Personnel e.bulletin – May 2015

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What is Servant Leadership?
Revisting an Enduring Leadership Practice That Will Lead You to Success

Prepared for the PHCC Educational Foundation by TPO, Inc.


Servant Leadership is a term coined 45 years ago…but the principles and practices of Servant Leadership continue to serve as a strong foundation for effective leadership. In his book, The Culture Engine, organizational consultant S. Chris Edmonds says that servant leadership is the foundation for leading others effectively. According to Edmonds, “I define servant leadership as a person’s dedication to helping others be their best selves at home, work, and in their community. Anyone can serve–and lead–from any position or role in a family, workplace, or community.”

All servant leaders share two fundamental beliefs about the people they lead, and engage in five practices that put these beliefs into action.

Servant leaders believe that:
1. Every person has value and deserves civility, trust, and respect
2. People can accomplish much when inspired by a purpose beyond themselves

Servant leaders engage in five practices that put these beliefs into action:
1. Clarify and reinforce the need for service to others
2. Listen intently and observe closely
3. Act as selfless mentors
4. Demonstrate persistence
5. Hold themselves and others accountable for their commitments
Because the principles and practices of Servant Leadership endure and stand the test of time, the following is a reprint of an article originally printed in 2010.

What are the unique characteristics of the best leaders you have personally known?

  • They listen . . . and hear you.
  • They have empathy – they know you have a difficult job and recognize it.
  • They heal –they don’t blame you for mistakes, but help you learn from them.
  • They are aware – nothing gets by them, and they provide constructive feedback.
  • They persuade – they don’t threaten, only work for “win-win” situations.
  • They conceptualize  – they aren’t afraid to dream big and take calculated risks.
  • They have foresight  – they use history and trends to plan for a better future.
  • They practice stewardship  – they see your integrity as being as important as theirs.
  • They have commitment – they trust the good in you and your development.
  • They build community – they realize we’re all part of the same web.
  • They embrace process – they have patience to let you stumble knowing you will succeed.

If you have had a leader that practices all or most of these attributes, you have been fortunate to have someone who is a “servant leader.”

What is a Servant Leader?

This term was created by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.” The core basis of servant leadership is that supervising has less to do with directing other people and more to do with serving them. The leader’s ultimate goal is to fulfill the needs of his/her employees/colleagues. This concept seems to be gaining momentum in the 21st century with many authors writing about this style of leadership, which makes sense given the tight labor markets and widespread mistrust of chief executives.  It is also the model for the growing number of companies that compete for talent. Servant leadership’s main premise is to change the culture of leadership by creating a positive leadership environment, experience and result.

So why is servant leadership viewed as beneficial to companies, corporations and non-profit organizations?

  • The purpose of servant leadership:  The servant leader is not the master of all but should be the servant to all. In other words, the leader seeks the best for other employees because this helps build a strong, sustaining organization.  This idea of service is beneficial in many different company structures and fits most effectively within service related fields.  Under this premise, the company will go to great lengths to meet the customers’ needs.
  • Focus shifts from self:  Servant leaders take the focus away from themselves, and place it on other people. This idea does away with the executives focusing primarily on their bonuses and high dollar salary packages. Instead, it places the spotlight on the best interests of both the employees and customers.
  • Servant leadership adopts a team approach:  The servant leader seeks to build teams that are strong and compliment each others’ strengths and weaknesses.  This creates the best possible environment for success where employees want to become contributors to the company’s bottom line.  Servant leaders help accomplish this by developing and building an effective team so success is continuous and focused on the long term.
  • Servant leadership adopts a higher purpose:  It is common practice for companies to adopt goals that are solely financially driven.  This emphasis often leads short term thinking that ignores what can be achieved with a longer-term approach. It can also detract from seeking the greater good that the organization might be able to achieve.

Under servant leadership, doing what is best for employees, stockholders, and customers becomes the primary objective. Financial gains, which may not always result in the greatest good for the company, are replaced with goals having a higher purpose. This takes the focus away from the short-term profit margin and places it on what is best for the long term.

Servant leaders tend to possess the qualities listed at the beginning of the article. James Autry, former CEO of Meredith Corporation, discusses this concept at great length in his book, The Servant Leader.  He believes that servant leaders will define success by answering this question: “How have my colleagues grown professionally during my tenure as their leader?”  The servant leader serves as coach, trainer and mentor, which requires the leader to choose employees and clients carefully.

Becoming a Servant Leader

Servant leadership works best when it is not just the owner’s management style, but the whole company’s management method.  Work toward getting the managers in your company to adopt servant leadership as their supervisory style.  Make supervisor hiring and promotion decisions based in part on the candidate having certain core skills and behaviors that are necessary for the successful practice of servant leadership.

