The Courage of Servant Leadership

The majority of discussions about Servant Leadership center around a calling, listening, empathy, emotional intelligence, character, leading with moral authority and putting other people first in a leader’s practices.

Equally important is the leadership characteristic of courage, if for no other reason than following a theory that is only partially accepted as a realistic leadership philosophy. Courage to stand as a rampart against unethical behaviors, while resisting pressures of high profits at the expense of employee needs and growth requires immense courage by leadership. At times leaders must choose between doing the right thing for employees over sacrificing standards to increase the bottom line.


 As Mark Twain tells us, there are two types of courage:  Physical and Moral. As he points out, most often courage is thought to be physical. Rarely do we think of the moral aspect of courage. As servant leaders, we must consider both moral and physical courage as a major practice.

To more fully understand this essential quality of leadership, leaders must know be knowledgeable of the differences between morals, ethics and honor. Traditionally, these traits have different and distinct meanings:

Moralsa set of standards or rules that governed one’s behavior; a set of virtues based on the natural law; cultural differences between right and wrong.

Ethics the behavior one exhibits based on his/her virtues or morals;

Honor maintaining a proper sense of right and wrong based on moral standards of conduct. As stated by Revolutionary War Hero Capt. John Paul Jones: “I will lay down my life for my country, but I will not trifle with my honor.”

Servant Leaders are expected to be persons of honor, with high standards of morals and ethical behaviors, whose integrity is beyond reproach at all times; 24/7 even when no one is looking or watching.

medal-of-honor.jpgUntil recently, courage meant physical courage only, with little consideration for the moral or ethical aspects of the behavior. Saving a person’s life meant placing one’s self in danger with the possibility of sacrificing one’s life to save another person. In the military, such action is sometimes recognized with the awarding of the Medal of Honor for valor above and beyond the call of ordinary duty.

Leadership physical courage can be exhibited in several other ways.

  •            Training an employee in the proper procedures of completing a task or responsibility.
  • ·         Educating – scheduled and impromptu – employees on a proposed change or policy.
  • ·         Mentoring and counseling when employee behaviors indicate a need for one or the other.
  •           Conflict resolution – especially during heated moments of aggression by employees.
  • ·         Public speaking on a wide variety of subject matter relative to one’s knowledge and expertise.


A Servant Leader’s honor depends on their exhibiting high standards of moral courage. Examples include some of the following behaviors.

  •  Doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do, especially when under pressure to look the other way or to lower standards of conduct in performance with the idea of motivating future positive behaviors.
  •  Standing up for the leaders beliefs in defense of one’s honor.
  •   Making honest decisions based on organizational ethical standards with unwavering principles.
  •  Admitting mistakes, even in the most embarrassing of situations.
  • Confronting unethical behaviors when discovered and taking responsible corrective action that may even require terminating an employee.
  • Setting the standard in performance according to organizational morals and ethics

Servant Leaders authenticity can only be maintained and emulated by adhering to the highest possible standards of moral and physical courage.

 Where do you stand in your leadership courage? Do you stand as a rampart against unethical and immoral behaviors by employees? Are you an authentic Servant Leader?

 I’d love to read your comments.  Thank you.


4 responses

  1. Excellent column, David. Good insights into servant-leadership and moral courage. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Thank you Larry very much. Your comment is extremely valuable and encouraging. I have been a practitioner of Servant Leadership principles and practices for nearly 10 years, as well as teaching the subject and speaking on it at conferences. I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to respond.

      Most respectively with high regards,

      David McCuistion
      Vanguard Organizational Leadership (VOL)

  2. Thanks for sharing your fine thinking about moral courage. Some of the greatest historic service has required moral and physical courage.

    1. Thank you James. I agree, great leaders maintain a strong level of both moral and physical courage, which enables them to lead with moral authority. I appreciate you taking the time to respond.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: