I have been a servant leader since before knowing there was a name for it. I suspect that this is the case for many servant leaders. I am a nurse by education and trade, but like my natural tendency towards servant leadership, I have had a nurse’s heart since long before learning the art of nursing practice. Likewise, I suspect that this is true of many in health care; we serve because we were born to serve and we care because it is as natural for us as breathing. I have written about complex issues of servant leadership in the past, but it occurred to me that the article was highly focused and did not entirely capture what it is to be a servant leader. The intent of this article is to capture what it is to be a servant leader and to help the reader understand and apply basic principles of servant leadership, not just in healthcare, but anywhere.

Be a partner rather than a boss.

The most notable thought leader in the servant leadership movement, Robert Greenleaf said servant leadership “… begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is a leader first…” (Greenleaf, 2002). He went on to argue that the best measure of one’s effectiveness as a servant leader is; “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” (Greenleaf, 2002).

If you aspire to serve first, it’s important that you reframe your relationship with your team. Servant leaders are much less concerned about being the boss and much more so about being a partner. Partners need less management than subordinates. They can be trusted and expected to do the right thing to the best of their judgment and ability every time, because, as you will learn, they are working with you based on shared values and goals. This type of relationship is bidirectional. That is, feedback in both directions is not only encouraged, but expected and appreciated. This comes more naturally to some than others, but it is important that every partner feels comfortable respectfully expressing their thoughts and concerns without the fear of criticism or repercussion. This will present opportunities for servant leaders to identify gaps in knowledge and judgment.

When this happens, it is important to provide coaching and promote teamwork rather than criticism or discipline; consistently doing this over time builds trust. One way to achieve this is to problem solve with the team member, rather than solving problems in the form of explicit directives (though there is certainly a time for that). Ask questions, but allow the employee to do most of the talking. People are much more likely to place a high value on the solution if they were integral to its discovery. I try to avoid giving team members the answers. Instead, I prefer to ask questions and allow the team member to gain insight that leads to an understanding on their own.

Know why you do what you do.

Businesses typically have a global mission statement. It may be well thought out, but how many people in the public or even on the team can recite it? In large companies, how relatable is the mission statement to a team that’s well removed from corporate administration? The mission statement may be perfect, but does the team understand what motivates the vision? More than likely there is work to be done here. The mechanics of the work the team does is likely obvious, at least to the team members. Why the work is important may be much less so. It is important to understand why the work matters and what impact it has on the world to be inspired and to inspire others.

Greenleaf said, “By clearly stating and restating the goal the leader gives certainty and purpose to others who may have difficulty achieving it for themselves.” (Greenleaf, 2002) The word goal in this quote undersells the message. In fact, Greenleaf once wrote an entire paragraph explaining what he meant by the word “goal.” He wasn’t writing about understanding the minutia of what’s being done, but the reason – the why. Simon Sinek talks extensively about the concept of “why” in his TED talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”. Sinek said, “Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do, 100 percent. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiated value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by ‘why’ I don’t mean ‘to make a profit.’ That’s a result. It’s always a result. By ‘why,’ I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?” (Sinek, 2017) Greenleaf touched on this idea in “The Servant as Leader” (1991), but in my mind, Sinek makes the point much clearer in his TED talk.

The Chief Executive Officer of iFixit, Kyle Wiens illustrates this in practice very well in discussing the work that his team does in terms of saving the environment (Kyle Wiens: Right to Repair, 2017). As Kyle explains it, his team makes “do it yourself” electronics repair much easier, which results in fewer cell phones and highly toxic lithium-ion batteries finding their way into landfills. iFixit is not only helping us fix our cell phones; they are creating jobs and helping to save the planet one cell phone repair at a time. They are also extending the lives of these increasingly expensive devices and making them much more affordable for low- and middle-income families.

Before reading this article, I did not know or care much about iFixit, but I can get on board with creating jobs, saving the planet, and helping the less fortunate. This is a company that I would buy from and be proud to work for. Moreover, it is an idea that can be used to inspire others, as Kyle Wiens appears to be well aware.

Communication: Listen first.

Greenleaf made point of highlighting the importance of listening. In “The Servant as Leader” (1991), he said, “I have a bias about [AH1] [listening] which suggests that only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first. When one is a leader, this disposition causes one to be seen as a servant first. This suggests that a non-servant who wants to be a servant might become a natural servant through a long arduous discipline of learning to listen, a discipline sufficiently sustained that the automatic response to any problem is to listen first. I have seen enough remarkable transformations in people who have been trained to listen to have some confidence in this approach. It is because true listening builds strength in other people.”

