Servant Leadership

Photography by Rich Smith
Servant leadership is not a new concept, but its importance cannot be overstated.
While mentioned in ancient Chinese passages and many religious texts, the term “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in “The Servant as Leader,” an essay published in 1970. He writes, “The servant-leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” He goes on to assert that a servant leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. Since Greenleaf published this seminal essay, many books have been written on the topic of servant leadership, and many leadership scholars, such as Ken Blanchard and Stephen Covey, have shared similar principles in their teachings. We asked these local leaders to share with us how they have worked to embrace servant leadership in their lives and organizations.

Sue Collins

Senior Vice President & Chief Human Resources Officer, TVA

Relationships matter. Strong leaders build relationships that empower teams to trust, innovate, and take action. Once achieved, these relationships create “moments that matter” for each other, our employees, and for our customers. My goal is to build moments that create a work culture or work community that fosters high engagement, values diversity in all ways, and personal development beyond the job. These moments empower and enable team members to lead and be productive, engaged members of our work community. If every member is engaged, TVA can fulfill its mission of serving the over 9 million people of the Tennessee Valley to make life better.  

(above) photo Courtesy of BCBS of TN/by Sergio Plecas


JD Hickey, MD

President & CEO, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

Service takes empathy and understanding. At BlueCross, we are responsible for fulfilling a mission that’s intensely personal – peace of mind through better health. Everyone here has a responsibility to understand our members and their needs. And as leaders, it’s our job to serve the employees the way they serve our members.

We believe good communication is essential to serving our employees well, so our leadership team takes time to listen and share information in different ways throughout the year. And we strive to cultivate an engaged, culturally competent workforce and an atmosphere marked by mutual trust. There have been historic changes in our industry over the past several years and a healthy company culture is more important than ever. Our leadership’s focus on culture directly supports our mission, and it’s another way we’re building on what’s been true about our organization from the beginning.

Honorable Jeff Hollingsworth

Circuit Court Judge

A servant leader knows the Lord has put him or her in a position of authority with the expectation that authority will be used to protect and advance the interests of others. In this court, we hear many child custody cases. In explaining the court’s decisions, the hope is that the parents will be led to a realization of their responsibility and opportunity to serve their children by leading them. Another part of my job is to help train young lawyers. They have been rightly taught to serve their client’s interests. But, they also must be taught that they can best serve their clients by leading them away from unwise decisions and toward a reasonable resolution of conflict.

Within the home, a servant leader should be the first to admit their mistakes. Because my wife, children, and grandchildren know that I love them and will serve and protect them, they graciously forgive my many mistakes.

Lesley Scearce

President & CEO, United Way of Greater Chattanooga

“Forget what you or others think the CEO of United Way should be and just be you.” This advice was given to me when I accepted my role, and it reminded me of what Warren Bennis, the father of leadership study, said: “Leadership is synonymous with becoming yourself. It’s precisely that simple, and it’s also that difficult.” This has been my personal quest and organizational challenge for our team at United Way. Servant leadership is more than being the first one to roll up your sleeves and do any job, whether mopping floors or giving a speech. While that’s important in building a culture of humility and service, servant leadership requires more. Ultimately, is it about recognizing the strengths and gaps in your team and doing everything in your power to enable them to reach their fullest potential. Servant leaders invest in an individual’s development and the courage to have hard conversations that stretch them to their fullest. They are quick to listen, slow to speak, and determined to build up their team.

It’s not only fitting for me to strive to lead with a servant’s heart, it is imperative since the core of United Way’s work is a belief that “a connected community changes everything.” Connections are built by investing in people first and helping everyone in our community, no matter their background, race, or socioeconomic level, achieve their full potential.

Joe Ferguson

Chairman of the Board, EPB

It took me a while to understand the value of servant leadership. Once I learned to bridle my ego and get it in tune with my Christian upbringing, it all started to fall into place. Understanding that people are an organization’s most valuable asset is the foundation of servant leadership. I try to focus on that, especially when making major decisions. Orienting yourself to, ‘we’ and ‘ours,’ not ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ rubs off on team members and has proven to produce the trust and unity vital to meeting organizational goals.

Team building is extremely important and to be successful, a leader must set a strong, positive, and principled example. A leader sets the character of the organization. Creating a fair and open operating environment and consciously working to help team members grow as people not only adds value to the organization but it’s a true reward to the servant leader. 

Charles Monroe

CEO, Card-Monroe Corp.

Servant and leader – it may seem a bit strange to see those two words together. Living out servant leadership is not easy. It begins by having the heart of a servant, which requires a daily personal examination of my own heart with honest reflection and a steady input of the wisdom of God and those around me. Am I a servant leader, or a self-serving leader? Am I seeking to actually serve those whom I am leading?

Today, it’s counter culture to benefit those we lead rather than operating from our own self-interest. Our company’s corporate values are written out and visible to all in order to keep us all accountable. Our values include relating with love, dignity, and respect. Practice of those values requires recognizing, appreciating, and affirming the strengths and contributions of others, having no hidden agendas, exercising strength under control, and leading by example. Transparency is essential to having a servant’s heart: we must be ready as leaders to say, “I don’t know,” “I need help,” or “I was wrong.” Most importantly, the last sentence of our values is an invitation to those I lead and serve to hold me, and all those in our company, accountable, and we truly invite that feedback.

Val Armstrong

President, Tennessee American Water

Leading by example, respecting the talents that others bring to the table, and motivating individuals to live up to their best potential is how I approach my day. I’ve learned so much from my mentors throughout my career, and it all comes down to leading from the heart. When you genuinely care, no one questions your sincerity. Effective leaders listen to, learn from, and collaborate with their teams. My success as a leader is defined by the strengths of my team and allowing them to shine.    

Paying it forward is an important aspect of servant leadership. To grow professionally, you have to seek opportunities to challenge yourself to that next level. This comes in the form of investing in yourself and others, in formal or informal mentoring. Several of my employees serve as mentors for the Tennessee Promise program, which gives free tuition to students attending a two-year college program like Chattanooga State, as well as the wonderful young ladies at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy (CGLA).


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