What is Servant Leadership? 7 Leadership Ideals

By David McCuistion

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Servant leadership… What do you think about the culture magnified through movies, TV, and society in general?

How does it affect your leadership? More specifically, you’re serving the needs of others when your behavior is broadcast to those with whom you interact.

Most discussions about Servant Leadership center around listening, empathy, emotional intelligence, character, leading with moral authority, and putting other people first in a leader’s practices.

Equally important is the characteristic of courage — the courage to stand like a rampart against unethical behaviors. Resisting pressures of high profits at the expense of employee needs and growth requires immense courage and leadership.

At times, leaders must choose between doing the right thing for employees over increasing the bottom line.

Servant Leadership

For years, human nature dictated behavior in treating others with respect, with ethical correctness, and with interactions grounded in the Golden Rule, “Doing unto others as you would like others to do unto you.”

George Washington, at age sixteen, created “110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation”, which he based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595.

As Mark Twain tells us, there are two types of courage: Physical and Moral. As he points out, courage is most often thought to be physical. Rarely do we think of the moral aspect of courage.

As servant leaders, we must consider both. To more fully understand this essential quality of leadership, leaders must know the difference between morals, ethics, and honor. Traditionally, these traits have different and distinct meanings:

Morals – a set of standards or rules that govern one’s behavior; a set of virtues based on the natural law; cultural distinctions between right and wrong

Ethics – the behavior one exhibit based on his/her virtues or morals

Honor – maintaining a proper sense of right and wrong based on moral standards of conduct. As stated by Revolutionary War Hero Capt. John Paul Jones: “I will lay down my life for my country, but I will not trifle with my honor.”

Servant Leaders are expected to be persons of honor with high standards of morals and ethical behaviors, whose integrity is beyond reproach at all times, even when no one is looking or watching.

Moral Courage

A Servant Leader’s honor depends on their exhibiting high standards of moral courage. Examples include some of the following behaviors:

  • Doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do, especially when under pressure to look the other way or to lower standards of conduct with the idea of motivating future positive behaviors.
  • Standing up for the leader’s beliefs in defense of one’s honor.
  • Making honest decisions based on organizational ethical standards with unwavering principles.
  • Admitting mistakes, even in the most embarrassing of situations.
  • Confronting unethical behaviors when discovered and taking responsible corrective action that may even require terminating an employee.
  • Setting the standard in performance according to organizational morals and ethics.

Physical Courage

Until recently, courage meant physical courage only, with little consideration for the moral or ethical aspects of the behavior. Saving a person’s life meant placing oneself in danger and possibly sacrificing one’s life to save another person. In the military, such action is sometimes recognized with the Medal of Honor for valor above and beyond the call of ordinary duty.

Leadership physical courage can be exhibited in several other ways:

  • Training an employee in the proper procedures of completing a task or responsibility.
  • Educating employees on a proposed change or policy.
  • Mentoring and counseling when employee behaviors indicate a need for one or the other.
  • Conflict resolution, especially during heated moments of aggression by employees.
  • Public speaking on a wide variety of subject matter relative to one’s knowledge and expertise.

Leadership Authenticity

Servant Leadership authenticity can only be maintained and emulated by adhering to the highest possible standards of moral and physical courage.

Where do you stand in your leadership courage? Do you stand like a rampart against unethical and immoral behaviors by employees? Are you an authentic Servant Leader?

Civility Projects

Civility Projects are springing up nationwide, attempting to return civility to society – personally and professionally. Hence, the very nature of Servant Leadership is the most logical leadership philosophy to be followed.

Speak Your Peace, Rutgers University, Alverno College, and the Oshkosh Civility Project are a few examples of entities that have initiated actions to return civility to society.

In addition, P. M. Forni’s book “Choosing Civility” expounds on 25 ways to improve civility in human interactions.

Forni’s Ideals

Servant Leaders, whose vision is to make people better in various ways, naturally exhibit many of Forni’s ideals in their day-to-day leadership of their people.

Below are a few examples for servant leaders to follow.

1. Pay Attention/Listen

Listen intently when others are speaking. Inhibit the “inner voice” from interrupting with comments such as “The problem is…….”, or “We’ve always done it this way” in an attempt to stop the flow of ideas and suggestions.

Listen for the “intent” and “will” of what is being said.

Look for non-verbal communication and maintain eye-to-eye contact with the person with whom you are speaking. Lastly, listen to understand.

2. Be Inclusive

Civility knows no ethnicity or race, no level of leadership, no forum, no religion, no sexuality, no generation, and no bounds.

Being inclusive includes everyone. It is about leading and serving for the betterment of mankind.

3. No Gossiping

Gossiping is one of the most hurtful behaviors and accomplishes nothing.

Most of the time, it is negative and provocative.

It is idle words, often divisive and destructive. In some cases, it is also racist. All of which only lower esteem.

4. Be Respectful

First of all, remember that respect has nothing to do with liking or disliking someone. Everyone deserves a certain level of respect. We all expect to be respected for who we are and what we have accomplished.

The point I always make with my students is that contrary to the common comment of “respect is earned,” how much more or less one garners depends on individual behavior and respect toward others. Common decency, i.e., civility extended toward others.

Civility is Respectful Behavior; respect is “Honorable Behavior.”

5. Build Relationships

Servant Leadership is about building relationships. Therefore, being civil is especially helpful in this process.

There is no room for boasting and prideful attitudes. Humility is the adhesive that solidifies teamwork and seeks to repair damaged relationships.

Seek to apologize, forgive and affirm the success of others.

6. Use Constructive Language

Be mindful of the words you use when you use them and also of the words you speak through your non-verbal communication.

Foul language in the middle of the ocean, out of sight, and sounds of others, may serve a purpose.

However, foul language in a public forum is disrespectful toward others.

More specifically, foul language often indicates an inability to use correct language, as well as a limited repository of words and their usage.

7. Take Responsibility

Don’t shift responsibility or place blame on other people.

Hold yourself accountable, accept your faults, speak positively, clean up your language, and respect everyone.

Be the example.

Principles and Practices

These are just a few of the examples Servant Leaders need to follow in their interactions with others – all the time, in every situation, and regardless of the type of organization to which one belongs.

Not only is it time to restore civility in all aspects of our lives, but it is also essential in your servant leadership principles and practices.

Are you doing your part? Are you always civil in the example you set for others?

How Do You Work on Servant Leadership?

If you have ideas about servant leadership that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

David McCuistion
David McCuistion
David is a retired Naval Officer with extensive leadership and management experience including Officer-in-Charge of a major communication facility, in secondary education teaching leadership, and over five years public speaking on Servant Leadership and organizational development topics.
  • Great article! Suppressing the inner voice is easier when we respect the speaker. Learning to respect the speaker is easier now that I’ve read your article :).

  • David McCuistion says:

    Thank you Melissa. You are so correct about the inner voice and the desire to speak instead of listening. I have found it to be most useful; hard to manage at times, but powerful when used to advantage.

  • Ron Whitaker says:

    Another great article, David. Excellent points for everyone to keep in mind! #7 – Taking Responsibility is what we need right now from top to bottom. Without this skill people have a hard time moving themselves forward let alone moving a country forward.

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