Servant leadership

“A noble leader answers not to the trumpet calls of self promotion, but to the hushed whispers of necessity.” Mollie Marti

Servant leadership is a model of leadership that focuses on the growth and well-being of the communities that are served. The servant leader shares power, puts others’ needs first, and helps the development and performance of their people. Different from traditional leadership where the goal is organizational success, servant leadership has the goal of serving its people first. 

Picture of women by computer servant leadership

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

Servant leadership is a phrase coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970 in his essay “The Servant as Leader. In the essay, Greenleaf talks about the call to serve, but warns the servant leader must first serve before taking the role of leader. He believed that consciously choosing to serve is what inspires one to lead. And a servant leader is markedly different from a leader who chooses to lead first, which is more driven by power and material possessions. 

Greenleaf states: “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant, first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

A servant leader has ten key characteristics:

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Building community
  4. Awareness
  5. Foresight
  6. Healing
  7. Persuasian
  8. Conceptualization
  9. Commitment to the growth of people
  10.  Stewardship

The main applications of servant leadership focus on personal growth and development, service leading programs, leadership education, and the development of the organization, trustees, and community. 

Servant leadership in the recovery community

Patty McCarthy, executive director of Faces & Voices of Recovery, explains that servant leadership creates a more just and caring world, builds better organizations, and enriches the lives or individuals. 

This is particularly important in the recovery community, with many advocates who spearhead campaigns that don’t necessarily share a servant leadership philosophy. 

McCarthy talks about the key difference between servant and traditional leadership: 

“For leaders to succeed, everyone around them must succeed. Leadership is about letting go of egos and developing leadership in others; giving others a chance to serve the organization or the movement in a meaningful way,” she says. “The recovery movement is not led by one individual or organization, but by the collective wisdom and synergy that occurs through meaningful collaboration and envisioning a better future together.” 

How we can practice servant leadership

There are some key skills we can practice within our community, in our leadership style, and how we advocate, including: 

  • Listening: Practice active and mindful listening skills, understand our communication style and that of the people we’re working with, and acknowledging our emotions.
  • Empathy: Put aside your viewpoint when talking to others, try to validate their perspectives, examine your attitude, and ask what others would do.
  • Healing: Take steps to help people feel happy and engaged. Ensure you’re knowledgeable, provide support and resources, and promote a healthy workplace.
  • Awareness: Take time to get to know yourself so that you understand how your emotions and behavior impact others, your strengths and weaknesses, your leadership style, and when you need to ask for help.
  • Persuasion: Use persuasion rather than authority to encourage others to take action. Build consensus in groups, and develop your expertise as your power.
  • Conceptualization: Consider things strategically with a long-term focus that looks beyond the day-to-day realities. Develop a robust organizational strategy, and ensure staff are aware of how their role links to key organizational objectives.
  • Foresight: Analyze your organization internally by identifying key strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and externally by considering political, economic, social, and technological conditions that might impact your organization and staff.
  • Stewardship: Lead by example. Take responsibility on behalf of your staff for their actions and performance, and stand up for your values.
  • Commitment to the growth of people: Develop the skills of your people, and provide training. 
  • Building community: Provide opportunities for people to connect, encourage staff to take responsibility, and remind them of their contribution to success. 

Some ways we can better serve our community also include admitting when we’re wrong, sharing wins, being wise enough to know when we don’t have the answer, and never being too busy to hear what others have to say. 

For more resources on servant leadership, you can visit:

Modern Servant Leader

Robert Greenleaf’s book, On Becoming A Servant Leader

National Recovery Institute, Center for Best Practices at Faces & Voices of Recovery