Basic Leadership Course (BLC)


B112 Reading B

Servant leadership

The United States is experiencing a rapid shift in many businesses and not-for-profit organizations—

away from the more traditional autocratic and hierarchical models of leadership and toward servant leadership

as a way of being in relationship with others. The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling

that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.

The words servant and leader are usually thought of as being opposites. In 1970, retired AT&T executive

Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) deliberately brought those words together in a meaningful way and coined the

term servant leadership. In doing so, he launched a quiet revolution in the way in which we view and practice

leadership. In the years since that time, many of today’s most creative thinkers are writing and speaking about

servant leadership as an emerging leadership paradigm for the 21st century. In fact, we are witnessing today an

unparalleled explosion of interest in, and practice of, servant leadership. In her groundbreaking book on quantum

sciences and leadership, Rewiring the Corporate Brain (1997), Danah Zohar goes so far as to state that, “Servant-

leadership is the essence of quantum thinking and quantum leadership”.

Servant Leadership and Character

Servant leadership seeks to involve others in decision making, is strongly based in ethical and caring

behavior, and enhances the growth of workers while improving the caring and quality of organizational life. It

is based on two main constructs that speak to the character of the servant leader:

(1) Ethical behavior

(2) Concern for subordinates

Our fundamental understanding of character has much to do with the essential traits exhibited by a person.

In recent years there has been a growing interest in the nature of character and character education, based upon a

belief that positive character traits can be both taught and learned. The nature of character and its relationship to

leaders has also taken on increased significance in recent years. Character refers to deep structures of personality

that are particularly resistant to change”.


Ten Characteristics of a Servant Leader

The literature on leadership includes a number of different listings of character traits as practiced by

leaders. Much of the leadership literature includes as an implicit assumption the belief that positive characteristics

can-and-should be encouraged and practiced by leaders. Identified in servant leadership is a set of ten

characteristics of the servant leader that are of critical importance. They are listening, empathy, healing,

awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and

building community.


Leaders have traditionally been valued for their communication and decision-making skills. Although these

are also important skills for the servant leader, they need to be reinforced by a deep commitment to listening

intently to others. The servant leader seeks to identify the will of a group and helps to clarify that will. He or she

listens receptively to what is being said and unsaid. Listening also encompasses hearing one’s own inner voice.

Listening, coupled with periods of reflection, is essential to the growth and well-being of the servant leader.


The servant leader strives to understand and empathize with others. People need to be accepted and

recognized for their special and unique spirits. One assumes the good intentions of co-workers and colleagues and

does not reject them as people, even when one may be forced to refuse to accept certain behaviors or performance.

The most successful servant leaders are those who have become skilled empathetic listeners.


The healing of relationships is a powerful force for transformation and integration. One of the great

strengths of servant leadership is the potential for healing one’s self and one’s relationship to others. Many people

have broken spirits and have suffered from a variety of emotional hurts. Although this is a part of being human,

servant leaders recognize that they have an opportunity to help make whole those with whom they come in contact.


General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader. Awareness helps one in

understanding issues involving ethics, power, and values. It lends itself to being able to view most situations from a

more integrated, holistic position.



Another characteristic of servant leaders is reliance on persuasion, rather than on one’s positional authority,

in making decisions within an organization. The servant leader seeks to convince others, rather than coerce

compliance. This particular element offers one of the clearest distinctions between the traditional authoritarian

model and that of servant leadership. The servant leader is effective at building consensus within groups. This

emphasis on persuasion over coercion finds its roots in the beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)—

the denominational body to which Robert Greenleaf belonged.


Servant leaders seek to nurture their abilities to dream great dreams. The ability to look at a problem or an

organization from a conceptualizing perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities. For many

leaders, this is a characteristic that requires discipline and practice. The traditional leader is consumed by the need

to achieve short-term operational goals. The leader who wishes to also be a servant leader must stretch his or her

thinking to encompass broader-based conceptual thinking. Within organizations, conceptualization is, by its very

nature, a key role of boards of trustees or directors. Unfortunately, boards can sometimes become involved in the

day-to-day operations—something that should be discouraged—and, thus, fail to provide the visionary concept for

an institution. Trustees need to be mostly conceptual in their orientation, staffs need to be mostly operational in

their perspective, and the most effective executive leaders probably need to develop both perspectives within

themselves. Servant leaders are called to seek a delicate balance between conceptual thinking and a day-to-day

operational approach.


