Servant Leadership in a Servant’s Profession: Guidelines for Today’s Criminal Justice Leaders


The prevailing approach to organizational management has been understood as a vertical, top-down, hierarchal, authoritarian philosophy. Managers have been expected to control subordinates—in the office, the factory, shop, or government agency—autocratically giving orders and demanding obedience. Subordinates are expected to comply, if only out of fear of reprisal, without question. Leadership asserts authority and control, not service. More recent academic leadership study pursuits, profitably, have revealed what most employees already knew: there are more effective and productive ways of leading people.

With this greater understanding of leadership theories, organizations need to understand and adopt these theories; their employees have progressed. Employees today want to be asked, not ordered; they want respect, not scorn; they want control over their duties, not be programmed automatons; they want to grow as people, not be impersonal conduits to inflate the egos of self-absorbed managers.

In short, they want a sense of accomplishment and appreciation for what they do. Leadership, the modern employees asserts, is not abusive, contrived, Machiavellian, or deceitful.  It is respectful of their needs and desires to grow as people. The concerned and perceptive leader recognizes these needs and desires, harnessing and utilizing them for the betterment of the organization and the individual.

This philosophy of management is called “servant leadership” and it is what is necessary to meet the demands of today’s employee. Servants serve others; thus, servant leaders make their personal aspirations, interests, and needs subservient to those they lead in accomplishing a common goal. As leaders servants demonstrate the deepest concern for followers, placing the collective needs of the community (whether their neighborhood, workplace organization, or families) ahead of their own. The relationships that are encouraged by this approach—and the trust that it builds—leads subordinates to follow along willingly; they will not need to be goaded into compliance. Servant leadership assumes the best of subordinates and seeks to reinforce that assumption with service.

This type of leadership finds it roots in the biblical record—though it is evident in other non-biblical traditions—with the expectation that followers emulate the behavior in deference to the God who expects it. Historically, servant-leadership has been deeply embedded in American culture, via our Judeo-Christian societal foundations and is deeply connected to our collective sense of community. It offers a sharp contrast to “Machiavellian” leadership approaches—which is utilized by most autocratic and political rulers—and finds its bedrock in the example of Jesus of Nazareth, who exemplified servitude in his selfless example, public ministry, and private mentoring.

Servant leadership helps form and encourage a mutual dependence—a symbiotic relationship—with its adherents. It recognizes that different individuals in their community groups offer a variety of contributions—not all contribute the same way—that help strengthen their shared groups, while also growing personally. Understanding this mutual dependence—and by allowing servant leaders to focus on it—is the best way to effect group change for the benefit of an organization and the individual.

Because servant leaders have an unyielding passion to not only take on the role of a servant, but also the nature of a servant, this concept of community relationships has relevance to the workplace; servant leadership traits impact workplace relationships and workplace performance. Servant leadership has a dual role: serve the organization by serving the people who serve the organization. If the goal of an organization is dedicated and committed performance, understanding servant leadership is imperative.

A true servant leader wants first to serve and then lead. In taking on the role of a servant, the servant-leader knows that the empowerment of individuals in their charge must be the primary goal, with autocratic oversight something to be avoided. Servant leaders seek to unite, not divide; they are persuaders, not dictators. They walk among their people and share their burden; they are not separate from them. Servant leaders do not have huge egos and they gain their adherents by being supportive partners, not domineering tyrants. The following five traits encapsulate servant leaders (SL):

