The Value of Servant Leadership Skills in Government Employees

By Darrell Norman Burrell and Brian C. Grizzell

When it comes to leadership development, succession planning, leadership, and employee development, the federal government is at a severe crossroad. The federal government faces a crisis in human capital because of retirement of a large percentage of employees, conflicts in values between employees of different generational groups, and lack of strategic planning for acquiring and retaining qualified employees. The average age of a federal government employee is almost 48 years compared to an average age of 35 in private industry (Excellence in Government, 2007). Thirty percent of the full time employees are eligible for retirement, which means that at any moment the government is at risk of losing thirty percent of their most experienced and knowledgeable employees (US Office of Personnel Management Human Capital Survey 2006).

The result of these shifts in conjunction with increase technology and the evolution of new external challenges have created a need for new leaders and leadership approaches.

The Need for New Leadership Approaches

Improving government leadership is worthy of great significance. The book Creating Public Value (Moore, 1985) presents compelling evidence that the endeavor of administrative leadership in the public sector is to create public value just as the aim of managerial leadership in private industry is to create private value. In the past, organizing and controlling were the foci.

  • Organizing - establishing the internal organizational structure of operations, focusing on division, coordination, and control of tasks and the flow of information within the organization. Managers distribute responsibility and authority to job holders in this function of management (Mintzberg, 1996).
  • Controlling is a four-step process of establishing performance values based on the agency's objectives, measuring and reporting actual performance, comparing the two, and taking corrective or preventive action as necessary (Mintzberg, 1996).

In the context outlined in Creating Public Value, managers must be leaders that are motivators and change agents in discovering and defining what is valuable to do. They become important innovators in changing what public organizations do, the culture in which work is done and how the work is done (Moore, 1985). Moore (1985) saw supervisory authority is an opening to empower and engage in the positive influences of leadership in a way that is servant in nature by serving the employees and the organization's values and mission.

Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership is a term coined by Robert Greenleaf (2002). It calls for leaders to be more pragmatic in their roles by leading others by being a servant first. The servant leader must work with flexibility in order to be responsive to the needs of those who benefit from their service (Pollard, 2006). They must also provide a fresh outlook based on their past experiences and contribute to their organization by meeting its demands in an earnest effort. Exhibiting such behavior definitely may have a positive impact on others; thus inspiring them to do more to help others.

The servant leader is "one who is a servant first" (Greenleaf, 2002). In most cases, they possess an exemplary amount of charisma. Charismatic leaders "are usually self-confident, dominating, strongly believe in moral correctness of their beliefs, and convey a vision to others, which needs the energy and commitments of followers" (Simonaitiene, Leonaviiene, Zvirdauskas, 2004). Even though one may eagerly claim that Adolf Hitler possessed the same characteristics, a major difference between the two types of leader is that Hitler had total control and the servant leader is caring and typically put the needs of others first. Moreover, this point of view is what sets a servant leader from a non-servant leader.

A servant leader not only serves as he or she leads, but also is supported by a mass of constituents who work similarly as hard to carry out major themes. To that end, they create a field of influence that stimulates the following:

  • Perspective thinking
  • Exchange thoughts on future plans
  • A strive for improvement
  • Initiating new projects
  • Openness for innovations and experiments
  • Suggesting new and good ideas
  • Noticing more possibilities than problems, as well as a fast take to decisions
  • Exercising flexibility (Simonaitiene, Leonaviiene, Zvirdauskas, 2004).

Servant leaders not just act in the capacity of a true leader. They are also learners, mentors, motivators, and educators. They help foster relationships between organizations, especially in the public sector, and the community at large. These relationships, in return, become the foundation for building strong relationships both in governmental agencies and constituent services.

Leadership Training

Government employees wishing to adopt a servant leader approach should consider professional development and training in Servant Leadership approaches.

Mountain State University offers on-line Bachelor's and Master's program in Organizational Leadership and Strategic Leadership that can be completed in 14-18 months.  

Southeastern University offers a 2-3 year on-line and one weekend a month doctorate with a focus on Doctorate in Education in Organizational Leadership.  

Eastern University in Pennsylvania offers a weekend Executive Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership.  

These programs offer interdisciplinary leadership training for individuals who currently occupy government positions. The aim of these programs is to endow professionals with the critical leadership proficiency that is needed to positively influence with their actions the transformation of their organizations, communities and society and to influence positive, meaningful change as practitioners and scholars. These flexible delivery systems enable professionals to work full time while they complete their programs. Such programs build skill capacity for categorizing and appraising the functional and accompanying attributes of servant leaders and build dexterity in this area of leadership.


Conference Proceedings (April 2007) Excellence in Government Conference. Washington D.C.

Greenleaf, R. K. (2002). Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. New York: Paulist Press.

Mintzberg, H. (1996) Managing government, governing management. Harvard Business Review 74:3, pp. 75-83.

Moore, M. H. (1995) Creating public value: Strategic Management in Government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Pollard, C. W. (2006). Serving Two Masters? Reflections on God and Profit. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. New York.

Purdue, D. (Fall 2001). Neighborhood Governance: Leadership Trust and Social Capital. Urban Studies. Reclaiming children and youth. Volume 38 No. 12, 2211-2224.

Simonaitiene, B., Leonaviciene, R., Zvirdauskas, D. (2004). Manifestation of Leader's Communicative and Educational Abilities as a Premise for Learning Organization Development. Socialiniai Mokslai. Nr.4 (46). Kaunus University of Technology.

US Office of Personnel Management (September 2006) US Federal Government Human Capital Survey. 

Darrell Norman Burrell is a faculty member with the Averett University, Strayer University, and Mountain State University. He is also a Presidential Management Fellow, http://www.pmf.gov/ with over 15 years of management experience. He has an EdS (Post Master's Terminal Degree) in Higher Education Administration from The George Washington University. He has graduate degrees in Human Resources Management and Organizational Management from National Louis University, and a graduate degree in Sales and Marketing Management from Prescott College. He can be contacted at E-mail: dnburrell@excite.com

Brian C. Grizzell is a Ph.D. candidate in Applied Management and Decision Sciences in the College of Management and Technology at Walden University. He holds an earned BBA in Finance from the College of Business and Global Commerce at Jackson State University and an MBA from the John T. Sperling School of Business at University of Phoenix. He currently works in several facets of education where he serves as a licensed educator (Mississippi), online education facilitator, subject matter expert in higher education, and consultant in the fields of higher education and business management. He can be contacted at bgrizzell@aol.com or brian.grizzell@waldenu.edu

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