Servant Leadership and the Gift of a Book

Joe Iarocciby Joseph J. Iarocci
Chief Executive Officer
Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership

Thursday, August 8, 2013


Give a bookBilly Peebles is the headmaster at The Lovett School in Atlanta, Georgia USA. If Billy feels strongly enough about a book, he gives you a copy as a gift.

I believe that giving a book can be a small, but powerful, servant leadership practice.

Think about it. You read a book and it makes a strong impression on you. It inspires you, motivates you, educates you. The book helps you grow in some way. But then, something more happens: you think of me. You want me to have the same impression – the same inspiration, motivation, education. You want me to experience the same growth that you experienced. You care about me so much that you heartily recommend the book and give it to me as a gift.

Having been on the receiving end of more than one book from Billy Peebles and servant-leaders like him, I can tell you, this practice is extremely meaningful.

Now, I hasten to say that not all book-giving is the same. Servant-leader book-giving must be authentic, thoughtful, and done with the best interests of the receiver in mind. I’m sure you’ve seen bosses hand out books to direct reports (usually something about team work) without any intention of actually reading the book themselves. That approach is often just an exercise of power, a way of saying “I’m the teacher and you are the student; here, go do a homework assignment.”

It is really amusing to note the bosses who readily give away their personal copies of the subject book if an extra one is needed. Surprise … the boss’s copy hasn’t even been opened! How can any leader possibly expect his or her staff to be excited about extended reading if he or she isn’t already a staunch believer in the targeted message?!

And of course, these insincerely bestowed books – not the kind Billy Peebles gives – can always be found discarded in an empty office or cubicle between the last inhabitant’s departure and next inhabitant’s arrival. Alas, a book given carelessly brings to mind Dorothy Parker’s oft-quoted book review, “This must be a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.”

Anyway, I had lunch with Billy Peebles last week. Faculty and students at Lovett regularly receive copies of Robert Greenleaf’s landmark essay, The Servant as Leader, emphatically recommended by the headmaster himself. In the course of our conversation about this and other great books, Billy mentioned Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I did not own a copy of Frankl’s great work when I arrived at lunch. But I carried a copy home with me when lunch was over.

What do you think? Have you ever received a gift of a book from a servant-leader in your life? What kind of impact did that gift have?

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  • Arlene Manville

    I have been on both the receiving end and giving end of a book exchange. In both cases, the impact was profound. My mentor has shared some of his favorite books, and I have shared with him some of mine. In one book I left some index cards identifying why I found a particular quote so meaningful. He loved it and told me that it was the most meaningful gift he had ever received.