Principles of Servant Leadership

By: Dave Kennedy

Servant leadership, first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, is both a philosophy and a set of practices, a way of leading. Though the concept itself has antecedents dating back thousands of years, it was Greenleaf who aggregated these observations and offered them to the world as an approach to leadership by both individuals and organizations.

At the core of servant leadership is an acknowledgement that the signs of exceptional leadership appear primarily among the followers and their behaviors and accomplishments. Contrary to autocratic leadership, servant leadership rejects the notion of the importance of an accumulation of power, and instead is based on a participative model, a holistic understanding, shared vision and trust, an interdependence among all, and an embracing of humility.

Gary Looper and Ann McGee-Cooper, in The Essentials of Servant Leadership, provide a thorough evaluation of the work of Greenleaf and others, focusing on the identification of themes and characteristics of outstanding servant leaders. Likewise, Max DePree in Leadership is an Art amplifies these points and translates them into actions. Together, their analysis identifies the distinct “markers” of those who have come to realize that their role as a leader is first to serve, and to serve well and with great determination, and then to aspire to lead.  While many of these characteristics seem to make common sense, it is their emphasis and coexistence within the individual that helps to define the successful servant leader.

Qualities of a Servant Leader

First and foremost, integrity is the linchpin; unquestioned and instantly recognizable. High integrity allows for the existence of vulnerability, the willingness to trust in the abilities of others, and to allow them to do their best. Because leaders are required to see many things about their organizations and the markets they serve, they must possess discernment, and constantly keep their antennae up. 

The best leaders show that they are aware of the human spirit, and understand and respect that spirit among those with whom they work. They must be able to show courage in relationships, and be able to face up to difficult decisions with honesty and commitment.  At the same time, they have to have a sense of humor, which demonstrates that they’re both human and able to laugh at the many circumstances of the human condition.

The complexity of our lives today, particularly in business, demands a great deal of intellectual energy and curiosity, and strong leaders see the importance of learning and discovery, especially seeking out knowledge from what their followers can teach them. As odd as it may sound, they also owe those followers predictability, the state of being a calculable force within the organization, instead of one known to follow a whim or mood. In terms of their vision, breadth should be their hallmark, incorporating input from all quarters.

Because a healthy, growing organization exhibits a certain amount of chaos, leaders must be comfortable with ambiguity and accept the fact that it is their job to make sense of it. One of the ways they can do so is by simply being “present,” visible to the followers, and open to learning from them. And importantly, they must exhibit a respect for the future, regard for the present and an understanding of the past.

Responsibilities of a Servant Leader

The first role of a leader is to define reality; ensure that everyone understands where things stand, completely and truthfully. They must be exemplary listeners, demonstrating the importance of each speaker by being able to identify their will and needs. Because of the importance of diversity inside any organization, leaders have to be able to show empathy, the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes.

A leader often has to be a healer, able to facilitate solutions and take disparate viewpoints and parts and make them into a whole. One of the prerequisites of this ability is constantly being aware, understanding all that is happening inside and around the organization, despite the sometimes disturbing nature of such knowledge. Persuasion, not by positional authority or coercion, but by genuinely taking the time to convince, can result in lasting and meaningful consensus.

The best leaders are those who can “dream great dreams,” and they can accomplish this conceptualization most effectively because they seek access and exposure to many ideas and opinions. In this way, they can develop foresight, anticipating the consequences of today’s decisions for the future, in spite of the fact that the future cannot be predicted.

Servant leaders see their roles as a form of stewardship, serving the needs and wishes of others, whose investment in the success of the enterprise is just as meaningful as theirs. Part of that responsibility is to commit to the growth of the people around the leader, showing others how to grow and providing the means and the environment for them to do so. In this way, the servant leader is nurturing and fostering true community within the organization, and perpetuating common vision and goals.

Finally, the last role of the leader is to say “thank you,” acknowledging that the achievements of the organization are rightfully shared with everyone.


Dave Kennedy is Co-Founder and Managing Director of Aspire Ventures, LLC, a technology-oriented venture capital firm, focused on mobile, cloud computing and artificial intelligence/machine learning. Prior to Aspire, Dave was CEO of Lancaster-based appMobi, Inc., Interep National Radio Sales in New York, and Susquehanna Media Corp. of York. He has served as Chairman of the Board of both the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, DC and the Radio Advertising Bureau in New York. Dave’s community activities have included the York County Chapter of the American Red Cross, the United Way and the York County Community Foundation, all of whose boards he has chaired. He currently serves on the board of the Cultural Alliance of York County, and also as a mentor for Mentorship York. Dave is a 1989 graduate of Leadership York's Leadership Training Program, and he received its Outstanding Alumnus of the Year award in 2000.