Skip to main content

In working with graduate school students who are earning school administration certification, I have found a theme that creates common ground for the diversity of candidates in my classes. Servant leadership is a steady driver that never sells the course short—regardless of the overarching topic.

Since discovering in my doctoral work the rich literature in this domain (the writings of Robert Greenleaf, Larry Spears, Ken Blanchard, and many others), I have immersed my students in book studies, discussions, presentations, and course projects undergirded by principles of servant leadership.

Why is this theme (lifestyle) so fascinating to discover and explore? Not to be served, but to serve…Not to demand, but to empower…Not to box in, but to shepherd. Isn’t this basic Goodness 101? A huge portion of the Christ model? Haven’t we studied it our entire life?

Well, after receiving feedback from my students for 20 years, the answer is clear. Too often, we give lip service to the core values that are embedded in living as a servant, but our organizations too often fail to  embrace these core values as non-negotiables. It’s not that we don’t care for others, but we so easily get caught up in corporate mindsets where production and output is the bottom line—sometimes even in our schools (and sometimes even in our churches).

So, upon realizing a classroom can be transformed with the servant leadership model, and a school, and even a school district—candidates often experience an epiphany.

This is the way my graduate students envision themselves leading schools. This is the way they want to treat their students and staff. This is how they want to be doing their parent conferences and treating their various partners.

I have also had numerous students share with me how learning about servant leadership transformed their careers:

“I owe a great deal of my success to the things I learned from you. You were the first to introduce me to the term “servant leader” and it framed my perspective and how I viewed the role of principal. I cannot thank you enough. I read your book ‘Principal to Principal’ often and it hit fresh every time.” – Retiring high school principal

You have no idea what an impact you have had on my leadership endeavors” – Director of school district services

“It was when I started back in school for administration that I was introduced to you and you introduced me to servant leadership. Throughout the process of reading and studying about this leadership I realized that is what I want to do. It was different than the leadership style that I was used to and could see that it could impact so many. As I read more and more stories, I became more inspired and excited. You see, servant leadership is being a part of the process–not the head of the process.” – Assistant principal, high school

I wanted to tell you thanks for everything you taught, shared and inspired me to be throughout our time together in your classes.  You’ve been a huge part of our success here at GHS as our girl’s basketball team won the state championship game yesterday for the first time in 35 years, to go along with the volleyball title win earlier this year. I was able to use your thoughts, servant leadership, books, and especially the “culture” influence you’ve had on me, to help our school start to believe in it as well.” – Elementary principal and athletic director

These quotes, and many others I have received over the course of two decades, do not actually speak to me as the driver in these personal leaps as leaders. I have simply been the conduit—pointing students to the good news concerning how to live more ethically and effectively and grow their organizations.

But, exactly how does a willingness to wade into deep waters for the sake of growing in maturity and selflessness translate into people more centered in serving, and thus lives better lived?

Well, the abundance of empirical literature on servant leadership is clear: It is an “inside/out” process—this is an absolute. Servant leadership begins with an internal audit of the heart and soul—an authentic leading of self. And from there it is not an easy road—but indeed, a bridge to transformation.

Joseph 'Rocky' Wallace

Rocky Wallace is an associate professor of Education at Campbellsville University, and he teaches/writes extensively about the domain of servant leadership. He may be reached at [email protected]. His four-part series ‘Principal to Principal’, published by Rowman & Littlefield, illustrates in story format how servant leadership in the school setting transforms school leaders and school cultures. He has also co-written or edited five other books for Rowman & Littlefield on servant leadership and organizational health.


  • Don Tyson says:

    Thank you Dr. Wallace for this post. In our MS in Nursing leadership we center ourselves around serving (rather than servant) leadership as you do. Our students choose us for that reason most of the time. The real challenge is helping support the students as students and graduates as the continuing working in very unhealthy health care systems and school systems (we have a concentration in leadership for school nurses). It would be interesting to talk with you about sustainability post-graduate education. We hear similar affirmations as you report on. Thank you again.

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    Thank you for this article, Professor Wallace. “An inside-out process.” That statement itself is transformative. In a recent study I did on humility that focuses on Christ’s example specifically, only one definition of humility from more than twenty Bible-focused dictionaries made sense: “the union of highest self-respect with uttermost abandon of sacrifice in service.” (Source; Hastings Dictionary of the Bible). Christ did not belittle Himself (“Before Abraham was, I am”), and Scripture makes it clear He is to be worshipped, but He did come “to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many”). He had an attitude that enabled Him to “empty Himself” and become a bondservant, and we are called in Philippians 2 to have that same attitude in ourselves. Servant leadership requires an initial mindset that allows an “uttermost abandon of sacrifice in service”. I had not considered that.