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January 01, 2015

The Judge as Servant-Leader

By Judge Samuel A. Thumma and Sarah Beene

There are as many approaches to leadership as there are people. Leadership styles range widely, from dictatorial to collaborative, autocratic to autonomous, micro-managing to laissez faire, hierarchical to co-equal. Leadership styles are also extremely context-dependent. An athletic coach, for example, will use a different approach when speaking to the team just before a big game, dealing with two players competing for the same position, motivating a talented but underperforming player, and meeting with a team member one-on-one about a career-ending injury.

Deciding which leadership approach is most appropriate also depends on a wide variety of other factors. What personalities are involved? What are the organizational structure and culture? What are the time and other constraints? What is the history of those involved, both independently and with each other? What are the individual and common goals (and do those coincide or conflict)?

For judges, leadership approaches can be viewed in two very different contexts: (1) on the bench and (2) everything else (e.g., outside of the courtroom). On the bench, the judge clearly and properly controls the discussion and has the last word. But what about the judge’s leadership approach outside of the courtroom? Determining what leadership approach is best for a judge outside of the courtroom depends heavily on context, taking into account things such as the personalities involved, the organizational structure and culture, time and other constraints, the history of the individuals and organizations involved, and an assessment of both individual and common goals. For example, will a leadership approach that works well for a bench meeting of peer judges work equally well in a meeting of non-judge court personnel in addressing a human resource issue? How about when a judge serves on an internal study group involving court personnel who are supervised by the judge or his or her peer judges? Or when tackling an issue where the brunt of any change will be felt most acutely by court employees who are not judges? Or when addressing an issue, such as technology, where the judge lacks firsthand knowledge or experience of what can and cannot work?

Along with these internally focused contexts, the most effective leadership approach may be different when a judge is involved in any number of external activities. For example, is the same on-the-bench leadership approach appropriate when a judge deals with the legislature or governor on appropriation issues? Or when a judge chairs a committee of lawyers, other judges, and members of the public? Or when the judge volunteers with Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, Red Cross, Salvation Army, or any one of thousands of other community-based organizations that judges serve?

The decision-making process for such outside-of-the-courtroom endeavors will benefit from full and active participation by all. An obstacle to such full and active participation can be deference—perhaps, gasp, undue deference—to the judge’s perspective. Such deference to a judge is necessary and appropriate while in court. Outside of the courtroom, however, such deference may inhibit a full and frank discussion of issues, concerns, suggestions, solutions, and resolutions. A judicial leadership approach that is appropriate and efficient in court may not be helpful to flesh out the brilliant idea by the new staff member, fellow club member, or volunteer, who may be uncomfortable, intimidated, and reluctant to speak up.

What, then, are the alternative leadership styles for judges to consider in these outside-of-the-courtroom endeavors? Although there are many, this article focuses on the concept of the judge as servant-leader. The article starts with a brief overview of the servant-leader concept. The article then discusses 10 nonexclusive characteristics of a servant-leader, suggesting how they might apply to judges outside of the courtroom. The article concludes by suggesting that these servant-leadership concepts merit consideration as tools for judges in their endeavors outside of the courtroom.

The Concept of Servant-Leadership

The term “servant-leader” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in the 1970 essay The Servant as Leader.1 Greenleaf worked at AT&T for nearly 40 years, including serving as director of management research, and lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, the Harvard Business School, Dartmouth College, and the University of Virginia.2 In 1964, when he retired from AT&T, Greenleaf started what became the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

So what, then, is servant-leadership? “Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that,” among other things, “enriches the lives of individuals [and] builds better organizations.”3 In some respects, servant-leadership is counterintuitive to the general stereotype of a leader. A caricature of a stereotypic leader is someone who sits at the head of the table, spewing out orders that others implement. Servant-leadership, by contrast, is based on the concept that “the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his [or her] greatness.” 4 So the stereotypic servant-leader is more likely to sit in the middle of the table with the group, ask others what they think, and ask how he or she can help and serve them. The difference between these “leader-first” versus “servant-first” extremes

manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?5

Stated differently,

[a] servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.6

There are many ways to describe the aspects of servant-leadership. One of the most concrete descriptions was published in 2000 by Larry C. Spears, then chief executive officer of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. In “On Character and Servant-Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders,” Spears identified 10 nonexhaustive characteristics of the servant-leader: (1) listening, (2) striving to understand, (3) healing, (4) awareness, (5) persuasion, (6) conceptualization, (7) foresight, (8) stewardship, (9) commitment to the growth of people, and (10) building community.7

Different articles discuss these servant-leader characteristics in various law-related contexts, including private practice, in-house counsel, law school and law firm management, legal education, bar association leadership, and pro bono services.8 To date, however, there has been little if anything written that applies these servant-leader characteristics to judges.9 This article does so, focusing on the judge as servant-leader outside of the courtroom. This article certainly is not comprehensive and asks more questions than it answers. The effort, however, is intended to provide some guidance about how these characteristics might be used by judges to facilitate more frank discussions, obtain more buy-in by participants, and help make better decisions in their outside-of-the-courtroom leadership endeavors.