  • Trait one—Guidance. SL must be guides. Guidance is recognized by many as the heart of servant leadership. They are the “coaches,” who take the extra time to mold and shape the character of their followers. Indeed, they take the time to ensure that followers grow in their abilities and strive to achieve their God-given potential. “Where no counsel is the people fall: but in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14 KJV).
  • Trait two–Listening. SL are good communicators. To be a good communicator, you must first be a good listener. Good leaders respond to problems by listening first, then acting on the information to arrive at the best solution. Being a good listener also implies accessibility and approachability. Beyond being accessible/approachable, SL must actively solicit feedback and accept the “tribal knowledge” of the workplace as a useful management tool. By using the “Law of Problem Solving,” SL deal with situations and find answers. “Without counsel purposes are disappointed; but in the multitude of counselors they are established” (Proverbs 15:22 KJV).
  • Trait three—Fairness. SL empathize with subordinates and accept them for who they are. They do not apply a standard to subordinates they find unfair if applied to themselves. Though an organization’s first concern may be monetary, it should not be at the expense of doing what is right. “Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues without right” (Proverbs 16:8).
  • Trait four—Goal oriented and qualified. SL do not just set goals. They are also qualified to reach them. A ship’s captain knows that anyone can steer the ship, but it takes special knowledge to chart the course. It is not enough to know where you are going, it is also important to know how to get there. They recognize the values, beliefs, and mission of the organization and break it down into small attainable goals, while inspiring the big picture. Further, they are not afraid to delegate authority in achieving that vision. “And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (Exodus 18:25 KJV).
  • Trait five—Persuasive. “A prince that wanteth understanding is also a great oppressor” (Proverbs 28:16, KJV). SL persuade, they do not dictate. Followers respond must more favorably to be being asked, not commanded. Dictatorial leadership practices are humiliating and breed resentment. Leaders who use these practices de-value subordinates and suppress their productivity.

Criminal justice leadership is neglected as a topic of study. However, since organizational success is directly linked to effective leadership, criminal justice organizations must apply successful leadership models. Servant leadership is sometimes called ‘supportive’ or ‘participatory’ leadership—though the characteristics are very similar, if not the same. Thus, these leaders also can be properly called servant leaders.

Surveys conducted from within the criminal justice field indicate that a stronger servant approach is desired, but the method of incorporating it within a criminal justice organization meets some obstacles. With the criminal justice profession focused mostly on managing organizations, rather than leading them, it can be difficult to cultivate an environment that is truly leadership—let alone servant leadership—focused.

Education and training can play a central role in expanding an organization’s view of leadership. Examining and embracing current scholarship can help determine the direction of leadership approaches and developing the leaders necessary to implement them successfully in criminal justice organizations. Since leadership is seen as central to the effective delivery of criminal justice and similar to developing citizenship skills which manifests as loyalty, encouraging and rewarding education should be seen as essential to efforts to develop new leadership initiatives. Thus, there must be an emphasis on training. Academic preparation is a resource that criminal justice leaders cannot afford to ignore if they want to improve leadership skills in an ever-changing environment with ever-increasing responsibilities.

It is generally accepted that success in criminal justice organizations requires informed leadership approaches. Administrators must create an environment where employees are excited to come to work and feel good about their contributions to the organizations goals. For some, the chief advantage to applying servant leadership principles in a criminal justice organization is its commitment to developing employees who, in turn, improve the performance of the organization through increased allegiance. For others, the servant leadership paradigm fills the void of morality that some suggest exists in other leadership paradigms.

What are the benefits offered by servant leadership approaches? It has been shown that culture building and empowerment has lead to greater profits due to a more customer-focused attitude. For the criminal justice organization, this means a better return on the individual taxpayer’s investment and greater satisfaction with the service provided to the community.

With the ever-increasing strain on law enforcement resources, especially since 9/11, criminal justice organizations are being asked to do more with less. Increasing the proficiency of personnel by applying leadership models that inspire productivity would seem an inexpensive way to stretch resources and satisfy the community at large; leadership must extend beyond the four walls of the organization. Criminal justice agencies need to recognize the need reinforce trust with their communities via leadership and they can do this by examining and adopting leadership approaches that encourage more responsible stewardship of human resources.

The benefits of servant leadership are not limited to fiduciary benefits; it also encourages growth and mutual respect. Within the organization itself, the servant leadership model has demonstrated the potential to reshape the often adversarial relationship that exists between union and management—the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality that serves primarily selfish interests.

The emphasis on the common good and human aspects of the organization can re-build bridges of trust that may have been eroded or build one in workplaces where they may have been non-existent. The trust that such leadership promotes spurs greater productivity and innovation for the benefit of all stakeholders.

A public service organization—such as a criminal justice organization—should make every attempt to provide its service according to the expectations of the public it serves, within the constraints of the budget it provides. Servant leadership has been shown to have a positive impact on others, inspiring them to work more cohesively and efficiently, which has a direct impact on the yield of tight budgets. There is a tangible cost benefit to servant leadership philosophy.

Many criminal justice organizations lack effective leadership within their departments because they fail to identify effective leaders with servant potential. The real challenge to overcoming this is confronting the existing organizational management templates within criminal justice organizations—which may have been in place for years—and the expectations which are derived from those templates.

