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  • Writer's picturerobertthornelltx

The Three G’s of Servant Leaders - Spoiler alert: “Great” Isn’t One of Them.

Updated: Dec 8, 2021

Principals really matter. Indeed, it is difficult to envision an investment with a higher ceiling on its potential return than a successful effort to improve principal leadership.

- Wallace Foundation, 2021

Recently I had the opportunity to speak to a group of educational leaders at the

Texas Elementary Principal and Supervisors Association (TEPSA) Grow Leadership conference. I was in aww that so many educators were able to come together for two days of learning and collaboration with everything they have on their plates right now, but then I shouldn’t have been surprised. Educators everywhere have learned and grown throughout the pandemic and continue to excel. Perhaps no profession has given so much of themselves over the last two years in an effort to keep our children not only safe, but nurtured and learning.

The research is significant on the impact of a principal as it relates to student success, a large study published by the Wallace Foundation in February of 2021 entitled How Principals Affect Students and Schools highlights the need for the highest quality leaders for all our schools. Indeed, the Wallace study is just one of many that validates the importance of the principal and his/her impact on student achievement. There is no doubt the role of “Instructional Leader” has dominated educational literature in the last twenty-five years. A recent Google search of the term showed “about 186,000,000 results in exactly 0.68 seconds! Student and teacher learning should always be a priority for a principal, however in recent years, and now accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the concept of Servant Leadership has garnered increased attention and study. I tend to believe all educators are servant leaders in some capacity, but of particular interest to me is the question: Can a person “learn” to be a servant leader or is it something that is just a natural trait you either have or you don’t? My assumption is that it is somewhere in between, but hopeful that it is a skill that can be intentionally practiced and improved.


"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them."

-John F. Kennedy

The term Servant Leadership was widely introduced in Robert Greenleaf’s book Servant As Leader (1970). In it, he emphasized the importance of a leader’s motivation to serve. The concept derived that a school principal as a servant leader includes the school’s organizational climate and the teacher’s job involvement as crucial components to individual and school development. I believe it is a leader’s motivation to serve that can truly transform an organization and I have seen it countless times in a variety of schools. The great thing about having motivation is that it also implies a willingness to improve at doing so.

If you are looking for a place to grow yourself as a leader, I encourage you to start with being a servant and specifically, practice the Three Big G’s!!!


“The greatest way to learn the genius of generosity is to practice it in real time with others.”

-Chip Ingram

Servant leaders give selflessly without expecting anything in return. They show up. They attend ballgames and extra-curricular activities. They are there when things go well and they are there when things go poorly. Generosity is not just about “presents'', but it is about “presence”. It does not take long for people to determine what you think is important or how they perceive you feel about them. A servant leader is generous with their time as they learn to listen to others and make them feel important. They often share their hearts by not being afraid to open up and being transparent about how and why decisions are made or by modeling the type of behaviors they hope to see. They let people know they care about them. To be honest, being generous can be draining. Your school and your staff can be codependent on you as an emotional leader and your own self-care is important. It is okay to set clear boundaries on your time and your personal life, but be generous and give what you can.

One lesson I have learned in my time as a school administrator is that being generous may look different at different times and with different people. Let me give you an example... I was 32 years old when I received my first principalship and up to that point in my life, I had never had a significant person in my life pass away. During that first year, I had six different staff members lose either their spouse or their parents. Six!! And here is another thing….every one of them wanted it handled differently. Do I tell the staff? Do I tell the parents? Etc. They don’t prepare you to have your entire staff looking at you in the middle of the school library searching for the right words. In one case, I just made sandwiches and took them up to the hospital and just sat with the family. Another time we kept their dog for a few days. Did I handle those situations well? I have no idea. I did my best and learned alot about people. Sometimes the best thing a leader can do is show up and be generous with their prayers, their presence, their gifts, and their service.


"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them."

-John F. Kennedy

Any great leader recognizes he/she is unable to accomplish all that they hope without the help of others. However, the very best of them find meaningful ways to express that gratitude. What can you do with those that are leading? Do you know what makes them feel appreciated and do you use it to thank them often? It can come in a variety of ways but please be intentional about sharing your thanks. Relationships are the key to successful organizations and one of the best ways to build relationships and loyalty with your staff is expressing sincere gratitude for the work they do. Much like generosity, finding and remembering how people like to be appreciated is sometimes a difficult task for a leader. Some people thrive on public recognition and others prefer a short, private note of thanks. Know your staff and what makes them tick by being aware of how and when you share gratitude. Phone, email, texts, hand written notes all are nice, but so is the loud, public shout out on the announcements, at a pep rally, social media, or campus newsletter.

There are countless ways to say thank you. Here is one of my favorites. Every morning when you sit down at your desk and open your email….before you get to work, pick one person and just send them a thanks and uplift. It doesn’t matter if it is a staff member, parent, or colleague, the important thing is that you get in the habit of intentionally practicing gratitude. Dale Carnegie once said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” So try that..and don’t forget to say “Thank you and mean it”


“Followers don’t expect you to be perfect, they expect you to be predictable.”

- Marcus Buckingham

Finally, GRACE….Nobody is perfect. Not you, certainly not me, and you will never work with someone that is perfect either. As a leader, you need to be intentional with a decision about forgiveness and be an example. Are the people you lead/serve going to be extended grace, not if, but when, they make a mistake? This is a very simple but extremely important question to consider and reflect upon. Many leaders claim to want an innovative culture and one that thrives on trying new things with their teachers and students. Nothing will put the flames out on that fire than a person that feels they are not supported when something does not work. And it is not just them, it will spread to a staff quickly, so how you respond is important. Giving grace does not mean you are a pushover or that people can do whatever they want at work. You can hold someone accountable and still care for them. Great leaders learn to correct the mistakes and build people up. They don’t give up on people. Grace becomes part of the culture of a campus or organization. As leaders, we need to extend at least as much grace to others as we do ourselves and our own faults while we also recognize the grace others give us when we are not perfect.

Now, more than ever, it is essential for campus administrators to lead with a servant's heart. Of all the skills necessary for being an effective principal this trait is the one that comes closest to being a natural talent, but it can also be a skill that with guidance, practice, and embedded expectations, principals may develop and improve. Principals that are intentional about planning and modeling servant leadership will gain trust and credibility from those they are trying to lead.

As you consider the Three G’s of Servant Leadership ask yourself a question:

How do your beliefs on staff expectations align with your actions?

Other servant leader readings:

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