Nothing personal, just professional.

We want our team to feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and ideas, but we need them to be professional. Comfort can lead to unfiltered feedback, particularly when a team member is passionate about an issue. The only person who should have the power to make you mad is you. Do not give anyone else that power and if you become mad, own it and recognize it as a choice that you are deliberately making. We have all heard the expression, “They really push my buttons.” There are no two ways about this. We are not robots, we do not have buttons, and blaming others for our reactions is abdicating responsibility for our own lack of control. If you have already given someone the power to make you mad, it is time to take it back!

The internal process that leads to an emotional reaction is sometimes called an “amygdala hijack.” An amygdala hijack happens when the areas of our brain that process emotional responses elicit a reaction before the thinking part of our brain processes the stimulus. The theory is that that the emotional part of our brain process information a split second before the thinking part. Anyone who has ever said something in anger or frustration and then immediately regretted it has experienced this.

I respect the science, but the term does not do our power over the process of justice. A highjack is a “forceful taking” and the truth is that many of us allow amygdala hijacks without putting up much of a fight. How can we stop this from happening?

There are a couple of different strategies that I use. The first is delaying my responses. In an email this is easy, just wait 24 hours to reply. In-person, I don’t typically sit for minutes of awkward silence before forming a response, but I would gladly do so if the alternative was to say something that I would immediately regret. During a pause, I try to maintain a flat expression (remember a large portion of communication is non-verbal) and give myself a few seconds to process things. These few seconds are where the magic happens. This gives me time to compartmentalize.

I was in the Army and a great leader that I worked under would consistently say “nothing personal, just professional.” It was like his personal mantra. I think of it often. Compartmentalizing is not ignoring or stuffing things away never to be thought of again. It is, looking at the thing, taking a few brief seconds to consider it and where the feelings related to it may be coming from, identifying the feeling without judgment, and then letting it go and saving further consideration for later when we have time to consider things with a clear analytical mind. If I am doing this well, my response to any information, no matter how distressing, is “nothing personal, just professional.”

It is all about perspective.

Take the time to really think through critical interactions that do not work out as expected. Try to have a clear picture of the other person’s perspective when analyzing exchanges. I find that my feelings about the situation are likely to soften when I take the other person’s perspective into account. When I do not have the other person’s perspective, there is no rule against calmly and politely asking for it. This is often best accomplished a day later, by email. The simple act of asking is often appreciated. If there needs to be a follow-up conversation, it takes place after reviewing the evidence, seeking feedback from others if needed, and dealing with any personal feelings and emotions on the matter.

While we may work to understand a colleague’s perspective, in many cases they may not extend us the same courtesy. We may try to explain it, but we cannot force them to understand it. This can be a challenge, but do not default to frustration. In these moments, the best strategy is to take time, think it through, and decide how important it is that they understand our way of thinking. In many cases, it is more important to our ego than the mission itself.

While it is important that we agree on the mission, our colleagues will not always be in lockstep with us with regards to the process. Healthy and respectful disagreement is valuable, as it helps the leader to see the bigger picture and often results in novel solutions. It is better to be well informed and occasionally wrong than often wrong while operating under the delusion that we are always right.

All things thoughtfully considered, the exceptional leader thinks things through and reaches a conclusion based on all available evidence. While our colleagues may not understand our conclusion, they can be expected to respect it and be respectful to us as leaders. Further, where the leader is ultimately responsible for the outcome (i.e. has hierarchal authority), the team can be expected to carry out the plan whether they agree with it or not. While servant leaders want to be partners, sometimes we have to make decisions that others do not agree with.

Watch the replay.

Many of us spend a great deal of time replaying uncomfortable conversations in our own minds. We imagine different scenarios or different approaches and consider how the interaction could have worked out differently if we’d just said this or that. It is important that we are not too self-critical. I’ve heard colleagues describe this practice as a personal failing. The truth is, if we are doing this in a healthy way, it is an invaluable tool. Think of it as practice. The only way to be great at anything is to practice. We could intentionally throw yourself into confrontations frequently (some certainly do), but our life will be much easier if you watch the replay the way a professional athlete studies replays of a game.