Closely related to conceptualization, the ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation is hard to define,

but easier to identify. One knows foresight when one experiences it. Foresight is a characteristic that enables the

servant leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a

decision for the future. It is also deeply rooted within the intuitive mind. Foresight remains a largely unexplored

area in leadership studies, but one most deserving of careful attention.


Peter Block (1993)—author of Stewardship and The Empowered Manager—has defined stewardship as

“holding something in trust for another”. Robert Greenleaf’s view of all institutions was one in which CEO’s,

staffs, and trustees all played significant roles in holding their institutions in trust for the greater good of society.

Servant leadership, like stewardship, assumes first and foremost a commitment to serving the needs of others. It

also emphasizes the use of openness and persuasion, rather than control.


Commitment to the Growth of People

Servant leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers.

As such, the servant leader is deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual within his or her

organization. The servant leader recognizes the tremendous responsibility to do everything in his or her power to

nurture the personal and professional growth of employees and colleagues. In practice, this can include (but is not

limited to) concrete actions such as making funds available for personal and professional development, taking a

personal interest in the ideas and suggestions from everyone, encouraging worker involvement in decision-making,

and actively assisting laid-off employees to find other positions.

Building Community

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. This awareness causes the servant leader to

seek to identify some means for building community among those who work within a given institution. Servant

leadership suggests that true community can be created among those who work in businesses and other institutions.

Servant leadership characteristics often occur naturally within many individuals; and, like many natural tendencies,

they can be enhanced through learning and practice. Servant leadership offers great hope for the future in creating

better, more caring, institutions.

Love and Leadership

Leadership Requires Patience

The definition of patience is to “show self-control.” Is this quality of character important for a leader? Not

only is it important-it is essential because patience and self-control are the essential building blocks of character,

and hence leadership. I believe self-control is better described using the phrase “impulse control.” We are teaching

impulse control to our little girl every day by coaching her to respond not according to what she “feels” like doing,

but according to what is the right thing to do. Without control over our basic desires, whims, appetites, and other

urges, we have little hope of behaving with character in difficult situations. A habit must be developed by

responding from principles rather than urges in order for us to be effective leaders. In short, we must get our

impulses under control. We must get the head (values) in charge of the heart (emotions). Patience and self-control

are essential to healthy relationships. If you doubt this, then ask yourself this question, “do you have good

relationships with people who are out of control?” Patience and self-control are both about being consistent and

predictable in mood and actions. Are you a safe person? Easy to be with? Approachable? Can you handle contrary

opinion? Criticism? Now, I am not suggesting that we cannot be passionate in what we do or that we have no

emotions. Passion (commitment) is an essential leadership quality that we will discuss later. We can be very


passionate in what we do while maintaining our patience and self-control with people. I f you are not a safe person

for people to readily approach with the bad news as well as the good, look out. I often get people in my seminars

who readily admit to having bad tempers and will even admit that they sometimes rage at people and have

inappropriate outbursts. They are usually quick to defend their behavior by saying things like “That’s just the way I

am,” or ”As you can see, I’m a redhead,” or “I’m just like my father was.” When I hear this, I usually respond by

saying, “So when was the last time you ‘lost it’ and had a fit with the CEO of the company? How about with a

valued customer?” Of course, they answer, “Why, never!” To which I respond, “Isn’t it interesting that you can

control yourself with the CEO or a customer but not with the people working for you ‘Why do you think that is?” I

know of a guy who played adult-league softball for many years after high school. He was a great guy, but

unfortunately for the umpires he had a temper that was the joke of the league. If a questionable call was made, he

immediately would be yelling and spraying saliva all over the poor ump, usually resulting in eject ion from the

game. One year, the league hired a new umpire who just happened to be the pastor at a local church. You guessed

it. It happened to be the difficult player’s pastor. Now, how many games do you think he was thrown out of a game

that year? You guessed it again, zero! When asked how he achieved the feat of going a whole season without

getting kicked out of a single game, his response was simply “Heck, you can’t yell at the pastor.” Now, you tell me,

are patience and self-control choices? Anger is a natural and healthy emotion, and passion is a wonderful quality to

possess, as we will see later. However, acting out on anger or passion and violating the rights of others is

inappropriate and damages relationships. This is the part that can and must be controlled.

