Is Servant Leadership the Right Approach for Nonprofit Leaders?

by Joan Garry

Let’s talk about servant leadership — is it an oxymoron (like jumbo shrimp)? Is this approach the reason so many nonprofit leaders burn out? Keep reading to uncover the truth about this often debated approach to leadership.

Early on in my tenure as a nonprofit leader, I found myself quite overwhelmed. Actually, who am I kidding? On DAY 1, I found myself overwhelmed. But I digress.

The massive feeling of overwhelm came from realizing that my lifelong need to please others had just taken a very serious turn. I had proven myself quite an expert in the pleaser category — the nuns in Catholic school who had trouble with other class clowns seemed to like me quite a lot. I worked hard to please my parents (my dear brother John — of blessed memory — on the other hand, did not see this as a big priority). I managed up well, pleasing bosses and securing excellent reviews and promotions during my years in corporate America.

But now this? I had to please board members, donors, volunteers, staff members who expected to have a real voice, and oh yeah, all the LGBTQ people in the United States.

Now, I was in the deep end without swimmies.

My pleaser personality had been a superpower but if I did not find a way to temper it — an antidote — I would end up pleasing no one, especially myself.

I suspect you may be nodding your head in agreement.

I found the antidote in two places. First, the passion I had for GLAAD’s mission and the fierce dedication I had to staying true to it every single day.

The second antidote I found was in the writings of Robert K. Greenleaf. His work reframed my thinking about my role in a profound way. Through his writings, I was introduced to the concept of servant leadership.

At first, there were questions.

Is it an oxymoron (like ‘jumbo shrimp’)? How do you serve and lead concurrently?

Is it divisive or offensive? (After all, ‘servant’ comes from the Latin word for ‘slave.’)

I’m ready to take the heat here, but I don’t think it’s an oxymoron and I don’t think it’s divisive either. Let’s face it — we are all servants of something. We act in the service of our addictions, our power, our children, our privilege, our body image, our values, and our deeply held religious beliefs. This list goes on.

But what does it mean when it comes to those of us who lead nonprofits?

It’s worth some time to tease it all out and consider what this leadership style is all about and bust the myth that to consider your leadership in this light is a fast pass to burnout.


To understand your role as a servant leader, you must first understand who you are in service to…

As a nonprofit leader, the most obvious answer would be “our clients” or “the marginalized communities who need advocates.”

But, there are other answers like, “We are in service of our mission — it is our north star — it keeps us focused.”

You are also in service to those you lead — the members of your organization’s team.

Hamza Kahn, author of Leadership, Reinvented: How to Foster Empathy, Servitude, Diversity, and Innovation in the Workplace, talks about two critical approaches to servant leadership when it comes to your organization: 1) helping others grow and 2) building more leaders.

Think about this for a moment. Am I only talking about your staff? Heck no. I’m also talking about your donors, volunteers, board members — each of these people have raised their hands to be involved in your work. We sometimes forget that as leaders we have a responsibility to all these folks — to invest in their understanding and knowledge, their skills, and to grow an army of organizational leaders.

It’s not something we do because we have to check the box that says “succession plan” or the box that says “engage your board.” This is what servant leaders do to empower others to lead with you.

And THIS is where you find the distinction between power and authority and where real influence rests. Invest in those who care and they can help you co-create, they become instrumental in the design of the path to your mission.

Oh by the way, this is the key to maximizing those of different generations who come with ideas, who come expecting to be heard, who have an appetite for autonomy and a hunger for meaning and purpose.


Nonprofit leaders act in the service of a vision — the big hairy audacious goal that fuels and motivates you and your team. And this is the mark of a five-star leader.

Five-star leaders teach the village around them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. And this is how a servant leader demonstrates leadership.

Look no further than Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He taught millions of black folks to imagine a different world. Leading in this way makes the work of collecting wood not simply a task but a critical piece of what it will take to find their way to that remarkable sea.

This is the magical intersection of being of service and leading. Servant leadership is not an oxymoron. Quite the contrary. It is an approach that creates leadership in your organization (inside and out). It brings more people to the table who are hungry to be part of your work — and it ensures the sustainability of your organization’s work.


I feel like I just made the case that it spreads leadership out in your organization allowing you to delegate more, and offer your team more autonomy.

Feels obvious right? The reason it’s not is that we often make the assumption that the person who acts in the service of others is in the business of pleasing as many people as possible.

If you take but one thing away from this blog post, it is this:

The servant leadership approach is designed for the marathon, not the sprint.

It can empower those in your village, help to co-create solutions, decentralize power, and increase influence throughout your organization.

Servant leaders are not pleasers. Servant leaders look at the pieces of wood that will become a ship. And they don’t even see a ship. They see the endless immensity of the sea.

And they know that getting there will demand an investment on their part in their organization’s community of passionate stakeholders.

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