The Judge as Servant-Leader


For a servant-leader, communication and decision-making skills are “reinforced by a deep commitment to listening intently to others . . . listen[ing] receptively to what is being said and unsaid.”10 This active, genuine interest in hearing and understanding what others are saying is a helpful and useful skill anywhere. But particularly for the judge outside of the courtroom, focusing on the comments, concerns, and excitement of others will facilitate better discussion, decisions, and buy-in. For example, in a committee meeting addressing a contentious or controversial issue, encouraging frank and honest discussion, including disagreement, and valuing contrary and supportive comments is one of the ways judges can reward those who participate in such groups. The judge as servant-leader is able to listen carefully and patiently, to ask questions to help facilitate the discussion, and to appropriately and carefully solicit and offer advice to others.

Striving to Understand

Striving to understand, sometimes called empathy, means that “[o]ne assumes the good intentions of co-workers and colleagues and does not reject them as people, even when one may be forced to refuse to accept certain behaviors or performances.”11 Striving to understand is particularly important where, for example, experience, education, ability, and other talents of the participants may be wildly divergent. The concept separates people from ideas and recognizes that even a suggestion that could never work can add value. More significantly, the concept recognizes that a person suggesting a really bad idea—and there are some really bad ideas—does not make that person a really bad person. The judge as servant-leader works to control expressions and emotions that otherwise might intimidate or suppress communication. The judge as servant-leader also is strong enough to express kindness toward difficult people and situations while still being an objective observer and participant. This is not to say the judge as servant-leader cannot have emotion or passion for a position or outcome. Rather, it suggests that those emotions and passions cannot blind the approach to an issue. Striving to understand involves the judge as servant-leader soliciting input on how to make something better, fairly dealing with individuals who are not easy to deal with, and making decisions based on the best interests of all.


The characteristic of healing has a bit of a metaphysical feel and, fairly, the concept of healing is not always front of mind in a judge’s service outside of the courtroom. A focus on healing can, however, have some applicability in almost any leadership context. If, for example, an individual has had a bad experience on a committee, the judge as servant-leader can identify and try to account for that experience. If a person feels bitter because his or her contributions were not recognized, those contributions can be recognized. If individuals have long opposed each other, or have not worked well with each other, the judge as servant-leader can seek to identify that tension and frame the conversation to avoid further conflict. One such way is to depersonalize the conversation and make sure the discussion is about ideas as opposed to personalities, consistent with the bad ideas versus bad person dichotomy discussed above. Another way is to look for small points of agreement and common interests—even if unrelated to the task at hand—and try to build on that common ground. The point is that the work of the group may offer an opportunity to resolve past conflict, something the judge as servant-leader can identify and attempt to achieve.


Awareness can mean that tiny, apparently trivial things can have great meaning. For example, the judge as servant-leader welcoming and celebrating the addition of a new member to a longstanding group undoubtedly will mean a great deal to that new member. By contrast, failing to do so and picking up right where the group left off from the last meeting, based on mystical acronyms after months or years of meetings, will effectively give the new member the cold shoulder. As another example, when done at an appropriate time and manner, asking a group member who has not spoken on a topic for his or her opinion may have real meaning to that member. It signals that his or her opinion is wanted and valued. And as a final example, identifying and addressing (preferably one-on-one, at least to start) a group member who dominates the conversation to the exclusion of others in a way that stifles good and helpful conversation is another form of awareness. Awareness means that the judge as servant-leader is constantly looking for opportunities to improve the process, to improve the experience, and, in doing so, to improve the ultimate product or result.


A servant-leader relies “on persuasion, rather than authority, in making decisions within an organization. The servant-leader seeks to convince others, rather than coerce compliance. This particular element [or characteristic] offers one of the clearest distinctions between the traditional authoritarian model and that of servant-leadership. The servant-leader is effective at building consensus within groups.”12

A committee recommending a significant change in a longstanding process, for example, likely will benefit from consensus by committee members. The judge as servant-leader does not use or abuse authority to force submission or answers but, instead, uses persuasion to seek consensus. This does not mean that issues are discussed without urgency or deadlines, that votes are never taken, or that projects are never completed. The effort, however, is to change the focus from personalities or technical authority to the merit of new ideas.

