Why We Messed With The Servant Leadership Pillars


Since starting the Servant Leadership Centre of Canada, we’ve really pushed ourselves and those around us to increase our collective understanding of servant leadership philosophy. Even though we have been practicing servant leadership for over 20 years, we still feel that there is so much to learn. We have such strong beliefs that servant leadership is what can turn many of our businesses around, as they begin to face growing dissention within their ranks, lower engagement in their people and increased issues in fields like conflict resolution, sick leave and terminations.

When we opened our doors to the SLCC, we decided that one of our main objectives for the Centre was going to continue to build a greater awareness of servant leadership philosophy within leadership circles and organizations in Canada. Afterall, it took us nearly two decades to discover the principles and beliefs written in that little orange booklet written by Robert Greenleaf- and we were looking for it! Surely, there are others who share the same values and beliefs as we do, and we feel we have an obligation to the leadership community to make them aware of what is possible when you lead as a servant. To do that, we felt that there was a need to also challenge the status quo a little in the servant leadership community itself. We want to help position and communicate servant leadership principles in a way that would make sense to a modern leadership community who is seeking to learn more about this 50 year-old philosophy. We wanted to make servant leadership as consumable to the people as possible.

We've looked at ways to make servant leadership more "sticky" from a social media and on-line perspective, and asked ourselves "how can we develop a visual representation of servant leadership in a way that is meaninful and memorable to others so that the theory becomes more ubiquitos to those wanting to learn about people centred leadership approaches?". We've explored many of the models and systems that are currently out there, many of which are great resources, but one specific topic that has continued to create some conversation within the team at SLCC has been the discussion around the areas of focus, which we have seen represented as “pillars” or “themes”. These themes attempt to extract philosophies that are core to servant philosophy, as a visual reference for practitioners and those seeking to understand the servant leadership model: Calling, Listening, Empathy, Healing, Awareness, Persuasion, Foresight, Conceptualization, Stewardship,Growth and Community Building.


There’s no denying that these themes are essential to servant leadership, and are a great visual representation of what a servant leader should be connecting with in order to ensure that they are a living embodiment of the people centred approach, but we’ve always wondered if there was a better way to demonstrate their value through a slightly different approach. But When we sat around the table and talked (occasionally argued) with each other about each of these core themes and their importance, we came to understand that they aren’t themes at all. In fact some are more like universal truths; beliefs that all servant leaders should believe in. Some are action oriented, which should be a part of a leader’s everyday activity. Others, to us, are the critical first steps in the self-actualization that is required to transform from a traditional leaders to a servant leader.


When we really thought about it, we felt that these themes needed to be pulled apart and explored individually. I remember talking for hours between the three of us about how each of these themes fit into a bigger picture, and how there had to be a better way to represent them so that others could understand the importance of each. It wasn’t until we took over a table at Starbucks one afternoon with a marker and a bunch of sticky notes that we really began to see things come together for us. Maybe it was the 3 vanilla lattes that each of us had over the course of about 6 hours in the middle of a bustling coffee shop, or just the ability to visualize the relationships between each of the themes written on each sticky, but eventually an important realization came to us. What we discovered was these 11 core themes made the most sense to us when we grouped certain themes together, specifically in three areas, which we call circles of influence.

When we were able to present these core themes in these three different categories, we were able to see a higher level of clarity and interconnectedness between themes. We realized that there was, in fact an order of sorts to these pillars, and that some actually fed into others. This was an exciting concept for us; one that has become the overall design of the way that we position servant leadership as our philosophy of choice when engaging organizations and individual leaders who seek our support and guidance.

Our first area of focus is Purpose, bringing together the themes of calling and awareness. We believe that a leader cannot truly lead others until they have fully discovered themselves. Our emphasis on not only finding an individual calling, but also becoming more aware of self, as well as the world around you, is the first step in becoming a true servant leader. We call this discovery and self-actualization your purpose. It’s the why behind your leadership beliefs; a deep understanding of who you truly are and what you believe, and something that you can so confidently share with others that your ability to be vulnerable and share your "whole self". This vulnerability and authenticity sets the example for the rest of your organization to follow suit.

There is no more powerful leader than one who is self-aware, vulnerable and has truly opened themselves up to accepting their people, and themselves for who they are – warts and all.

We believe that the next area of focus that flows from purpose is servant leadership principles. These are the fundamental truths that are the underpinning of the servant leadership philosophy. These beliefs and values, however, cannot be formed fully unless a servant leader has a greater understanding of his or her purpose. Servant leadership principles mirror what Greenleaf describes as the best test, “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 on society; will they benefit, or at the least, will they not be further deprived?”

The best test, in our view speaks to the over-arching principles of community, growth and stewardship. A strong belief that the actions of a servant leader are a part of a broader system of values and beliefs that each of us have, which drives the way that we lead. As servant leaders, our day to day actions with those we serve represents a strong belief that every single one of our people matter, that they have the right to be themselves in their place of work, and that when given the appropriate level of training, development and autonomy they can become the best possible individual that they can be- both at work and in their community.

The third and final circle of influence is practice, which we believe holds the themes of listening, empathy, healing, conceptualization, persuasion and foresight. These are action-oriented themes, ones that servant leaders should be practicing on a daily basis with his or her people, and are actions driven through both their purpose and their principles as a servant leader. Practices like empathy, listening and healing have direct impact on a servant leader's people, while foresight, conceptualization and persuasion help to guide and define the vision that an individual leader has towards their ultimate goal of supporting their mission of fulfilling the principles that define them.


This may be a new way of thinking of the key themes that exist within the servant leadership philosophy, but it’s our belief that through this structure, we can bring further clarity of the linkage between each and how one may flow more naturally to others. Our hope is that perhaps this re-organization of these key themes can help guide not only current practitioners of servant leadership in a new way, but also give additional clarity and guidance for the next generation of servant leaders – those who are just beginning to understand the value and importance of people centred leadership, and how they can best lead their people as a servant.

We’d love to hear what you think of our theory.

Feel free to connect with us, or share your thoughts below. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and on our website at servantleadership.ca.