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Servant Leadership in Private Clubs: 10 Traits for Inspired Leadership

Servant leadership is the cornerstone of private club governance. Private clubs prosper or perish on the strength and durability of their servant leaders. And, often unknown to those they lead, it is a thankless job.

Servant leadership was first mentioned in the 1970s by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay entitled “The Servant as Leader.” Through his years at AT&T and other power-centered companies, Greenleaf determined that the greatest influence of leadership is in the willingness to serve others.

In developing his thinking, Greenleaf noted that he was “standing on the shoulders of giants” when he observed that much philosophical- and faith-based thinking from antiquity to modern day refers to the principle of leaders serving those who follow. Fast-forward to current leadership thought and these concepts of leadership are seen in the teachings of Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Peter Senge, Margaret Wheatley and many others.

Are you a servant leader at your club?

Greenleaf identified ten characteristics that create effective servant leadership:

  • Listening – Historically leaders were assumed to be effective orators. Servant leaders build trust through listening. Do you speak when you should listen?
  • Empathy – Servant leaders try to understand the wants and needs of others. Every person wants to be accepted and respected for what he or she can offer. Leaders who can give others acceptance earn support.
  • Healing – Is your club better because of division and strife or through mutual understanding? Servant leaders can heal within clubs through effective listening and empathetic behavior to members with minority viewpoints or priorities.

In these skeptical times when members demand ever more transparency of leaders, the challenge is to heal and bring members together rather than allowing them to factionalize.

  • Awareness – Greenleaf wrote, “Awareness is not a giver of solace—it is just the opposite.” Drawing from an inner security, servant leaders seek to help those who need support. Are you aware of what your club needs or only what you and your friends want?

One of keys to servant leadership is to become comfortable being uncomfortable. Earnest servant leaders in private clubs understand the many challenges of the club while seeking to lead enthusiastically and with vision.

  • Persuasion – Servant leaders disdain positions of power in favor of reason, empathy and understanding. History is full of great persuaders and the most persuasive among them are those who serve others.
  • Conceptualization – Servant leaders pursue big dreams and balance the realities around them. Servant leadership empowers members to think beyond current circumstances and to aspire to make their club more robust and capable.

This attribute is sorely tested in markets where the necessity of differentiation challenges clubs and their leaders to develop a future vision for the club. Who wants to be a member of a club that “is just as good as it used to be”?

  • Foresight – Servant leadership requires that a leader is planning ahead for the good and benefit of those who follow.

Foresight is needed in clubs requiring substantial capital maintenance and improvements. The key is to discern what investment will provide the club the highest yield.

  • Stewardship – Do you preserve and improve the values that fellow club members hold most dear? Can you protect club programs and customs that define your club? Can you persevere against adversity when the club most needs a champion?
  • Commitment to Growth of People – It is servant leaders who rely upon the intrinsic value of those who are served to create bold futures. The youngest and oldest in your club need a safe haven that enables them to grow and remain safe in a hazardous world.
  • Building Community – Cohesiveness and teamwork make possible greater results than individual accomplishments. Servant leaders are builders of a vision for all.

These 10 characteristics from Greenleaf serve as a checklist for every board meeting and a touchstone for inspired leadership.

Henry DeLozier is a principal at Global Golf Advisors, an international club management consulting firm that provides specialized services to more than 3,000 clients from offices in Toronto, Phoenix and Dublin (IR). He can be reached at [email protected] or visit