Parents as Servant Leaders

I have a problem by Jennifer Miller

“It is high time the ideal of success should be replaced by the ideal of service.”
– Albert Einstein

Most leaders acquire their power from the choice of their social group to elevate individuals to that level. However, parents, by the very nature of our roles, serve in a leadership position while we raise our children. A servant leader realizes that his or her ability to significantly influence others and achieve any vision comes from serving others. Understanding the qualities of a successful leader – that of a servant leader – can assist any parent in further refining his or her values and skills to better perform her role. Research on power demonstrates that the skills required to rise to leadership are empathy and social skills.1 However, interestingly, those are the very skills that become the most challenging to leaders once they have acquired power. So when we are parenting, we may have a greater challenge than in other roles with our ability to be empathetic and to demonstrate social intelligence.

Robert Greenleaf, author of “The Servant as Leader” and management researcher who consulted with major corporations like AT&T and lectured at MIT and Harvard, defined what it means to be a servant leader.2 He writes that leaders always have a larger goal in mind and can well articulate it. That goal may not be fully achievable in a lifetime but offers sufficient inspiration and vision to motivate all members to pursue it. For example, our family’s vision is to love one another unconditionally and we commit to supporting each other as we pursue learning working toward our highest dreams and potentials. And we measure our major life decisions based on that vision. Parents as servant leaders prioritize and build trust as a critical foundation for their family’s interconnected relationships and individual successes. They are responsible decision makers, and they exercise sound judgment showing competence in what they do.

The concept of servant leadership can offer a frame of mind as parents consider their role and how they might focus their efforts on continuous improvement. I found, in reading about servant leadership, that it deepened my thinking about my dreams for myself as the Mom I strive to be and continually work to become. Here are some of the main points Robert Greenleaf shared when he outlined his concept of a servant leader that I’ve translated for our role as leaders of our families.

Listening for Understanding
When a family member has a problem, Greenleaf would advise listening first for understanding. And though it may require some time and possibly awkward silence with children, taking the time to listen to truly make sense of what the child is both feeling and thinking can result in a much richer dialogue between parent and child. Instead of rushing to fix as we so often tend to do, we offer a significant show of respect by actively listening. It’s often said, the better you define a problem, the better the solution. And in this case, stopping to listen can help prompt a child’s thinking so that she crafts her own best solution helping her accept responsibility for her relationships and challenges. If you are interested in exercising your listening skills in family life, check out a number of ideas in the article, “Say What?”

Communication for Connection
The wider vision and long-term goals a parent might have cannot be readily accessible to a child without a focus on communicating for connection. In the busyness of our lives, at times, we forget to take time out to explain why we are so busy about our pursuits. And it helps to relate our rationale to a child’s life such as, their learning goals in school or a saving goal for a coveted toy. For example, my partner is in graduate school and working full-time which takes him away from our family frequently. It would be easy to focus on his lack of presence as E and I eat dinner or participate in free-time activities without Dad. But we have to remember to take time to explain Dad’s goal in his contributions to his work and contributions to our family. This helps us all stay focused and endure temporary separations while working toward a bigger vision.

The Art of Withdrawal
The art of withdrawal is the ability to step back, to step out of the throes of current circumstances, and to reflect. This withdrawal could involve taking a walk in the park during an intense time. It could mean removing yourself from the room to another place to cool down. Or it could be as simple as employing “Strange Calm,” sitting down in the midst of chaos to regain your centered focus. This is such a critical point for our roles as parents and servant leaders. Not only does it give us permission to “leave the building,” it’s encouragement to do so. Yes, we need to make family members aware in advance that we will be withdrawing at times. Yes, we need to ensure that our children are safe before we withdraw. But we can use this technique to fuel our own sense of well-being as we treat our feelings and thoughts with the care they deserve in leading our family. We return from our withdrawal with a sense of renewed purpose and clearer thinking to retain their trust and make sound decisions.

Acceptance and Empathy
Family members need to feel accepted in the group at all times. Their membership needs to be treated and viewed as essential. Nothing could cause them to be cast out. E said to me last night at bedtime as we were saying goodnight, “Will you love me no matter what?” with a teasing tone. But I know that he needs to hear it “Yes, come what may, no matter what, I will love you.” All kids do. And not just once but often, especially in the times when they are failing, making poor choices, and generally feeling unsuccessful. Greenleaf writes, “Parents who try to raise perfect children are certain to raise neurotics.” Getting comfortable with and expecting mistakes as a part of our children’s learning process is a core part of our own acceptance in our parenting. That acceptance demonstrates our empathy for our children who hold us and how we regard them in their highest esteem. And we can further work on cultivating our empathy and understanding for our children by regularly learning about their school experiences and learning about their development so we can relate better to their particular kinds of challenges.

There are numerous ways to learn about your children’s development. As a start, check out the Parent Toolkit or Yardsticks Child Development Parent Pamphlets.

Foresight is the ability to make responsible decisions combining factual information with our intuition. But in addition, we have to consider the consequences down the road for the choices we are making today. And helping our children become responsible requires us to model that skill. Talking aloud about the ethics of a choice and how others might be impacted in future days or years can help children become aware that they need to consider theirs and others futures in their own decision-making. It’s rare when all of the pieces of information required are fully at hand when we need to make a choice. Usually, there is a bit of a leap of faith involved particularly when it’s a larger decision. Children will learn to better trust themselves as you show faith in your own inner wisdom to guide you.

We cannot lead a family toward a vision without self-awareness. And that self-knowledge is not a one-time event but a process of introspection, looking within to understand what patterns we might be repeating that we want to change and what values are core to who we are and how we want to show up in the world. The art of withdrawal can assist with our awareness as we take time out to reflect on what our deepest self is telling us. In addition, we need to cultivate an awareness of our family members’ feelings which can be strengthened over time with practice. “What’s Dad feeling tonight? Can you tell by his facial expression how his day went?” Taking small opportunities to notice other family members’ feelings can strengthen this skill in yourself and your children.

Taking a step back and evaluating your role as a parent as a servant leader can be nothing short of revolutionary. Since change always begins at the individual level, we can start improving our world at home. If we desire leaders – whether they serve in our communities, our workplaces or our governments – who are caring, socially responsible and compassionate, we plant those seeds daily by modeling it as servant leaders with our own children.


Keltner, D. (2016). The power paradox; How we gain and lose influence. NY: Penguin Press.

Greenleaf, R. (1991). The servant as leader. Indianapolis, IN: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center.

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