Change can be hard. By definition, change requires additional work because it mandates learning something new while, at the same time, continuing to do or use something that may be antiquated. Every new idea contemplates change, and every successful change requires buy-in and commitment. The focus on persuasion is intended to make the process more participatory and satisfying for those involved. But a wonderful byproduct of focusing on persuasion is that those involved in change may become advocates for the change. This approach can result in a team of champions supporting the change, avoiding a situation where individuals are told what to do, without understanding the need for or merits of the change and, perhaps, without really caring whether the change succeeds.


As applied to the servant-leader, conceptualization “means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities. . . . Servant-leaders seek to nurture their abilities to dream great dreams.”13 Stated differently, conceptualization is a focus on the long run, a strategic view, and a look to the horizon.

Day-to-day issues occupy a significant amount of time for any group and any member in that group. This is particularly true for, as an example, a task force charged with resolving an urgent, tactical issue. The focus that works effectively will be useless if it is exclusively, or perhaps even largely, conceptual. But the work can include conceptualization aspects. The judge as servant-leader can help facilitate such work so that the task force will (1) identify a tactical fix for the issue that works now but also (2) identify options in the future that, conceptually, may work better, faster, etc., than the tactical fix. In this respect, the task force performs its specific charge but also sets the table for further improvement in the future.

Enhancing conceptualization can be nothing more complicated than a positive reaction to an enthusiastic suggestion of a new, untested idea that someone starts by stating, “What if we . . . ?” Encouraging and welcoming those moments, even if the new untested idea will never see the light of day, is a key part of conceptualization by the judge as servant-leader.


“Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant-leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequences of a decision for the future.”14 In many respects, this is what judges do all the time in the courtroom. Using foresight outside of the courtroom, however, involves a somewhat different set of skills.

For example, a bar committee may be asked to address a time-worn issue that has been studied for years that the group has tried to fix, with limited success, and new members are now suggesting different, untested possible fixes. The focus of the work must look to the past, the present, and the future.

The lessons learned from the past (sometimes called mistakes) will come from a variety of different sources, ranging at the extremes from concerns by an individual with years of day-to-day experience to a novice. Both perspectives are essential; both should be considered; one cannot exclude the other and considering each without the other will yield a significantly weaker result. The judge as servant-leader helps facilitate discussion of lessons learned from these different perspectives.

Turning to the realities of the present, as with conceptualization, there may be fixes that, for one reason or another, are impossible to implement now or in the near future. Budgetary issues quickly come to mind. But there may be other impediments as well, including technology and personnel constraints, logistical limitations, practical priorities, and work volume. Facilitating discussion to allow for a candid and frank conversation of these realities is a key component of foresight and what the judge as servant-leader does and should do in assessing the realities of the present.

Looking to the future, it is essential to identify and account for consequences. The intended consequences in fixing a problem are comparatively easy to identify. The unintended consequences, however, may be extremely difficult to identify and require creative and critical thinking of all involved.

With the concept of foresight in mind, the judge as servant-leader easily can and should empower any group to focus on and apply these concepts to enhance the process and the outcome.


Judges are public servants. And they know how important it is to ensure that the court as an institution is operated for the greater public good. The judge as servant-leader outside of the courtroom embraces this approach. “Servant-leadership, like stewardship, assumes first and foremost a commitment to serving the needs of others” and that all involved play “significant roles in holding their institutions in trust for the greater good of society.”15 The cornerstone of this concept is focusing on the good of the whole, not individual gain. Valuing the views of all is consistent with this concept. So is holding all involved accountable. Simply stated, stewardship is a foundation for all servant-leader characteristics.

Commitment to the Growth of People

The judge as servant-leader is committed to the growth of individuals and acts accordingly. This commitment can include “concrete actions such as . . . taking a personal interest in the ideas and suggestions from everyone, encouraging worker involvement in decision-making, and actively assisting laid-off employees to find other positions.”16 Much of this commitment is taking time to value the ideas, suggestions, thoughts, and impressions of all involved. And that, in turn, has the benefit of obtaining buy-in for projects and changes, including from participants who may have started as staunch opponents.

