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Nine Habits of Effective Servant Leaders

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“Servant leadership asks the leader to be a servant first and a leader second.”
— Robert Greenleaf

Leadership takes many forms. One appropriate and powerful style in the field of philanthropy is called “servant leadership.” It can be learned by individuals, and supported as a culture across organizations working in the nonprofit sector. Leaders in Michigan philanthropy modeled these nine habits of effective servant leaders:


1. Focus on People First.

One of the major reasons why Michigan has been successful in “building community” is due to trusted relationships that were forged between individuals in the field of philanthropy. From hiring people with values compatible to Michigan’s culture, to mentoring talent, to engaging one another as colleagues in a great and noble venture, a critical component to this state’s effectiveness has been the strong relationships and their commitment to a common vision.


2. Write Personal Notes.

A simple white card stock with your name on top helps to build relationships. Regularly send a HANDWRITTEN note to those who have helped you, those who you know are doing a good job, those that need encouragement. Make it a discipline. The message should be short and totally sincere. Let people know you appreciate their work. They will be shocked — and then proud — that you took the time to notice their contribution.


3. Share the Credit.

Everyone wants to be a part of a successful venture; to share in the excitement of achieving a goal; to be a member of a winning team. Michigan’s philanthropic leaders ALWAYS shared the credit for success. Awards, news articles, public comments, private thank you notes – everyone involved in any of the ventures were consistently recognized as critical members of the team. Building community includes engaging and sharing credit for accomplishments with each person involved in making it happen.


4. Stay in Touch.

While building relationships is important, staying in touch to maintain the relationship is equally important. Use social media, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, appropriately. Keep your family Facebook postings and your professional postings separate — but do post items that share some of your personal experiences (a special vacation, a good book, photos from professional conferences, etc.). Let people know who you are.

Send an email from time to time and keep lines of communication open.

I think when you look at the organization around the nonprofits and philanthropy, we didn’t forget how to have supper together. A lot of the things that were creative and continue to be created were done because people could sit around the table and have a conversation about how to work together, what common visions were and in many respects we rode a set of small momentums to a common vision, then to inclusion. Typically when you look at the world, we tend to do that backwards: inclusion, vision and then we get to the issue of trying to make momentum. We didn’t forget to have supper together, we didn’t forget how to informally relate to each other and that made a huge difference. […] It allows us to focus and be nimble in ways that if we weren’t having dinner together, we couldn’t be. — David Egner


5. Show Up.

If you commit to serve on the board of a nonprofit, or help plan a fundraiser for the local PTA, or participate in any activity or function within your community and beyond — SHOW UP. In regard to demonstrating your dedication to a cause, actions speak louder than words. In addition to showing up, here are a handful of suggestions that signify your commitment:

  • Be the first person to arrive at the meeting.
  • Greet and talk with people.
  • Don’t let your nametag be the one left sitting on the table.
  • When you are in a meeting, don’t text. Don’t go online. Be “in” the meeting. Be present and engaged.
  • Go to the retirement party. Go to the reception to meet the new staff person and board. Go to the board meeting and observe (if the meeting is open to attend).

If you need to meet with a peer, go to their office. Meet them face-to-face, and often. Spend time developing a relationship — it’s okay to be professional friends.

Look for opportunities to work together on a project or a committee.


6. Serve and Share.

In all endeavors, there are workaday tasks to be done. While these are not glamorous, they are important, and if leaders are seen doing them, no one else can say “I am too important to be doing menial tasks.”

  • Be willing to take the notes, serve the cookies, pour the coffee, or hang up the coats.
  • If you have resources, look for ways to share with your partner organizations.
  • Offer to let your meeting rooms be used, your parking spot be taken, loan a pen and paper…be alert to opportunities to help.
  • Do the work that no one else wants to do — but the work that needs to be done.

This does not mean letting others take advantage; it simply means try to help others, especially those who are sharing in the workload as partners and coworkers.


7. Assume Good Will.

In most cases, life is too complicated for there to be a “plot.” When something goes wrong (and it will), assume that your partner organization or co-worker has good will. Probably something just went wrong, and they will appreciate your understanding.

They take the time to get together. They talk with one another. They josh one another. They go to dinner. I think all of those kinds of things help when things go wrong. You have trust in the other people that it just went wrong. It was just a mistake, not that there was any ulterior motive […]. Life is messy and sometimes things happen […]. Being intentional about developing those relationships might seem a little odd at first, but it’s incredibly important. — Kathy Agard


8. Provide Cover for Those with Less Power.

If you are in a position of power and someone with less power makes an error, step in and offer your protection. A program officer for a foundation can afford to rescue the new staff person who has made a mistake, the young person who has misspoken, or the seasoned partner who fails. Errors happen. Relationships are forged when people know they can trust one another to forgive their mistakes (this assumes, of course, that there is not a pattern of mistakes … which is a different situation).


9. Admit to Errors and Fix them Immediately – Don’t Surprise Colleagues.

Things will go wrong. Even with the best intentions and excellent execution, there will be mistakes — these are human systems and human relationships. When you are responsible for the mistake, immediately take responsibility, inform your partners, and fix it. Relationships of trust are built when partners know that they won’t be surprised when errors happen — and that each partner will do their best to fix mistakes when they are made.