Leadership Requires Kindness

The dictionary definition of kindness is “to give attention, appreciation, and encouragement to people.” The

second definition listed is “to display common courtesy to others.” Kindness is an act of love (verb) because it

requires us to reach out to others, to extend ourselves, even to people we may not be particularly fond of. Kindness

and common courtesy are about doing the things that help relationships flow smoothly. This includes extending

ourselves for others by appreciating them, encouraging them, being courteous, listening well and giving credit and

praise for efforts made.

William James, the great American philosopher and psychologist, taught that human beings at the core of their

personality have the need to be appreciated. Have you been appreciating your kids lately? Your spouse? Your

boss? Your employees, who spend one-half of their waking hours giving efforts under your leadership? Your

teammates? Mother Teresa often said that people crave appreciation more than they crave bread. Effective leaders

encourage those around them to be the best they can be. Effective leaders push, cajole, pull, and encourage others to

raise their level of play. They encourage others by their willingness to share their knowledge and experiences and

are a constant, positive influence to the people around them. Remember, you don’t have to be the boss to encourage

and influence others. Common courtesy is doing the little things that make a house a home. Little things like saying


please; thank you; I’m sorry, I was wrong. Little things like being the first one to say, “Good morning,” in the

hallway. Kindness is the WD-40 of human relationships.

Leadership Requires Humility

My dictionary defines humility as “displaying an absence of pride, arrogance, or pretense; behaving

authentically.” Humility, like love, is another word that has been butchered in the English language. The opposite of

humility is arrogance, boastfulness, or pride. Many people therefore mistakenly associate being humble with being

passive, overly modest, self-effacing, or even a “poor pitiful me” type. To the contrary, humble leaders are not

afflicted with some unbalanced sense of their inferiority. Humble leaders can be as bold as a lion when it comes to

their sense of values, morality, and doing the right thing. They can be as fierce as a pit bull when it comes to

staying focused and on mission, hitting margin targets, and holding people accountable. Humble leaders are simply

those who have stopped fooling themselves about who they really are. Humble leaders know that they put their

pants on the same way as everyone else. They know that they are only a disaster or two away from the bottom of

the pile. They know that they came into the world with nothing and will leave with nothing (you will never see a

funeral hearse pulling a U-Haul). Humble leaders have gotten over themselves and their terrible twos. Humble

leaders have grown up. Humble leaders display willingness, even an eagerness, to listen to the opinions of others

and are wide open to contrary opinion. Humble leaders know they do not have to have all of the answers, and they

are perfectly okay with that. English critic John Ruskin observed, “Really great men have a curious feeling that the

greatness is not in them, but through them. Therefore, they arc humble.” Humble leaders do not take themselves or

events too seriously. Humble leaders are able to laugh at themselves and the world, which is so important because

people have a need to have fun. Humble leaders are quick to give credit to others and do not seek out credit and

adulation for themselves; they are secure in who and what they are. I have met many, many people in leadership

positions who seem incapable of saying things like “I don’t know,” or “What do you think?” or “Challenge my

thinking,” or “I am sorry, I was wrong,” or “You did that much better than I could have.”After getting to know

these people, I generally find that they are insecure and uncomfortable in their own skins. In Good to Great, Jim

Collins refers to the highest performing level of leadership, what he labels “Level 5,” and says, “Level 5 leaders

embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They are ambitious, to be sure, but ambitious

first and foremost for the company, not themselves.” Humble leaders view their leadership as an awesome

responsibility. They view leadership as a position of trust and stewardship and take having people entrusted to their

care very seriously. They are not focused on their “management rights,” nor do they lay awake at night worrying

about office politics and who will get the corner office. Rather, they are focused on their leadership responsibilities

and often lay awake at night thinking about whether they are effectively meeting the needs of their people. Humble

leaders are authentic. They do not walk around wearing “I’ve got it all together” masks. Humble leaders are willing

to be open and vulnerable because they have their egos under control and do not operate from delusions of

grandeur, believing they are indispensable to their organizations. They are well aware that cemeteries are full of


indispensable people. Humble leaders are secure in knowing they have strengths and limitations, knowing full well

that there are many others who could do the job as well or better than they could. Humble leaders know they are

capable of making errors and are conscious that the greatest fault of all is believing you have none. A wise mystic

centuries ago commented, “If we could truly see ourselves for what we really are, we would be very humble indeed.

“Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” I once heard a pastor at a funeral say, “Nobody is getting out of this thing alive.”

Humble leaders are able to keep things in perspective.

Leadership Requires Respect

My dictionary defines respect as “treating people like they are important.” The people around the leader

know full well that he or she is capable of respecting others, as they see him or her do it every time someone

important comes around. But what about the little people or the challenging ones? Do they get that same respect?

Ethel Waters, the well known black singer and actress of the 1920s, was fond of saying, “God don’t create no junk,

he just creates people with behavior problems.” So true, and guess what? You and I have some of those behavior

problems, too. I tell people in my seminars, “If you don’t think you have any behavior problems that you can work

on and improve, put arrogance at the top of your list. And if you still think you have no issues to work on, stand up

now and we’ll have the people on your team point them out to you!” An effective way that leaders can give respect

and build trust is by developing the skill of delegating responsibilities to others so they can grow and develop.

Proper delegating communicates respect for another person’s skills and abilities. Delegating responsibilities is a

wonderful way to demonstrate trust, which, of course, is a two-way street. We desire trust from others, we must

give trust to them. The discretion and independent judgment we want our people to possess only come by

exercising discretion and independent judgment. I once had a seminar participant say to me, “My daddy taught me

respect is earned. Therefore, I respect only people who have earned my respect!” “Your daddy lied” was my

response. Respect isn’t earned when you are the leader, respect is given when you are the leader. Don’t people get

respect for being human? Don’t people get respect for working for the same organization that you do? In fact, if I

was a share holder, I could argue that the leader’s job is to help his or her people win and be successful. The leader

will respect them when they earn it? And when might that be? Recall the definition of love. Love is a choice, the

willingness to extend oneself for others and seek their greatest good regardless of whether they have earned it or

have got it coming. Love (leadership) does not pause to create an Excel spreadsheet, putting people’s pluses and

minuses in columns before hitting the auto sum button to determine if respect is due. Rather, the leader gives

respect. The leader chooses to treat all people like important people, even when they behave poorly or “don’t

deserve it.” Effective leaders understand that everyone is important and adds value to an organization. And if they

do not add value to the organization, whose fault is that? Why are they still there? Again, everyone is important.

The only difference is that people have different job responsibilities and the market compensates those

responsibilities differently. Put another way, think of servant leadership as primus inter pares, translated as “first

among equals.” Again, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines: “My mother taught me…. that positions and titles


mean absolutely nothing. They’re just adornments; they don’t represent the substance of anybody. … She taught me

that every person and every job is worth as much as any other person and any other job.”

Leadership Requires Selflessness

Selflessness is defined as “meeting the needs of others.” What a beautiful definition of leadership: to meet

the needs of others. During seminars, I am often asked, “Even before my own needs?” to which I respond, “Even

before your own needs, grasshopper.” When you signed up to be the leader, that’s what you signed up to do. The

will to serve and sacrifice for others, the willingness to set aside our wants and needs in seeking the greatest good

for others, this is what it means to be selfless. This is what it means to be the leader. I often get challenged about

serving others by indignant people who will say, “Yeah, that serving stuff sounds great, but you don’t know my

boss!”or “You don’t know my spouse,” or “You don’t know the kind of employees I am dealing with!” I generally

respond by saying they must work to kick out that “stinkin thinkin” because they are already on the wrong track!

The road to servant leadership lies not in trying to fix or change others but in working on changing and improving

ourselves. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once remarked, “Everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to

change himself” How true! Our world changes when we change. Besides that, we do not have the power to change

other people. As Alcoholics Anonymous wisely teaches, the only person you can change is yourself. If each of us

cleared the trash from our own yard, we would soon have a clean street.

