Servant-Leadership for Educational Leaders

“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie

Lately I’ve been thinking more deeply about servant-leadership as an overarching leadership disposition. To some, the term itself sounds like a contradiction. I believe it is in the correct order – servant then leadership. Serving the system first brings about trust and commitment versus compliance. High trust moves a system forward faster.

So let’s flip the org chart and take a deeper look at servant-leadership for educational leaders.

Organizations exist to serve; leaders live to serve. Servant-leaders are called to a purpose, not just a position. That purpose is to listen and respond, support, equip, empower and inspire each person to grow and realize their full potential and abilities in service of academic excellence and student success. To do so, we need to build relationships and teams that encourage open dialog, creativity and innovation. Together we are more than the sum of our individual parts.

Exceptional servant-leaders are able to build exceptional teams that can accomplish extraordinary things! 

Robert Greenleaf lists ten characteristics of a servant leader in this book The Servant as Leader. Here, I relate them to school leadership.

  1. Listening: Listen actively to staff and support them in decision-making
  2. Empathy: Consider staff as people who need respect and appreciation for their personal development
  3. Healing: Help staff solve their problems and conflicts in relationships to encourage and support the personal development of each individual
  4. Awareness: View situations from a more integrated, holistic position to gain a better understanding about ethics values
  5. Persuasion: Do not take advantage of power and status by coercing compliance, rather try to convince those they lead
  6. Conceptualization: Think beyond day-to-day realities to also focus on long term operating goals and strategy implementation
  7. Foresight: Learn about the past, achieve a better understanding about the current reality and identify consequences about the future
  8. Stewardship: Hold resources in trust and the district in trust for the greater good of society
  9. Commitment to the growth of people: Nurture the personal and professional growth of staff including investing in their personal and professional development, encouraging the ideas of everyone and involving staff in decision making
  10. Building community: Build a strong district community and develop collaboration among the district and community. I like to think of this as commUNITY.

In his book The Secret: What Great Leaders Know – And Do, Ken Blanchard captures five things effective leaders do to SERVE their organizations.

See the future: Envision and communicate a compelling picture of a preferred future

Engage and develop others: Recruit and align people for the right job. Create environments where people bring vision to life

Reinvent continuously: Continuously focus on improvement

Value results and relationships – Generate measurable results and cultivate great relationships

Embody values – Live fully aligned with stated values

Some guiding principles for servant-leadership are:

  • Identify barriers to performing our work and achieving our goals
  • Listen to suggestions for eliminating those barriers
  • Acknowledge and reward exceptional achievements
  • Provide all employees with frequent, constructive, actionable feedback as well as positive reinforcement and acknowledgment of work well done
  • Celebrate team and individual accomplishments
  • Encourage open dialog, creativity and innovation

Reflection questions: (From Advanced American Communications)

  • Who do you serve? And for what purpose?
  • As a servant-leader, how do you use power and authority differently from a “traditional” leader?
  • Robert Greenleaf refers to “going out ahead and showing the way.” What ways are actually open to you to go out ahead and show the way in your setting?
  • Are those you are serving growing as people – becoming wiser, freer, more autonomous and more likely to become servants themselves?


January was School Board Appreciation month. Here was my “thank you” to our school board for their SERVICE!




By Dr. Marci Shepard – February 2013

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