Servant Leadership

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What is Servant Leadership?

Robert Greenleaf coined the phrase “Servant Leadership” in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” Since the writing of this essay, the term and concept has gained more and more acceptance throughout the world as a very unique form of leadership. There are many definitions of servant leader, but perhaps the most basic definition is that a servant leader is someone who puts the needs of others ahead of their own. Greenleaf said that while there was no one test to see if someone was a servant leader, the best test was to look at the followers. Are the followers becoming healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous and more likely themselves to become a servant leader? If so, then the leader can fairly be called a servant leader.

Greenleaf wrote about the principles of servant leadership much more so than trying to define servant leadership. He identified twelve principles that characterize servant leadership. At SGR we teach that those principles can be roughly divided into two categories. On the one hand about half of them fall into the category of “Nurturing Healthy Relationships.” On the other hand, about half of those principles fall in the category of “Leading Innovative Change for the Future.”

Nuturing Healthy & Trusting Relationships
Leading Innovative Change Into the Future



Building Community Spirit

Nurturing the Spirit










Being Committed to the Growth of People!


One of the principles could be legitimately described as bridging both categories. That’s “Being Committed to the Growth of People” which brings us back to the definition, “A Servant Leader is someone who puts the needs of others ahead of their own.”

Servant Leadership Principles

These 12 characteristics which together comprise the sense of “It is not about me. It is not about now” include:

  1. Listening –Hearing both the words and the hearts of others.
  2. Empathy – engaging openly with others to better understand their perspectives, how their life experiences have shaped them, and assuming their good intentions.
  3. Nurturing the Spirit –using supportive praise and honest recognition to encourage the spirit of those working to make the vision a reality and helping them understand the role they play in the bigger picture.
  4. Building Community –fostering a strong sense of shared engagement and commitment to the team as a whole and working to nurture an authentic culture with leadership who genuinely walk the talk.
  5. Healing – promoting wholeness and transformation to help people become the best they can be and recognizing that our words either build up or tear down. but they are rarely neutral.
  6. Awareness – of self, others and our environment, and feeling compelled to act upon what we know is the right thing to do when we become aware of it.
  7. Foresight –acknowledging the realities of the past and recognizing the realities of the present so that we can anticipate the realities of the future and take appropriate actions to shape our destiny.
  8. Conceptualization – envisioning the future and communicating a clear picture of what it can look like so that others can understand, embrace and work toward making the vision a reality.
  9. Persuasion –inspiring commitment to the cause rather than forcing mere compliance through positional authority.
  10. Calling –recognizing that we are working toward something that is bigger and more important than ourselves or any single individual and nurturing a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good.
  11. Stewardship –understanding both short term and long term implications of decisions and the impact they have on the greater good.
  12. Growth of Others–developing your team at all levels and helping each of them reach their fullest potential.

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SGR and Servant Leadership

Even though SGR has been training local government leaders for many years, it wasn’t until 2014 that we started overtly using this phrase in all that we do. Ron Holifield, SGR’s Founder and CEO, was teaching a class on Servant Leadership and kept finding himself saying, “This is what we believe!” From that moment on, while there was no change in our values or beliefs, there was a change in our language. Since then, SGR has fully embraced that term and has been at the forefront of the shift in thinking that is taking place across the board in local government. More and more cities, counties, and agencies are realizing that Servant Leadership provides a legitimate alternative to the toxic political environment that often rears its head in many ways.

You can remember the SGR Mission by the word RADICAL. Our Mission is to Recruit, Assess, and Develop, Innovative, Collaborative, Authentic Leaders. Our definition of an authentic leader is a Servant Leader. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s through filling a position for a city by placing an interim candidate there, conducting a nation-wide search for a new City Manager, or developing the leaders at all levels of the organization—we’re focused on that mission—which is driven by our commitment to servant leadership.

SGR doesn’t just offer Servant Leadership as one product among many. It’s not one part of our leadership development program. All that we do as a company is based upon these principles. All the Leadership Development we provide is built around servant leadership, and every service and resource we provide is in alignment with these principles.

Why Servant Leadership

Someday we hope self-serving leadership will be eradicated just like it was polio. In its place we envision a day where servant leadership will characterize city government. Why is this so important? Because self-serving leadership is toxic. It poisons the naturally noble calling of public service. On the other hand, servant leadership provides the opportunity for every person to be able to thrive.

Servant Leadership FAQs

Q. Isn’t Servant Leadership just about being nice to people? Is it really a philosophy of leadership?

A. Servant Leadership goes way beyond being a nice person. It’s a commitment to do what’s best for the organization as well as for the future, but without trampling upon people in the process.

Q. Can Servant Leadership really transform the culture of an organization?

A. Absolutely! There are many examples of organizations in the public sector and private sector who have transformed their culture and improved their operations because their leadership team became committed to servant leadership, and that commitment permeated the entire workforce.

Q. What’s the key to seeing Servant Leadership impact an organization rather than it just becoming one more emphasis that is here today and gone tomorrow?

A. The key is to align the organizations operational systems with the principles of servant leadership. From Branding and Marketing, to Recruiting, Onboarding, and Developing People, Customer Interactions, etc. SGR offers workshops and classes, not only on servant leadership, but also on how to use it to transform the culture.

Q. Isn’t it true that Servant Leadership can hinder an organization from getting things done because people are too focused on “playing nice”?

A. Not at all! Organizations that are committed to servant leadership want to accomplish things and they do accomplish things! In fact, they can just as much or more accomplished as organizations that are solely focused on execution. However, when the culture is built upon the principles of putting others first, it keeps them from leaving a trail of wounded people along the side of the road. That makes it sustainable over time. 

Q. If we bring in a servant leader to our organization, won’t the other people around them just run over them?

A. Like was said about President Lincoln, Servant Leaders are made of both velvet and steel. They know how to treat people with respect, but they are like steel when it comes to their resolve to be committed to long term goals of the organization. They do the right things in the right way at the right time with the right attitude. They maintain the necessary tension between nurturing healthy relationships and leading innovative change for the future.

Servant Leadership and Your Organization

SGR provides many approaches and resources to help you transform your organization into a culture marked by servant leadership. Please check out our resources and Email our Leadership Development and Training Team to discuss how SGR can help you!