Leadership outcomes are a product of personality and servant leadership requires certain personality traits—namely identifying and tending to the needs of others. The prevailing management philosophies that exist in most criminal justice organizations are clearly opposed to this approach. Organizations need to evaluate why this is so. Are the lack of servant leadership approaches in criminal justice organizations related to failing to identify potential servant leaders or structural dysfunction within the organization? Some scholars suggest it is both. With that knowledge, how do criminal justice organizations overcome these obstacles to implement management practices that studies have clearly shown to be beneficial to organizational function?

Criminal justice organizations can be stubborn and resistant to change. Even though servant leadership approaches have been shown to be successful, incorporating them can face significant challenges. In the last two decades, however, with the growing body of literature on the subject attesting to its success, servant leadership philosophy is gaining traction in criminal justice organizations and being incorporated on a larger scale, overcoming the resistance of long-entrenched management practices.

For new ideas of leadership to supplant the old ones, however, leaders must lead the way. Chief Burtell Jefferson, of Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) serves as an excellent example of “servant leader.” Jefferson ascended the ranks in the MPD, a department that was largely divided along racial lines, over a period of thirty-three years (1948-1981). Awarded a Presidential Citation in 1972 for reducing crime in his district by 13%, Jefferson was promoted to deputy chief and then chief in 1977. He was a visionary from the beginning, assuming the challenge of promoting changes within the department that would lead to equality of opportunity for black officers. It is easy to see why, given the racial tension of the 60’s and 70’s, Jefferson’s task was difficult.

However, Jefferson built support for his vision through coaching, mentoring, and commitment to high quality performance. He was able to convey his virtues and values to bring out the best in others, regardless of race. Jefferson established a great deal of good will in his department by his willingness to place the health of the department ahead of his own. To apply the wisdom gleaned from Jefferson’s success, a law enforcement executive needs to accept that steadfastness is necessary, and commitment to others via a personal example is essential.

Servant leadership is a long-term approach, transformational to life and work, as Jefferson’s career demonstrates. It is not simply a management approach. It is an essence—a way of being—with the potential to create positive change in society, not just the workplace. Transforming an organization that is used to “conventional” leadership practices to one that employs “servant” leadership practices is not an easy task and will require a conscious effort to change one’s way of acting and thinking. How do criminal justice organizations begin?

The first step is inclusion—bringing the maximum number of individuals to the leadership process. The unique and collective experiences of those within the organization are an invaluable resource to aid a leader in determining what is best for the organization. The wisdom gained in one career is multiplied exponentially by the number of people involved in the process.

The second step is empowerment of individuals to reach their potential while pursuing the common good. People are imperfect creatures; inspiring them to accept new ideas while at the same time inspiring higher performance takes time. Servant leadership, however, is a shared effort; it involves a mutual relationship between the leader and his subordinates in the organization. Mentoring is the servant trait most associated with achieving this goal.

The third step is to develop an ethical culture which respects the individual. Today’s criminal justice leaders have the burden to stress and enforce ethical guidelines and adhere to them. The best way to do this is to hold a high ethical standard as a leader and demand it in those who serve the organization.

The fourth step is to reproduce leaders with the servant mindset. It is not enough to simply promote the individual who has been with the organization the longest or has the best connections with those in charge. The citizens who are served deserve better. Servanthood must be a mindset—a core principle—and made a natural expectation in the promotion process. Leadership positions are not a reward for longevity or political allegiances within a department. They are positions of public trust and should be afforded to those who can be trusted with leadership authority.

The final step is to fiercely protect the boundaries established by servant leadership practice. Once established, organizations which have embraced servant leadership principles need to diligently guard against falling back into the habits that facilitated the change in leadership philosophy. It is easy to fall back into the old habits when given a taste of success. It is imperative that leaders maintain the environment where they continue to develop subordinates, seek their input, reward the efforts, and do careful follow-up.

The benefits to the organization that incorporates servant leadership principles are evident from current leadership research. Criminal justice—as a profession—is a servant’s profession; hence the motto “Protect and Serve.” There is no better place than a criminal justice organization to embody on the inside what they are expected to do on the outside. The change, however, will be difficult. It will require the leader seeking to change an organization to show determination, courage, and the embodiment of servant leadership principles himself. As stewards of the public trust, criminal justice organizations should be expected to lead the way.

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 )

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