What Is Servant Leadership in Education?

Written by Rebecca Turley

servant leadership

“Servant-leadership is all about making the goals clear, and then rolling up your sleeves and doing what it takes to help people win.”

Interested in turning traditional top-down management on its head? Then you may be a natural born servant leader.

Top-down leadership calls for a hierarchy model where the leader calls the shots, and everyone falls in line. But for educational leaders interested in innovative learning styles who value team-building and collaboration, servant leadership is where it’s at.

The concept of servant leadership is nothing new. Servant leadership concepts and ideals can be traced back to ancient cultures, the philosophies of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, and all the great religions. As early as the 5th century B.C., the Chinese philosopher Laozi reflected that the ultimate ruler is someone who deflects attention.

Servant leaders in education know that by putting the work-related needs of team members first, they’re setting the stage to accomplish more while maintaining peak team morale. In this environment, employee growth and performance reach new heights, and everyone benefits. In a servant leadership educational environment, leaders lead with an unselfish mindset, focusing their efforts largely on doing their part to directly support the efforts of each faculty member while encouraging members of the team to find and explore their sense of purpose.

Asking, Listening, and Encouraging: Servant Leadership in Action

Servant leaders ask questions.

You can’t become an effective leader if you aren’t willing to get to know the people you’re working with. What are their goals, their challenges? What do they hope to achieve, and what are their plans for getting there? What motivates them – is it intrinsic or extrinsic factors?

Servant leaders listen.

In the servant leadership environment, faculty naturally feel comfortable approaching their principal or superintendent with input, questions, and concerns. Servant leaders strive to ensure that team members know that their opinions matter. Effective servant leaders are always on the lookout for the unique insights and feedback their team can offer.

Even when they don’t agree, servant leaders in education listen closely and try to understand the point of view of faculty members, acknowledging those perspectives and guiding them toward sound decisions.

Servant leaders offer encouragement.

Encouragement is a powerful tool, providing others with a strong sense of purpose and confidence. Encouragement means more than just a pat on the back. It’s also about providing real material support, includes making sure your team has the resources and knowledge to meet their objectives and then checking in regularly.

Listening, asking, and encouraging naturally lead to mutual respect and a strong sense of trust between you and your faculty and staff. In fact, it’s often said that trust is the result of servant leadership. When employees believe that their leader has their best interest at heart, they are more likely to achieve their goals.

The Enduring Belief in the Value of Servant Leadership

helping up the hillRobert Greenleaf, a management expert, is credited with pioneering the modern concept of servant leadership (although he conceptualized his thoughts after reading Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse). In his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf says, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

Servant leaders, says Greenleaf, “…make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and the one most difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as people? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Greenleaf espoused the servant leadership model, going as far as to say that servant-leader organizations could change the world.

Today, Greenleaf’s views on servant leadership continue through the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, a nonprofit organization that seeks to advance the understanding of servant leadership through its programs at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

Larry Spears, the former president of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, upon extensive study of Greenleaf’s writings, identified the ten characteristics of effective servant leaders:

  • Be a good listener: Just being present doesn’t necessarily mean you’re listening. Stop what you’re doing and give faculty your undivided attention.
  • Display empathy: Effective servant leaders seek to understand their employees’ challenges, issues, and perspectives. They put their personal feelings and attitude to the side and instead focus on understanding the issue from a different viewpoint. Doing so allows those they lead to feel heard and valued.
  • Heal/support: Being a true servant leader means supporting others in every way. Leaders in this environment consider the physical, mental, and emotional health of those they lead. They ensure that their employees have a healthy environment in which to work and the resources they need to do their jobs effectively.
  • Be aware: You can’t serve as an effective servant leader unless you can self-reflect and consider your emotions and behavior. Servant leaders consider how their attitude and behavior affects those around them.
  • Carefully persuade: Servant leaders can persuade instead of command. Through careful persuasion, they inspire their employees to act.
  • Conceptualize your vision: Servant leaders work to rally the troops, encourage them to share their long-term vision. Instead of getting mired in the daily grind, servant leaders are always looking at the bigger picture and encouraging those they lead to do the same.
  • Display foresight: Being an outstanding servant leader means learning from your past to better predict the future.
  • Practice stewardship: Stewardship means taking responsibility for your actions and for the actions of your team, never passing the buck. Leaders who take accountability for the performance of those they lead demonstrate what they want to see in others.
  • Commit to the growth of your team: Servant leadership means being fully committed to the personal and professional growth of your team. Servant leaders take the time to understand their goals and aspirations and provide them with the support and resources it takes to accomplish them.
  • Build a community: One of the best ways to create a cohesive, connected team is to focus your efforts on building a community within your building or district. Host faculty and staff luncheons, encourage your team to support one another, and create an atmosphere where your team feels comfortable connecting and sharing ideas.

What Makes a Good Servant Leader in Education?

To act as a true servant leader in an educational environment, the mission is clear: you must have an unwavering commitment to supporting the daily efforts of the team you lead.

The idea is that by honoring the work your team does and by getting down into the trenches with them when needed to support their efforts, you are creating an environment where more gets done and where colleagues, students, and parents feel a stronger sense of community.

Servant leaders put the team and the tasks at hand ahead of politics, processes, and self-promotion. They value faculty input and are always out to find ways to leverage their employees’ strengths. They’re always laser focused on continuous professional development and on harnessing the talents of their faculty and staff.

Servant leadership often means relinquishing power and allowing those you lead to take ownership of select programs and initiatives, thereby building their confidence and future leadership skills. It’s a delicate balance between assuming your role as a leader and giving faculty the space and freedom to demonstrate their value and shine in their area of expertise.

Scroll to Top