When you are ready to think it through objectively and without emotion, replay the conversation like a movie in your mind’s eye. Think it through, get what you can from it, and then let it go. In other words, without judging or being self-critical, evaluate the conversation and practice different scenarios and imagined responses. When we are in a similar situation in the future, we are likely to be more satisfied with our response if we have taken the lessons we have learned to heart.

This strategy can also be used to pre-practice difficult conversations. Work through imagined scenarios and consider how we plan to respond to keep the conversation productive and on track. Remember the mantra, “nothing personal, just professional.” If you imagine an argument is going to take place, there is a very good chance you will be right! In other words, try not to create self-fulfilling prophecies. It takes two to argue. If the conversation gets off track, take a deep breath, re-center, and stay silent for as long as it takes to formulate an intended (vs. emotional) response.

Mind the boundaries.

Our mission is your team’s mission. We make certain that they have the tools, skills, support, environment, and the time they need to do their jobs well. I view my role as ancillary to that of my team. That is, I exist to support them in their mission. Sometimes the trust that develops between us results in non-work-related disclosures. I know them and care about them and I hope that they know and care about me. That said, I am constantly mindful of boundaries.

Know when to bow out of conversations among staff members. When non-work-related disclosures are made, lend an empathetic ear and offer encouragement and support, but try to resist the urge to give direct advice or try to solve life’s problems for them. This can be difficult if, like me, you are a helper by nature, but it’s important to not inject too much of yourself into your employees’ personal lives. Doing so is a disservice to your team because it further blurs the lines of the relationship. While the relationship has more give and take than a traditional subordinate relationship, you are still ultimately responsible for the health and boundaries of the relationship.

Understand what it is that your team values.

Understanding what your team values in one another is important. As a leader, knowing this grants insight into the team, but the process of working through this with the team grants the members insight into themselves and one another. When I worked on this with my team, I asked them to describe the qualities of the person or colleague that they admire the most and aspire to emulate. I recorded and counted the frequency of the words and ideas that they used most often. As a team, we then used those high-frequency words to create a statement of values. We worked on this over the course of several months and before we created our team’s mission statement. Why? Because understanding who we are will help us make sense of why we do what we do.

Understanding your team’s values is not a one and done proposition. Encourage and reinforce those qualities in your team. Recognize those who espouse those qualities and coach those who do not. Further, actively look for these values in candidates when you are hiring and recruiting. Finally, these values must always be personally reflected in your own attitudes and behaviors. This is known as integrity.

Be grounded in reality.

This one takes a lot more work, but it is every bit as important. Even if you manage to inspire your team with visions of saving the world, you are competing with the realities that they must face each and every day when they go home. Trying to understand who your team members are, their lives, and what matters to them gives you valuable insight regarding what motivates them and the obstacles they may face.

For example, I have a colleague who is exceptional at her job; she is highly intelligent, motivated, committed, and highly effective. She is without a doubt one of our best employees and an exceptional human being. She is also chronically late getting to work. She has never been disciplined. She has other high priority responsibilities that she can’t easily delegate. She cannot change that, but if I am unwilling to change my expectations, she can easily change employers. Fortunately, she works in a role where there is just enough wiggle room to make this work.

I have positions where lateness would be unacceptable. I can imagine a leader asking, “Is this fair?” My answer would be that you have to consider people as individuals and be flexible to a degree in some small way where you can. The caveat is that whatever flexibility you afford a team member, big or small, is only worthwhile if it matters to that individual and you have to show some degree of flexibility where you can with others.

In conclusion, servant leadership is really a partnership between the leader and the team. While it is not strictly a shared governance model, there is a much greater degree of shared responsibility. If the team understands and respects the mission and vision, they will collaborate with us to reach shared goals. Knowing who they are, what they value, and the impact their work has on the world helps us to communicate that mission and why it is important. Along the way, we will develop relationships with individual team members that allow us to understand, treat, and motivate them as individuals. Ultimately, this process is rewarding, not only for the team but also for the corporation and the individual leader.


Greenleaf, R. K., & Spears, L. C. (2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York: Paulist Press.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1991). The servant as leader. Indianapolis, IN: Robert K. Greenleaf Center.

Sinek, S. (2009, September). Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action

Weins, K. (2017, May). Kyle Weins: Right to repair. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvHf-6dPfV8

[AH1]This was a direct quote.