I have a very distinct leadership style.  Those who I work for will attest to this.  I’m not talking about superiors.  I’m talking about subordinates.   In order to help build a culture I am proud of, I uphold altruistic principles.  I am a servant-leader.

Servant-leadership is a philosophy and practice of leadership, coined and defined by Robert Greenleaf. Upon doing my research, I read that Greenleaf felt a growing suspicion that the power-centered authoritarian leadership style so prominent in U.S. institutions (of the time) was not working. In 1964, he took an early retirement from IBM to founded the Center for Applied Ethics. Yes, 1964!

When representing ethical leadership on a grid (see above), the graphic should help put into perspective who leaders are and what leaders do.

When a person acts to create the greatest good for himself or herself.  You can find people exhibiting this orientation at every level of an organization.   When the organization and its employees make decisions merely to achieve individual goals (at the expense of others), they lose sight of a larger goal.

Utilitarianism: The idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its usefulness in maximizing utility or minimizing negative utility.  The focus is to create the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock says “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Altruism: The opposite of egoism, a person’s primary purpose is to promote the best interests of others.   From this perspective, a leader may be called on to act in the interests of others, even when it runs contrary to his or her own self-interests. In Start Trek III: The Search for Spock, Kirk says altruistically,   “Because the needs of the one… outweigh the needs of the many.

Larry Spears, the head of the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership for 17 years, identified ten characteristics of servant-leaders in his 2004 article Practicing Servant-Leadership. The ten characteristics are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.

Unlike leadership approaches with a top-down hierarchical style, servant leadership instead spawns collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power. At heart, the leader is a servant first, making the conscious decision to lead in order to better serve others, not to increase their own power.

The objective is to enhance the growth of individuals in the organization and increase teamwork and personal involvement.  Exhibiting servant-leader qualities tends to give a leader authority versus power.

Are you a servant-leader?

13 Replies to “Servant-Leadership”

    1. This tends to happen to me. I read something and it then disappears from my short term memory, only to reappear a few weeks later in long term memory. I think it’s a great original idea and I write about it. I think I’ve done this to you a few times now! I have calculated my short term / long term memory transition period at about 2 weeks. At least I know what I’ll be writing about later. 🙂 Thanks for the awesome content!

  1. Derek, another great post! There’s a few things I learn today:
    1) You practice agile principles, even in not so agile environment
    2) You do good research for your articles/blog posts
    3) You’re a Star Trek fan 🙂

    1. Guilty as charged! I look for the opportunity to preach what I practice. [1] I love the results agile principles deliver. It doesn’t matter if we brand servant-leadership as an agile principle. I’d still practice it. [2] This blog post actually took me longer to write. I started out with a zombie leadership post and then I realized I had a college textbook on Leadership that I never got rid of. Don’t worry, this post will appear in my Zombie PM book (in part). [3] I’m such a Star Trek geek. I like to ask people if they are Star Trek or Star Wars fans. Like zombies, if you share a common interest, I find it easier to share concepts and ideas.

      I think I got more out of writing this post than I did trying to take MGMT605

  2. Thank you to a half a pot of coffee, a quiet office, and copy of Visio. I wish I had an open source Visio-like product. I’ve been using Visio for years.

  3. Leadership styles are not the culprit for so much of today’s down fall. In our current environment, we are taking advantage of the human factor and we fail to readily apply policies unilaterally. I see it every day. We terminate some one for a policy violation then 3 months later we “flex” the policy. It is simply not fair to the workforce.


    1. Sounds less like a leadership problem and more of a management problem. I see enforcing organizational policy as a management task. Getting people to do the work to make your organization fulfill its goals, now that is a leadership challenge. Either the organization’s policies are immature or you have a managerial maverick on your hands. Either way, the organization is liable if the person who was terminated gets wind of the “flexible” policy. I’m not saying they have a case. But, if you thought the situation was unethical, I’m sure the person who was fired would as well.

      Hang in there!

  4. Great post. when I am not in Project management I am involved in education. Nowhere is the servant leader model more evident to me than in educational settings. When the servant leader is there to serve others – the students, everything that flows from that is very likely the right decision, and the organization rallies to the cause.

    1. Jeff, thank you for adding your comment. I see servant-leadership as a way to break the Law of Bureaucracy. The Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. One example of the Law in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach, versus union representatives who work to protect teachers (even the bad ones). I think servant-leadership is not only the noble thing for ourselves but its the right thing to teach others.

  5. And where is the High/High sector.
    See “Making The Impossible Possible: Leading Extraordinary Performance – The Rocky Flats Story,” Cameron and Lavine.

    There’s more to this than just the diagonal elements.

    1. Thanks Glen,
      I’m aware there is more to this. This diagram is limited to the graphical representation of ethical theories based on self-interest versus interest for others. I got it from my notes from a leadership class I took at AMU.

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