To Lead While Serving Requires Intentionality and Heart Change

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In today’s workplace, leadership failures are being exposed through high employee turnover, decreased workplace morale and an overall climate of disengaged employees. Today’s employees understand their worth and rightly demand better treatment at work. If high employee turnover and low employee engagement are an indication, employees have shown that a different leadership approach is needed. Faced with the potential of having a lack of followers, leaders are pursuing alternate leadership approaches, seeking better outcomes. Servant leadership is one such alternative to traditional power leader models. As Robert Greenleaf, the founder of modern servant leadership, wrote:


“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.”

Often, leaders who have decided to lead differently have already begun the servant leadership journey unawares. So, how do you begin the journey of inward change?

The following are recommended practices for aspiring servant leaders. These actions can be practiced regardless of your position within the organization.

  • Prioritize People. Servant leaders must first adopt a mindset that places people as their highest priority. Decide to treat others according to the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Mat. 7:12) In each situation, servant leaders should consider how they would want to be treated and make a practice of showing genuine care and interest in others. This mindset shift will set the stage for a climate of kindness.

  • Be Intentional. Servant leadership is not accidental. The first step in adopting servant leadership is deciding to be a servant leader. For aspiring servant leaders, this entails a decision to seek to serve people first. This decision also often entails evaluating the why behind what a leader decides to do or not do. While on the servant leader journey, leaders will often recognize a need to relinquish long-standing power leader behaviors and other poor learned practices like leading through fear, manipulation, and conflict avoidance.

  • Think Differently. New thinking leads to new outcomes. After deciding to lead while serving and being intentional in all actions, servant leaders’ journeys continue with internal reflection and an honest assessment of their current thinking. To act differently, servant leaders must first think differently.

  • Focus on the Heart. The most accurate indicator of who a leader is can be found in what exudes from that person. A person’s speech, tone, disposition and attitude all reflect their internal character. Too often, leaders seeking different outcomes make the mistake of pursuing outward changes and focus on external factors and methods. They might seek the how-tos of showing empathy or care or the steps leading to an appearance of humility. However, these and other worthy servant leadership attributes can only be achieved through inward change stemming from a change of heart.

  • Evaluate Outcomes. Finally, as servant leaders continue their journeys, they should continually evaluate the effect they are having on others. Leaders can practice a commitment to this value by daily reflection on the desired and actual effect they have on others. Greenleaf’s best test is the best measure of this objective:

“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?”


Malcolm A. Hankins is a public servant, non-profit chair and keynote speaker. His focus is on leadership effectiveness, employee relations, community engagement and ministry.

To learn more about servant leadership and transformation of the heart, pick up a copy of SLI’s publication Our Character at Work by Todd Hunter.