Education

4 Ways to Put Leadership back in Servant Leadership

If you consider yourself a servant-leader, do either of these scenarios ring true for you?

The “chicken with your head cut off” servant-leader: This type of leader runs around doing all the jobs and solving all the problems, all day, every day. At the end of the day, the leader looks over her own to-do list and despairs that she has not crossed a single thing off. She accepts that she will yet again burn the midnight oil to keep her head above water. It often feels like no one can solve a problem without hand-holding, as if they lack confidence to make any decision without her stamp of approval.

The “I prefer to do things myself rather than delegate because it is easier and it gets done right” servant-leader: This type of servant-leader fears adding too much to the work load of staff and ends up spending his days doing things that could be accomplished by others. He wonders why the district leadership is always griping at him for missing deadlines–how can he be expected to do his own job when he is doing everyone else’s? Occasionally he feels like a hero after hours of inputting student data into a new program or single-handedly setting up for a school event, but mostly he feels defeated and overwhelmed.

Full disclosure, I have been both of these types of leaders at certain points in my career. And, it has me wondering: is servant leadership misunderstood in education? And, how might educational leaders balance delegation with servant leadership to both empower others and to truly lead? These two questions have been on my mind as the grip of COVID eases off the shoulders of principals a bit. Let’s explore the origin and definition of servant-leader to see if we can get some answers.

The idea of servant leadership is not a new concept, in fact, it’s over 50 years old. The management style was first described by Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 essay. Here is how Greenleaf defined the servant-leader:

“Servant leadership always empathizes, always accepts the person, but sometimes refuses to accept some of the person’s effort or performance as good enough.”

-Robert K. Greenleaf

As I read quotes from Greenleaf and others about servant leadership, it quickly becomes clear that the shift from traditional leadership to servant leadership is a shift from focusing on the product to focusing on the people. Servant leadership doesn’t mean that the product or the function of the organization don’t matter…it means that the people in the organization matter more. And, research of highly successful people-focused businesses prove that focusing on the well-being of the people in your organization can lead to very successful and profitable outcomes.

In the trenches of the COVID pandemic, school principals had to roll up their sleeves and do whatever is necessary to keep the school functioning as well as it could. That meant subbing in classrooms, supervising recess, making attendance calls; you name it, we did it. And we would do it again in a heartbeat, whenever necessary. For servant-leaders, no role in the organization is beneath them and it is necessary to walk the talk when needed.

Here is my quandary, though. If leaders are spending their days doing jobs other than leading, who is doing the leading? Who is listening, empathizing with, and supporting staff? Who is providing feedback to staff that empowers their continuous growth? We all know the answer–no one. And, where do organizations without leaders end up? In chaos. My principal friend Matt Dansby, from Pickerington, Ohio, said it like this, “I am always willing to get into the trenches, I just need to get out as soon as possible to get back to the front line.”

One of the ways to serve and lead is to get really good at creating systems. Now, systems will never solve every problem, but they give us all something to lean on as we are working through a problem. Systems can empower staff to know where to begin, and what questions to ask. Here are a few systems leaders may want to consider setting up this school year if they are not already in place:

Make your “mental checklists” visible: Like you, most mornings my phone buzzed with a new text message right after I got out of bed, alerting me to yet another staff shortage. For a while, I was the only person who could solve that problem. But then I decided to put my mental checklist down on paper and that made all the difference. With the support of the checklist, my secretary or another staff member could work through the possible options to come up with a plan. When I was there, I was involved in the plan, but we always referred back to the checklist even when I was right beside the staff member. That way, when I wasn’t there, they had a habit of starting with the checklist.

Making mental checklists visible could apply to any number of every day problems you solve as a leader. And, here is the bonus: these checklists don’t just save you time, they support staff in feeling like they are proficient and empowered problem-solvers.

Create a schedule for crisis response: Are the same people always responding to crisis situations in your school? For us, when there was a crisis, typically the principal, the social worker, the school psychologist, at least one support staff person, and a resource room teacher would respond. Very infrequently did the level of crisis call for five people, usually the crisis could be resolved with just one person intervening. So, we created a “crisis response schedule” that had one person listed as the first responder. That person always had a walkie-talkie so he or she could get ahold of a support person quickly if necessary. We divided the schedule up by half-day, and each of us took one or two half-days per week. I was included on the schedule and I was careful to not respond unless I was asked to when it wasn’t my turn. It was hard, but I needed to show staff that I had full confidence in their ability to de-escalate a crisis situation. And, if I didn’t have confidence in a particular staff member, that indicated to me that I had some work to do to help train that staff member appropriately.

Develop an “only me” list: There are a few things that only school leaders can do that are not able to be delegated. For instance, it is the responsibility of leaders to complete evaluations and conduct observations, and this important leadership role cannot be passed on to someone else. What other responsibilities fall into this same category for you? Consider making an “only me” list to reflect back on daily to determine if you had time to complete the tasks that need to be done by only you or if your time was spent on things that could be done by others. Then, consider solutions that will allow you to spend time on your “only me” tasks, like the suggestions listed here of making mental checklists visible, developing a schedule to share the responsibility, or embrace the strengths of others by delegating the responsibility.

Embrace the strengths of others: There are so many talents and strengths among the staff members on our campuses. You already know that. When you ask a staff member to help you problem-solve a challenge you are having and the problem is aligned with a strength they have, they will likely solve the problem better than you ever could. And, being asked to help you is empowering and contributes to a culture of vulnerability and collaboration. Consider adding this question to the bottom of your “only me” list: Am I empowering others through their strengths?

As we close out, let’s reflect on another quote by Robert K. Greenleaf:

“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.”

-Robert K. Greenleaf

All of us entered leadership to serve people, but if our focus is instead on serving tasks, the core focus of servant leadership is neglected. Let’s give ourselves permission this year to be servant-leaders by focusing on the people we serve and prioritizing the things that only school or district leaders can do. Yes, we will do whatever it takes to help our schools and districts be successful, but let’s be mindful that we are consciously out on the front line leading the way.

After reflecting on your own service to your staff, what systemic changes are you considering? Please share them in the comments of this post or tag me on social media (@AllysonApsey). We are so much better together!


Living life with a “Serendipity Mindset” does not mean pretending that everything is a happy accident. It means knowing that everything we go through, from our highest of highs to our lowest of lows, offers us beautiful gifts–IF we look for them. You can check out the #SerendipityEDU books out on Amazon by clicking HERE. Each book is filled with inspiration to help us discover the gifts in along life’s journey. With the addition of my newest book, a middle-grades chapter book called The Serendipity Journal, there is a book for every age level. And, want to hear the best news yet?!? My newest book, “Leading the Whole Teacher” will be released soon!

1 thought on “4 Ways to Put Leadership back in Servant Leadership”

  1. Thanks Allyson! I really connected to those mental checklists. I am going to make my mental checklists visible and start writing them down for my staff.

    Liked by 1 person

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