November/December 2019

Servant Leadership: Transforming Your Firm

Servant leadership is about a heartfelt willingness to place the needs and interests of others above yours.

Thomas C. Grella

Some words seem to be overused, seemingly not having either a singular, uniform or clear definition. A word that has, over the past several years, achieved definitional confusion is “leadership.” Renowned leadership expert John Maxwell claims that leadership is, plain and simple, influence. Nothing more and nothing less. On one level this is true. However, in Appendix A to the first edition of his book A Practical Guide to Leadership for Lawyers, Herb Rubenstein documents 90 different brands of leadership, contained within 16 different categories.

Notwithstanding Maxwell’s simple definition, apparently leadership comes in many different types, shapes and sizes, each uniquely defined. One brand of leadership that is not only defined broadly by one’s influence over others but is specifically about providing followers with both support and encouragement to ensure the long-term succession and accomplishment of an organization, such as a law firm, is servant leadership.

Servant leadership is not just a different nametag for leadership. Neither is it just a life of service to others. It is a value incorporated into one’s life that leads to achievement of purpose. Where most leadership experts might, without focus on the motives or intentions, broadly define leadership as an influence process where thoughts and actions of others are directed toward an organizational purpose, servant leadership focuses on selfless service to those being led as a primary motive. Selflessness therefore becomes a prerequisite to influence. Most leaders, if asked whether they were leading primarily out of a desire to serve others, would likely answer yes. But are they ... really? 

The Principles

Numerous writings exist about servant leadership, both theoretical and practical guides to develop the necessary skills. Servant leadership is a difficult topic to write a how-to book on because it is a life value one must commit to in order to achieve mission or purpose. Quite simply, it’s hard to teach one how to think about others more than oneself. That understood, Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges, in their book The Servant Leader, propose four domains in life, two internal and two external, that are personal benchmarks of servant leadership and can be applied to lawyer leadership.


Simply put, first and foremost, you can’t fake servant leadership. The heart benchmark is a personal examination of motive to determine if actions are taken out of a desire to serve oneself or, instead, the firm as an organization and others. Here are some questions to test your heart for being a servant leader:

  1. How do I respond when others offer feedback? Do I embrace it or fear losing my position within the firm?
  2. Am I interested in preparing firm leaders for after I step down? Am I more interested in short-term success or long-term viability?
  3. Deep inside, how important is recognition to me? How do I feel when others are recognized and my contributions are not?


Servant leadership requires a mission. Servant leaders know where they want to lead their people—and have a plan for getting there. They help the firm establish clearly defined values and understand the firm and its goals. They also are aware of the individual dreams of their firm or team members. Most importantly, servant leaders not only hold others accountable to values but model the behavior they seek in others. They develop leaders within the firm, raising them up, and do so while understanding that they will one day be called on to step away from their leadership position when doing so is a service to the future of the firm. Apply the following questions:

  1. How well have you defined the mission, vision and values for your firm, practice or team? Are they self-conceived or were they collectively created and committed to by the firm or team?
  2. How well do you personally live up to established values and standards?
  3. Do you have a plan to elevate the growth and development of those you lead?


Servant leadership not only requires proper motives and quality planning, but also action. So many law firm leaders are frightened, for one reason or another, to take action in moving their thoughtfully developed plans forward. In many cases there is the concern of how actions will be received by those who are, in the short term, productive but resistant to change. Regardless, you cannot be a servant leader absent external action that serves the organization and those in it. In most cases those who are resistant don’t realize that the proposed change is not only best for the firm in the long term but also for them individually. Here are a few actions you might consider as a servant leader:

  1. Commit to professional development of those you lead. Make it as important as short-term performance and establish within the firm a flexible development plan that allows for individual uniqueness.
  2. Provide firm members with coaching and mentoring to achieve not only short-term goals but also long-term individual and firm missions.


Servant leadership is personally difficult. People are naturally driven by their egos. Servant leadership counteracts ego, focusing on others first. The paradox is that this other-focused intention and action achieve the greatest personal success and fulfillment of the leader. Because servanthood is counter to self, personal discipline is required. Discipline is only achievable when individual habits are rigorously maintained. Here are a few habits you may consider that support servant leadership as a value in life:

  1. Commit to and maintain a daily personal time of leadership development and study. Be sure this includes regular personal examination of your motives for leadership.
  2. Establish an accountability relationship with a mentor or coach—someone you can trust to challenge you on both motives and action.
  3. Mentor or coach those you lead, using relationship as an opportunity for 360-degree feedback.

Servant Leadership in Practice

The firm as servant leader.

As mentioned earlier, servant leadership is a value that can be both personal to a leader and also to a law firm as an organization. Firms that adopt a value of servant leadership do not primarily focus on the business development benefits of altruistic endeavors but instead on the service provided to the community, profession or society. Examples for a law firm might be adopting an annual year of giving goal as a way to individually and collectively give to clients (without sending a bill); giving to the community (including allowing staff personal time off to participate); and giving to each other (such as providing well-being training for all firm members without charge).

The partner as servant leader.

Many law firms continue to rely on short-term financial data and metrics as the primary gauge of success. By doing so, the incentive is for partners to focus on individual performance. In most cases this undermines the long-term viability and success of the firm. As leaders in the firm, partners need to work toward a more balanced approach, giving significant credit for activities and actions that benefit the long-term success of the firm, such as the mentoring of associates. This would include encouraging selfless acts that achieve the firm mission and provide disincentives to self-focused conduct that injures morale. To the extent those who manage the law firm resist change, individual servant leaders need to be an example for others within the firm and strive to encourage other similar examples as a means of transforming culture.

The experienced leader as servant leader.

Successful leaders can become an obstacle to achieving long-term success. Servant leaders understand that developing a succession plan for the firm is a priority. Equally important, they also realize that knowing when to step down and allow for others to lead is just as critical. All too often, whether in law firms, civic clubs or business organizations, otherwise successful leaders do not understand the consequences of maintaining a position out of a selfish desire to be significant or exert influence. Without realizing it, the failure to recognize when it’s time to step down from leadership primarily serves only themselves, no matter how much actual service they ultimately provide to the firm or other organization.

Always remember, servant leadership, first and foremost, is about the heart.

Thomas C. Grella

Thomas C. Grella is a writer and speaker on practice management topics and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He practices law with McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA in Asheville, North Carolina, and is a former managing partner, having served in that position for 12 years.