Holloran Center

for Ethical Leadership in the Professions

Minnesota Lawyer Publication

Authentic leadership and servant leadership in the practice of law
By Neil W. Hamilton | February 23, 2004

In Transforming Practices (2000), assistant American Bar Association Journal managing editor Steven Keeva focuses on the search for meaning in life as the primary human motivation. Keeva writes that the sources of meaning for human beings remain essentially the same in human history.

These enduring sources include:

  • relationships;
  • giving back to society;
  • creating something that endures;
  • possessing a sense of divinity or holiness;
  • being in love;
  • working productively; and
  • suffering.

Emphasizing similar themes, Bill George, former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, ends his recent Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value (2003), with a question to the reader: What will be your legacy At the end of your days, what will you tell your grandchild you did to better humankind? George urges others to be authentic leaders making a difference in the world.

Authentic leadership

Authentic leaders, George writes, genuinely desire to serve others through their leadership. They are more interested in empowering the people they lead to make a difference than they are in power, money, or prestige for themselves.

Speaking from personal experience, George cautions that attempting to emulate all the characteristics of other successful leaders is doomed to fail. Rather, the one essential quality a leader must have is to be your own person, authentic in every regard.

To be one's own person, George argues that an individual must continually ask, What is the purpose for my life?

Purpose flows from self-knowledge. George notes that purpose may take time to become clear: Many leaders search for years, even decades, to find purpose for their leadership. ... If your early career experiences do not inspire you, then it is wise to continue your search in a different venue, job, or company.

George urges repeatedly throughout the book that an authentic leader focus on the development of an inner circle of core values the moral compass of personal values. These core values or moral compasses are developed through study, introspection, consultation and discussion with others, and a lifetime of experience.

The other dimensions of authentic leadership, also closely related to Keeva's enduring sources of meaning, are to foster in oneself a bigheartedness (compassion and empathy for others) and to establish open, trusting and enduring relationships with people throughout one's organization.

The final necessary dimension of authentic leadership is sufficient self-discipline so that actions do in fact consistently reflect purpose, core values, compassion and empathy, and openness and trust. The authentic leader walks his or her talk.

Crucible experiences

Keeva's list of enduring sources of human meaning ends with 'suffering.'

Similarly, George writes of 'crucible experiences' that test a person's values: Only in the crucible will you learn how to cope with pressures to compromise your values and deal with potential conflicts among them. You have to put yourself in situations where your values are challenged and then make difficult decisions in the context of your values.

Both Keeva and George suggest that it is through suffering or difficult times that an individual forges his or her character.

No one seeks suffering or difficult times. Paradoxically, every parent seeks to protect his or her children from suffering or difficult times, while knowing also that it was in those times in the parent's own life that the greatest growth usually occurred. Life will bring tests to every individual the greatest of which is dealing with one's own death.

George went through several crucible experiences in both his personal and professional life. The most searing experience was the sudden death of his mother, followed shortly by the sudden death of his fiance: This was a crucial time in my life when I could have easily become bitter, depressed, and even lost my faith. In times of personal crisis, the grace of God and the power of faith can provide the basis for healing. So can the support of friends. I was blessed to have both.

Servant leadership

Robert Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive and business consultant, published The Servant As Leader in 1970 and Servant Leadership in 1977.

Greenleaf describes a servant leader as a person who is a servant first, motivated to serve others to become what they are capable of becoming. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. He or she is sharply different from the person who is a leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. ... The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and most difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, will they not be further deprived?

Greenleaf writes that the servant leader's choice to serve rests on a foundation of self-knowledge and moral conviction. The choice to serve also flows from a concept of stewardship an understanding that the servant leader has been entrusted to elevate other people to be their better selves, to be what they are capable of becoming.

For Christians, Jesus Christ is the most profound example of servant leadership; Christ's washing of his disciples feet is a particularly powerful story of how the servant leader relates to those who are served.

Beyond a foundation of self-knowledge and a commitment to stewardship, the specific skills a servant leader seeks to develop over a lifetime are:

  • listening skills;
  • counseling skills;
  • consensus-building skills;
  • community-building skills; and
  • vision articulation skills (the skill of both reflecting back to a group its highest aspirations and synthesizing a dream or a vision of the group's potential that its members feel, in fact, does represent their joint vision).

The listening and counseling skills emphasized in the servant leadership literature are related to the virtues of compassion and empathy emphasized by George.

A lawyer should counsel trying to stand in the client's shoes, helping the client to understand the client's best interest in the circumstances. Consensus and community building skills in the servant leadership literature are related to the open, trusting, and enduring relationships dimension of authentic leadership.

Leadership in the practice

Our work as lawyers occurs in a number of interconnected systems of relationships:

  • our client relationships;
  • our relationships within the firm or law department;
  • our relationships within the profession;
  • our relationships with adversaries; and
  • our relationships in our communities.

In our work in each of these interconnected systems of relationships, we seek enduring sources of meaning in the senses that Keeva articulated relationships, giving back to society, creating something that endures, possessing a sense of divinity or holiness, working productively and suffering.

Authentic leadership and servant leadership offer two models to seek enduring meaning in each of these systems. Both authentic leaders and servant leaders seek to serve others empowering them to be better people or, in the case of the organizational client, a better community.

For example, an interesting question to ask in adversarial representations where there may be a win/lose result is whether the client is better off in some way because of the relationship with the lawyer even if the client loses

Both models emphasize that self-knowledge the inner circle of core values or a person's moral compass is the foundation on which service to others is built. How does a lawyer develop self-knowledge.

George writes that one's moral compass is developed through study, introspection, consultation and discussion with others and a lifetime of experience.

My December 2003 column on moral psychology and legal education reported that the only known educational intervention that moves students forward in their moral reasoning is student-centered moral discourse. It is through discussion of moral issues that we help each other move forward in our moral development. With rare exceptions, we do not presently educate law students or lawyers to assist their moral development.

George concurs that most business schools and other academic institutions do not teach values as part of leadership development. ... What they fail to realize is the importance of solidifying your values through study and dialogue, and the impact that your environment has in shaping your values.?

Both models emphasize either compassion and empathy or the closely related skills of listening and counseling from the client's shoes. These skills can be learned, but, with rare exceptions in a few courses or continuing legal education (CLE) classes, we do not presently educate law students or lawyers with respect to these skills.

Authentic leadership emphasizes the dimension of creating open, trusting and enduring relationships. Consensus and community building skills in the servant leader model are related to this dimension.

George observes that every person has a life story they want to share with you, if you are open to hearing their story and sharing with them. It is in sharing our life stories that we develop trust and intimacy with our colleagues.

David Maister, Charles Greene, and Robert Galford, in The Trusted Advisor (2000) argue that successful professionals move from technical or subject matter experts at the beginning of a career to trusted advisor relationships at the end of a career. They emphasize that a professional who offers just technical skill is essentially fungible with all other providers of that technical skill. The goal is to develop relationships, and relationship skills can be learned. With rare exceptions in a few courses and CLEs, we do not presently educate law students or lawyers with respect to relationship building skills. With rare exceptions, we also do not presently educate lawyers or law students on the skills necessary to lead a law firm or law department.

Finally, every lawyer is going to face crucible moments times of difficulty and suffering. Think back over your education: have you ever had any engagement that helped to prepare you for these crucible moments?

The good news is that there is a great deal of running room for any lawyer or group of lawyers who wants to engage the profession, including law students, on these issues. Making a contribution in this area may be, for some lawyers, a source of enduring meaning.


Neil Hamilton is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Hamilton is not speaking for the school in this column. To contact him, send an e-mail to nwhamilton@stthomas.edu.