanized for constant progress” (Buettner, 2010).

Today, SLO can improve listening skills by identifying the new population growth and providing opportunities to communicate with transparency and approachability.  In Thrive, Barry VanderKelen, the executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Community Foundation states, “a lot of our residents are newcomers…and they really fall in love with the place, and want to make sure they stay in love with the place, so they invest in it” (Buettner, 2010). 

            Empathy: A servant-leader is empathetic.  Larry Spears writes, “people need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirits” (Spears, 2004).  In 1968, the Cal Poly seniors presented their favorite schematic, with the road closed, before the schematic with the road open.  The Mayor came unglued, demanded his $500 be returned and marched out of the city council meeting.  George Andre, a former city attorney, offered to represent these students at no cost if the Mayor followed through with his demands.  Andre exemplified empathy, recognizing the spirit and intentions of these Cal Poly seniors (Buettner, 2010).  San Luis Obispo can continue applying empathy today by recognizing the enthusiasm of new residents and students recognizing what growth and ideas they can offer. 

            Healing: Healing is an exceptionally powerful endeavor to which all humans can relate.  According to Spears, “Learning to heal is a powerful force for transformation and integration.  One of the great strengths of servant-leadership is the potential for healing oneself and others” (Spears, 2004). 

A marketing motto in the 1990’s for San Luis Obispo was, “Come Up For Air” (Buettner, 2010).  Though this motto directly targeted the Los Angeles basin for tourism, it also had the subsequent effects of a large trend of people leaving their corporate careers and relocating permanently to SLO.  Healing can be applied in SLO by recognizing the sacrifices people make to live in San Luis Obispo.  The average income is $56,967 with a cost of living similar to Los Angeles or San Francisco (City of San Luis Obispo).  Residents call this substantial drop in income vs. cost of living the “sunshine tax”; though there is nothing bright about the additional financial strain on families paying for the increased cost of living with a median income that does not match their previous salaries. 

            Awareness: Awareness is a powerful introspective process ranging from self-awareness to awareness of others; it “aids one in understanding issues involving ethics and values.  It lends itself to being able to view most situations from a more integrated, holistic position” (Spears, 2004).  Awareness alerts the introspective person to the needs of the surrounding world (Greenleaf, 2002). 

 SLO is an “in demand” place to live.  A major risk of supply and demand is developing a pervasive attitude of “good enough”.  In addition to the strict 1% growth limit, landlords and business owners may adopt a “good enough” attitude, putting in far less than the 100% they could and thereby decreasing the quality of housing or goods provided.  These cultural standards of practice impact all residents and industries. 

            Persuasion: Persuasion is best defined as a leader who seeks input and involvement in making change in place of political authority or forced compliance.  Larry Spears differentiates the hierarchal model of leadership to servant-leadership (Spears, 2004).  The Cal Poly seniors’ presentation in 1968 is an example of persuasion over coercion.  Today, SLO can increase the use of persuasion through greater communication of proposed laws.  While SLO remains transparent and approachable, with 269,637 residents, a greater emphasis on value-based marketing should be used.  In October 2012, a new law eliminating plastic was implemented.  Though innovative at heart, the community resented what it perceived as over-regulation.  (

           Conceptualization:  Conceptualization takes the daily tasks at hand in to account while encouraging people to, “dream big dreams” (Spears, 2004), look beyond operational goals, and build a vision to the future.

In 1949, Margaret Maxwell, a junior college art teacher assigned her students a project to beautify SLO (Buettner, 2010).  A group of students turned in a schematic shutting the road in front of the Mission, calling it Mission Gardens.  Twenty years later this project was renewed by three Cal Poly seniors and subsequently brought to life.  This conceptualization by junior college students, free of the operational goals, developed this idea so years later their vision came to fruition.

In early 2013, the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce unveiled a new five-year strategic plan including 1) strengthen the local economy by assisting companies to grow, start and relocate in SLO 2) grow legislative influence in the region 3) sustainably grow an engaged membership base that reflects the diversity of the business community 4) enhance Chamber operations to increase effectiveness and long-term success 5) develop cohesive and effective branding, marketing and communications effort with membership and community (SLO Chamber of Commerce). 

              Foresight: Foresight builds upon conceptualization by looking at history, current realities and the future to determine a pathway.  Foresight is the only characteristic that includes intuition, or a spiritual element, to leadership.  During the transformation of SLO in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Kenneth Schwartz, recognized that communities with “blinky” signs prompted even more “blinky” signs, so he proposed a regulation to limit signs and require all signs compliment the aesthetics of the community (Buettner, 2010). 

What’s next SLO?  What is our foresight into the future?  The great vision, the intuition, and the grand plan?  How do we achieve it for our children and grandchildren? 

               Stewardship: Stewardship emphasizes the needs of others before oneself.  A servant-leader recognizes and cares for people first and foremost over hierarchal command and control method.  SLO has over 1100 non-profit organizations.  Of the 260,000 residents, over 64,000 volunteer in some capacity – about 25% of the population (Buettner, 2010).  SLO excels in stewardship.  The next step is creating a tangible model of excellence for other communities to build innovative service-based cultures and reach out as an exemplary leader. 

              Commitment to the Growth of People:  A servant-leader recognizes the innate value of every individual in their organization.  A servant-leader nurtures all aspects of an individuals’ well being, including the intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical.  To authentically commit to the growth of people, a servant-leader must truly believe in the intrinsic value of humanity.  In SLO, Pierre Rademaker, owner of Pierre Rademaker Design, strategically designed his office hours to consider the needs of his employees.  Every Friday afternoon he shuts his office, encouraging employees to run personal errands that would otherwise take up their Saturday (Buettner, 2010).  Other San Luis Obispo employers can explore innovative management techniques that incorporate flexible time management.   

              Building Community:  According to Spears, “the servant-leader senses that much has been lost in recent human history as a result of the shift from local communities to large institutions as the primary shaper of human lives” (Spears, 2004).  SLO values local innovation by replacing drive-through restaurants with Farmer’s Markets, therefore emphasizing the value of building community.  The elimination of drive-through restaurants encourages healthier fare.  On Thursday evenings, SLO shuts down five blocks through the main part of town for a world-renowned Farmers Market that resembles a fair with fresh vegetables, entertainment by local artists or children’s programs and endless prepared food choices. 

SLO excels at instituting laws that build a vibrant and thriving community, attract a large tourist population, and increase the demand to settle in SLO.  Can San Luis Obispo clearly identify these successful values and set in motion a leadership program that takes this to other communities nationwide?

Reflecting back to the Cal Poly seniors, they were not traditional leaders and their influence has been felt in SLO for over forty years.  With the cooperation of the community, they were able to serve and serve greatly. 

In conclusion, a servant-leader is not born.  A servant-leader commits his/herself to integrated self-analysis and transformational growth personally and professionally. 




Buettner, D. (2010) Thrive: Finding happiness the blue zones way. Washington D.C., National Geographic Society.


City of San Luis Obispo. (2013). Demographic profile 2011-12. Availablefrom


Greenleaf, R. (2002) Servant Leadership: A Journey in to the nature of legitimate power and greatness.


SLO Chamber of Commerce. (2012). 2012-2017 Strategic plan. Retrieved from 


Spears, L. (2004). The understanding and practice of Servant-Leadership. Where: Publisher?