  • Listen Actively – In the traditional leadership model, many managers tend to listen only marginally and often miss the substance of the discussion.  Servant leaders engage in active listening based on dialogue and conversation.  This level of listening requires discipline and patience. A servant leader tends to conduct meetings as conversations among equals where openness and sharing is encouraged.  In addition, they will seldom force their perspective on the group, but rather listen attentively to the suggestions and issues of their colleagues and affirm them.  This requires leaders to be open to new ideas and strive to understand the various roles and jobs held by team members.
  • Find Your Center – James Clawson, author of Level Three Leadership, suggests that effective leaders must first “know themselves,” which requires extensive reflection.  Traditional supervisors see this centering process as a waste of time, because they are too busy solving issues and “putting out fires.”  Unfortunately, this mindset could be the reason these leaders face so many crises. Quite simply, they have not taken the time to attempt to understand the values, beliefs and expectations that underpin themselves and their organization and that motivate their workforce.  This process of finding your own motivations and principles, in Stephen Covey’s words, “requires an individual to change from a human doing to a human being.”
  • Nurture Trusting Relationships – Trust is based on honest and open communication. Having such relationships requires that you open yourself, experience vulnerability, and become dependent on other colleagues to work in an environment of trust.  Unfortunately, the traditional bureaucratic model of management has established a framework that has eroded trusting relationships within the workplace.

Common symptoms of this include the micro management of workers, undermining employee authority, dumping organization change on employees without buy-in from the team, and allocating rewards in an inconsistent or misleading manner.

Servant leaders tend to view their employees as the most important resource of the company.  By attempting to build and sustain trusting relationships with their employees, servant leaders show respect and provide opportunities for professional advancement and personal growth.  Leaders who “practice what they preach” have no hidden agendas and are willing to relinquish their power of control and share rewards and recognition in an equitable and fair manner.  Here are some strategies that servant leaders use to sustain their trustworthiness:

  • Be vulnerable – this requires courage and is a sign of strength, not weakness.  Ask for help and be willing to admit mistakes.  This form of openness often nurtures a trusting relationship with employees.
  • Be loyal to those not present – avoid the tendency to talk negatively about other interested parties who are absent from the meeting or conversation.  By religiously practicing this principle you build leadership credibility.
  • Acknowledge your need for professional improvement and ask others for feedback – this feedback can be gained through a 360-degree performance evaluation or simply by seeking periodic feedback from a variety of employees regarding your effectiveness.
  • Be open to changing your mind regarding policies, practices, and procedures – the servant leader recognizes the creativity of his or her employees and gives them the autonomy to change and adapt their job descriptions to meet the overall goals of the organization.
  • Be an effective steward – Servant leaders practice effective stewardship by sacrificing their own achievements for others.  Those servant leaders who act as organizational stewards are not known for their great deeds, but for empowering others to achieve their professional goals and the organization’s success. This often requires supervisors to do what’s best for their workers rather than protecting their own personal turf.  It also requires encouraging employees to be co-contributors in the decision-making process.

Are You Ready?  

Those who strive to be servant leaders will find it challenging, but rewarding.  Servant leaders still face all the normal challenges that any other manager encounters – personal and organizational conflicts, budget crises, recruiting and terminations, reorganizations and complex ethical issues.  However, as a servant leader you will come to understand that the most important resource to your company is your employees and this will change the approach you take when handling decisions and managing resources.  As a servant leader you will listen differently, more carefully, to your employees and do your utmost to establish a collaborative relationship.  Being a servant leader will also require you to act with a moral conscience and strive to follow “the higher road.”  Most importantly, servant leadership principles will compel you to consider service to others over self-interest.

The transition to servant leadership is a gradual process, which requires on-going learning throughout your career. Servant leadership is not an easy practice, but many believe it does create an environment that allows the focus of business to shift from a selfish purpose to a selfless purpose. The benefits of servant leadership help find focus and purpose beyond the bottom line of the company.


This content was developed for the PHCC Educational Foundation by TPO, Inc. ( Please consult your HR professional or attorney for further advice, as laws may differ in each state. Laws continue to evolve; the information presented is as of April 2015. Any omission or inclusion of incorrect data is unintentional. Please note this article is not intended to provide legal advice or to substitute for supervisor employment law training.

The PHCC Educational Foundation, a partnership of contractors, manufacturers and wholesalers was founded in 1987 to serve the plumbing-heating-cooling industry by preparing contractors and their employees to meet the challenges of a constantly changing marketplace. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting the Foundation by making a contribution at

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