Tip #71 How Your Board Can Embrace Servant-Leadership

August 1, 2021  |  tips for effective boards

The following steps are suggested for your board to embrace servant-leadership:


1.    Your board familiarizes itself with servant-leadership, the characteristics of servant-leaders and the values of servant-leadership.  (A few resources are suggested at the end of this Tip for Effective Boards.)

2.    Your board then commits to servant-leadership values and behaviors as individual board members and as a board.

3.    Your board then strives to model servant-leadership behaviors and values in interactions among board members, in the board’s interactions with the CEO and staff, and in interactions with the organization’s key stakeholders and other community members and organizations.

4.    Your board reflects on servant-leadership values and develops board expectations of management and board expectations of itself that explicitly incorporate servant-leadership values.  (A Policy Governance® board expresses these expectations of management and of itself in its board policies.)


It is important to note that servant-leadership is not a specific program or programs.   Rather, it is a constellation of values.  It is up to each board to decide which servant-leadership values they wish to operationalize in their board and organization.  Typically, boards articulate the values to be embraced by the organization but leave the operational specifics to management.


The following are some suggestions for board consideration in relation to the seven characteristics of servant-leadership described in the last two Tips for Effective Boards:


1.     Focus on and care about others.  Promote the well-being of customers/clients and not allow the needs of the organization to supersede the true needs of customers/clients.  Promote the well-being and the personal and professional development of employees.  Identify and address any negative unintended organizational impacts on customers/clients, employees, other community organizations, the community in general (e.g., environmental impacts), etc.  

2.     Listen to understand and learn from others.  Articulate board expectations of the board itself regarding attentive listening, not interrupting others, suspending judgment of others’ opinions, attending to body language and non-verbal expressions, expressing understanding of others’ positions and opinions before sharing one’s own positions and opinions, etc.  The chair can facilitate board process that supports listening to and learning from one another in the boardroom.

3.     Withdraw for reflection.  Encourage board process that allows time for reflection and time for ideas to percolate before board action is taken.  Again, the chair can guide board process that incorporates this value.

4.     Collaborate and share power with others.  Chairs recognize that they are not boss of the board but servant of the board.  They don’t dominate the board but facilitate sharing of power among all board members.  In the board’s relationship with the CEO, the board empowers the CEO to manage the organization and doesn’t allow itself to micromanage the organization or otherwise undermine the authority it has delegated to the CEO.  The board hires a CEO who embraces and lives servant-leadership values.  The board expects that the CEO empowers employees and maintains non-authoritarian participative organizational structures.

5.     See the big picture.  The chair guides board process that encourages the board to step back from individual situations and events to appreciate patterns, context, interrelationships, interconnectedness, and the big picture.  Board members and the board as a whole rise above day-to-day reality to dream great dreams.

6.     Exercise foresight.  The chair ensures that the board systematically analyzes past and current trends and projects future possibilities that can be embraced or responded to.  The board looks beyond the time-frame of the organization’s current strategic plan in order to be able to guide ongoing strategic thinking and future strategic plans.

7.    Become the change.  The board’s change efforts start “in here,” that is, with the board itself.  Board members continually challenge themselves to exercise servant-leadership behavior in their board member roles and to grow in their commitment to servant-leadership values.


To learn more about servant-leadership, google servant-leadership or Robert K. Greenleaf or visit the Spears Center for Servant-Leadership: www.spearscenter.org.


Specific servant-leadership resources you may find helpful follow:


1.    Robert Greenleaf’s first essay on servant-leadership which is titled “The Servant as Leader.”  It is available as a booklet through the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership (www.greenleaf.org).  It is also available from the Greenleaf Center as a package together with two other essays by Robert Greenleaf titled “The Institution as Servant” and “Trustees as Servants.”  These three essays are also available as the first three chapters of Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (Paulist Press, 1977 and 25th anniversary edition in 2002).

2.    Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership Revised and Expanded Edition by James W. Sipe and Don M. Frick (Paulist Press, 2015). 


To learn more about the Policy Governance® model, please click https://www.BoardsOnCourse.com/policy-governance.