Have you a Dream Deferred?
Act on it now, says the creator of “servant leadership”
By Charles Waldo
The title of this article was the title of a talk given by Robert K. Greenleaf in spring, 1967 to a group of soon-to-be sophomores at Ohio University (Athens). Subtitled “On Opportunity in the Next Three Years,” these students had applied to be part of the Ohio Fellows Program, a three year venture aimed at helping the selected students realize their potential for service in the public interest….regardless of their particular vocational track.
Although given over fifty years ago in a relatively obscure setting without fanfare, Greenleaf’s talk has been reprinted thousands of times and is still one of the best-selling publications offered by the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.
Leader as Servant
Greenleaf, a native Hoosier, was born in 1904 in Terre Haute. He began college at nearby Rose Polytechnic Institute, now Rose Hulman Institute of Technology. But, wanting a liberal arts rather than a technical education, he transferred to Carleton College in Minnesota. After graduating with a math major in 1926, he immediately joined AT&T in its Minnesota “Baby Bell” division. After three years he transferred to AT&T’s Manhattan corporate headquarters where he carved out a long, distinguished career as a top-level, internal consultant in management and organization education and development. Along the way, both before and after retiring in 1964, Greenleaf was a lecturer and guest speaker at such distinguished schools as MIT, Harvard, Yale, Virginia, and many others. A life-long student of how organizations do (or don’t) get things done, Greenleaf eventually distilled his observations and conclusions into a series of essays with the common thread of the “Leader as Servant.” He formed the Center forApplied Ethics in 1964, with the name later changed to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, which it still is today.
Initially , Greenleaf was talking to 18 and 19 year olds in the tumultuous mid-1960s (Viet Nam, the draft, race riots, the Hippy revolution, the Kennedy assassinations, the Beetles’ “invasion” of the U.S., and so on), before some of the readers of this article were born.
Greenleaf was talking with the early Baby Boomers. Did they have dreams? How did they turn out? Did they defer some never getting the chance to achieve them?
“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or?” (1)
What are your dreams? Do you have some? There is a big difference between “dreams” that are really just wishes or hopes versus “dreams” that have some possibilities undergirding them and into which the dreamer can put some effort. What’s on your “bucket list?” Are there items that have some possibility of happening or are they just “wishing in the wind?” Have you deferred some? Should/can you defer them any longer? Can you afford to?
Space does not permit detailing Greenleaf’s advice to those students that might have helped them both dream and achieve those dreams. But here are key points that might also help you achieve yours:
- Try to live your life with distinction (doing something very well) and greatness (leaving society at least a little better off for your having been here). Helping others who are less fortunate. That’s quite different than helping the rich get richer.Try to live your life with distinction (doing something very well) and greatness (leaving society at least a little better off for your having been here). Helping others who are less fortunate. That’s quite different than helping the rich get richer.
- Cultivate your creativity. Everyone has the gift of creativity in one field or another. Find it and make it productive. Let dreams soar.
- Find a moral compass that will support you in good times and bad. Two examples: “What does the Golden Rule require in this situation? and “Always tell the truth.”
- Develop wisdom, common sense, and good judgment – usually by looking at efforts that did not turn out right, figuring out what went wrong, making changes, and trying again. Having a mentor for guidance is a plus.
- Be a good trustee of whatever assets you are entrusted. That might be your children, your church’s physical plant, business finances, a social service agency on whose board you sit, and so on. Live above expectations and above board.
- Be “positive realistic.” It is good to dream, even to dream REAL BIG. But temper that dream with realism. There is a saying put out by some that “You can be anything you want to be if you dream big enough and work hard enough.” True for some; not true for others. Example: A 5’ tall, 100 pound person is NOT going to play on an NBA team. But he or she might get into a front office position, be a trainer, be a marketing or PR person, be the travel secretary, or so on. Be around the game but not on the floor. Some things just cannot be willed.If you want to feel good about yourself, do good for others less fortunate than yourself.
- If you want to feel good about yourself, do good for others less fortunate than yourself.
Having “good luck”
Dream big or dream small. But dream. Then have a plan for achievement and work like hell while waiting for success to arrive. “Good luck” is the intersection of being prepared and working hard. Don’t give up too easily. Inventor supreme Thomas A. Edison (General Electric’s founder) said he found 999 ways to NOT invent a light bulb before he finally found A way to make it. Worthy goals and dreams usually demand (and deserve) much “cultivating and fertilizing.” Get your rake and hoe, spread some fertilizer, water now and then, keep the weeds down, and best wishes for a bumper crop of achieved dreams. Don’t defer any longer.
(1) Langston Hughes, poet and playwright. 1902-67.