The importance of commitment to individual growth is perhaps best demonstrated in groups tasked with identifying and implementing change. In the court system, there often is no financial benefit for those who go the extra mile. Instead, those who go the extra mile are often rewarded by being asked to commit even more time to endeavors that will involve more work, uncertain outcomes, and no financial benefit to the individuals involved. Focusing on the growth of individuals undertaking such efforts brings its own reward, both to those who participate and to the judge as servant-leader. The participants likely will take real satisfaction in learning that their ideas and suggestions are valued and that their views make a difference. And, for both participants and judges as servant-leaders, the effort develops mutual respect and trust, significant side benefits of any endeavor.

Building Community

What, then, is a by-product of the nine characteristics of the judge as servant-leader described so far? It is building a community. It is serving on a task force where participants look forward to meetings, addressing hard issues with forceful but respectful debate resulting in well-reasoned outcomes. Or it may be scheduling a food distribution program that requires participants to get up before dawn, on cold winter mornings and hot summer days, to drive miles to help feed hungry people. Or it may be working hard to get competing factions in a bar association to meaningfully discuss resolution of issues that are time-worn.

Looking at such projects from a short-term perspective may not require a focus on community; they could be accomplished through an autocratic delegation of duties and responsibilities. But to sustain with enthusiasm by building community, the judge as servant-leader can help the group do more, better, for longer. By focusing on these characteristics, the judge as servant-leader can help build communities that are rewarding, successful, and self-sustaining.


To end as we started: there is no “one size fits all” leadership style. Focusing on outside-of-the-courtroom activities, servant-leadership offers one such style for judges to consider. To help best develop all of the talent around them, judges properly may focus on (1) listening, (2) striving to understand, (3) healing, (4) awareness, (5) persuasion, (6) conceptualization, (7) foresight, (8) stewardship, (9) commitment to the growth of people, and (10) building community. In that way, judges as servant-leaders may help obtain long-lasting and effective results that far exceed the sum of the parts.

The views expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the Arizona Court of Appeals.


1. Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader 59 (rev. ed. 2008) (“About the Author”). Greenleaf attributed his servant-leadership idea to reading Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East (1932), a story about a mythical journey where a putative servant is shown to be the leader of the group. Greenleaf, supra, at 9.

2. Greenleaf, supra note 1, at 59 (“About the Author”).

3. See What Is Servant Leadership?, Greenleaf Ctr. for Servant Leadership, (last visited Aug. 4, 2014).

4. Greenleaf, supra note 1, at 9.

5. Id. at 15.

6. See What Is Servant Leadership?, supra note 3.

7. See Larry C. Spears, On Character and Servant-Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders, 8 Concepts & Connections: Leadership & Character, no. 3, 2000, at 1, 3–5.

8. See, e.g., Chuck Barry & Kristin Kunz, In-House Counsel Should Implement Servant Leadership to Help Clients Make Values-Based Decisions, 37 Hamline L. Rev. 501 (2014); Thomas C. Grella, Transitions: Partner to Leader: A Managing Partner’s Guide to the Best Leadership Books, 33 ABA Law. Pract., no. 6, Sept. 2007, at 48; Ben G. Pender II, Invigorating the Role of the In-House Legal Advisor as Steward in Ethical Culture and Governance at Client-Business Organizations: From 21st Century Failures to True Calling, 12 Duq. Bus. L.J. 91, 116–18 (Winter 2009); Robert H. Jerry, Reflections on Leadership, 38 U. Tol. L. Rev. 539, 540 n.2 (2007) (citing authority); Filippa Marullo Anzalone, Servant Leadership: A New Model for Law Library Leaders, 99 Law Lib. J. 793 (2007); Victoria M. Almeida, Servant Leader, 58 R.I. B.J. 3 (July/Aug. 2009); Neil W. Hamilton, Ethical Leadership in Professional Life, 6 U. St. Thomas L.J. 358, 383–95 (2009); Kristin L. Fortin, Reviving the Lawyer’s Role as Servant Leader: The Professional Paradigm and a Lawyer’s Ethical Obligation to Inform Clients About Alternative Dispute Resolution, 22 Geo. J. Legal Ethics 589 (2009); Jean M. Holcomb, New Perspectives on Following the Leader, 100 Law Lib. J. 779 (2008); Irving R. Stubbs, The Attorney as Servant Leader, 15 Legal Econ., no. 6, 1989, at 46, 46–47.

9. Although Alameda County California Superior Court Judge David Matthew Krashna presented a thoughtful program on Judicial Servant Leadership in September 2012 at a National Judicial College Theory & Practice of Judicial Leadership Program, including a PowerPoint presentation titled Theory and Practice of Judicial Servant Leadership, there was no corresponding article on the topic.

10. See Spears, supra note 7, at 3.

11. See id.

12. See id. at 3–4.

13. See id. at 4.

14. See id.

15. See id.

16. See id.