Leadership Requires Forgiveness

My dictionary defines forgiveness as “letting go of resentment.” People often remark that they believe

forgiveness to be a strange character skill to have on a leadership list, yet I remain convinced it is one of the most

important. Why? Because when you are the leader, people are going to make mistakes, a lot of them. Your boss,

your peers, your subordinates, your spouse, your kids, your teammates are going to screw up, make mistakes, and

let you down. People will hurt you, sometimes deeply. Many will not make the efforts you believe they should or

care as deeply as you do. Some will fail to respond to all the effort you have put in. A few will try to take advantage

of you, which is why it is essential for the leader to develop the skill (habit) of accepting limitations in others and

the capacity to tolerate imperfection. The leader must develop the skill of letting go of the resentment that often

lingers when people hurt us or let us down. After all, anyone could lead perfect people, if only there were any.

Letting go of resentment is not about being passive, a doormat for the world. Letting go is not about letting people

get away with bad behavior or pretending the bad behavior is acceptable. To do those things would not be behaving

with integrity. Rather, forgiveness involves going to people and communicating assertively how what they have

done has affected you, dealing with it, and then letting go of any lingering resentment. Buddy Hackett put it well:

“While you’re carrying a grudge, they’re out dancing!” This wonderful quality of character can be developed over

time with practice and courage. It can be a difficult skill to develop because when our pride and feelings are hurt,

we give ourselves many justifications for not letting people off the hook. It takes a secure, mature individual to


develop this skill. As Gandhi once observed, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the

strong.” I have known many managers who have ruined their careers because their feelings and pride got in the way

and they could not forgive others and let go of their resentment. Any decent psychologist will tell you that

resentment destroys the human personality. People who harbor resentment, who seek revenge and obsess about

what others have done to them get consumed and often become hateful and spiteful human beings. Author

Hermann Hesse whose writings inspired Robert Greenleaf, once wrote, “Whenever we hate someone, it is because

we hate some part of ourselves in his image. We don’t get excited about anything that is not in ourselves.” Some

may say, “That’s easy for you to say. But what if a drunk driver killed your child? What if a maniac murdered your

wife? What if your sales guy blew the biggest deal of the year because of something stupid? Would you be so quick

to forgive?” I wonder myself but that seems to me a bit like trying to do advanced trigonometry before having

learned addition and subtraction. Perhaps we should begin practicing and developing this character habit with the

people around us every day rather than worrying about forgiving serial killers. What about practicing with people

who have committed lesser atrocities? Perhaps we could forgive a coworker for talking down to us. Or forgive a

neighbor who behaved poorly one Sunday afternoon. Or let a boss off the hook because he or she embarrassed you

in a moment of anger last year. Or cut a family member some slack after holding a grudge for thirty years.

Leadership Requires Honesty

My dictionary defines honesty as “being free from deception.” Few would disagree that honesty and

integrity are essential qualities of character that a leader must possess. Surveys have shown for decades that these

are the qualities of character people most want in their leader. If you do not believe that these qualities are essential

to leadership, just ask yourself this question: Do you have good relationships with people you do not trust? Are

those the people who inspire you? Trust is the glue that holds relationships together. If my wife and I do not have

fundamental trust in our relationship, it would be difficult if not impossible for our organization (marriage) to

survive. Without trust, an organization is a house of cards without the glue. How does one build trust? By being

trustworthy, of course. Behaving with honesty and integrity builds trust. I have been in many, many organizations

whose executives talk about trust but whose actions betray what they truly believe. Their true beliefs are visible in

the form of time clocks, secret meetings, volumes of working rules, special keys to certain doors only for special

people, nondisclosure of financial information (including salary information), and on and on. Organizations often

talk about being like a “family” and then fire or lay off people in the late afternoon so as to avoid a “scene.” Then

comes a deafening silence for days following the event. One of our “greatest assets” just disappears, and nothing is

said! How dysfunctional would you consider a family to be if people just started disappearing from the dinner table

and nothing was said except for the occasional “Daddy and Johnny mutually agreed that Johnny should leave”? A

major aspect of honesty and being free from deception is in how we hold people accountable for their actions. If we