Servant-Leaders are lead listeners

Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder of the servant leadership movement, places receptive listening at the heart of the servant-leader’s approach to those we serve.

… only a true natural servant automatically responds to any problem by listening first. … A non-servant who wants to be a servant might become a natural servant through a long arduous discipline of learning to listen, a discipline sufficiently sustained that the automatic response to any problem is to listen first. … True listening builds strength in other people.

Receptive listening goes hand in hand with asking great questions that draw out our best thinking. The question is the prompt; receptive listening is the follow-through that keeps the thinking partnership alive and productive. Powerful conversation grows and deepens as we listen with genuine concern for all who have a stake in our organization’s vision, mission and values. Servant-leaders are called to be thinking partners, not just answer givers. The quality of our questions and the attention we pay other people raise the quality of our collective thinking. The result is to free others and ourselves from unhelpful thinking patterns that limit our passion, purpose, and performance

Here are three key elements to  servant listening:

Ask great questions. Questions generate thinking better than commands or statements. But some questions trigger breakthrough insights more than others, and the best questions prompt the best thinking. Everything human beings do is driven by assumptions. An incisive question challenges limiting assumptions so that we can think clearly and dynamically. Servant-leaders ask igniting questions that flip excuses, free us from drama, and break through limits in how we see, think, and feel. The result is transformation in what we say and do.

Wait for it. The next time someone asks for your help with a problem, don’t come to the rescue with your own solutions. The best help you can be is to play the role of coach. Let others search for and articulate their own ideas first. Begin with what’s already working, where there are assets, and who might be natural allies in reaching desired outcomes. The best solution to the dilemma is often already percolating within. What we as servant-leaders must do is set up the conditions for others to find and develop breakthroughs as thinking partners with us.

Taking our turn. Attention of this caliber doesn’t rule out contributing our own insights and expertise. We ARE needed, and we will have our turn to reflect back and confirm what we’ve heard, and offer our own thoughts. It’s just that the servant-leader chooses to listen receptively first in order to unleash the power to uncover answers together. If good thinking is your aim, your riveted, generous attention is the most effective way to stimulate and unleash it. Most of the time, quality attention is all that is needed.

As the lead listener, you model the process of servant listening. Start with incisive questions followed by receptive listening and you will be amazed at the power of thinking environments to deepen relationships and produce exceptional results.

We’ll let Greenleaf have the last word

“The best test of whether we are communicating at this depth is to ask ourselves first: Are we really listening? Are we listening to the one with whom we wish to communicate? Is our basic attitude … one of wanting to understand?”

The Servant-Leader in Action – Trust

We all need to work with people we trust to pursue the mission and meet expectations. We rely on our co-workers to share our team’s values and encourage us to use our distinctive strengths on the job every day. Nurturing trust is critical to the servant-leader’s lead…



Coaching is about becoming a great leader. It’s a partnership of trust and service. Relationship is everything.