SERVANT Leadership Principle: Selfless

The servant leadership principles include being selfless. If you're not serving others, you are self-serving and that is not leadership. In this overview of the principle, we see examples from Nelson Mandela and Arthur T. Demoulas. We also cover attributes like humility, stewardship, empowerment, and more.
The servant leadership principles icon: SELFLESS. A person up front has their arms extended, lifting two other people up - one in each hand. To the right is a collection of smaller icons for the other principles and the words: SERVANT Leadership Principle - SELFLESS.

Background: This post is part of a series defining the principles of The Acronym Model of Servant Leadership®️ (SelflessEmpatheticResoluteVirtuousAuthenticNonpartisan, and Thorough). For more, visit the overview at this link or sign up for the free online course, Servant Leadership 101.

The first principle in The Acronym Model of SERVANT-Leadership®️ is Selfless. If you’re not serving others, you’re not leading. This captures the selfless nature of leadership in a simple statement. Selflessness is about putting the needs of others before yourself. Specifically, we speak here of putting the needs of those you serve, first.



For example, a servant leader assesses each decision by the impact it will have on the organization and it’s stakeholders. In contrast, the non-serving leader may first worry about how a decision will make them look or impact their reputation.

What the Selfless Principle Looks Like

It’s easy in organizational leadership to be selfish without being obvious. For example, an executive decides to invest in a project that makes his team look great rather one lead by a peer with stronger benefits. 


Although the peer’s project may be better for the broader organization, the selfish leader prioritizes their project to make personal benefit.

In this scene from the movie Invictus, Ben explains how we see the principle of Selflessness demonstrated by Nelson Mandela.

Misconceptions About the Principle of Selflessness

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.

This quote holds true for Selfless leaders as well. Selfless is not a poor self-perception. To the contrary, being selfless requires a great deal of confidence. Being selfless does not mean running yourself ragged for a cause, either. Leaders must be healthy enough to deliver their service, as should their teams.


A selfless leader must still look at the long-term needs of their stakeholders and ensure they deliver sustainable results. 

Therefore, if one stakeholder demands a massive project that puts the entire organization at risk, the servant leader, being selfless, must still consider all stakeholders. Therefore, a solution may be sought that doesn’t put the organization, employees, their families and other stakeholders at risk.


Selflessness does not mean doing everything you are asked.

Selfless Attributes of Servant Leaders

Other servant leadership models defined many selfless attributes as important to servant leaders. These include the following from Spears and others1, Frick & Sipe2 as well as Russell & Stone3 (2002).

  • Humility (Spears, Sipe & Frick)
  • Stewardship (Spears, Russell & Stone)
  • Commitment to People (Spears, Sipe & Frick)
  • Building Community (Spears)
  • Mentor-Minded (Sipe & Frick)
  • Considers the Greater Good (Sipe & Frick)
  • Service (Russell & Stone)
  • Modeling (Russell & Stone)
  • Empowerment (Russell & Stone)
  • Teaching (Russell & Stone)

Examples of Selfless Servant Leaders

There are many examples of  selflessness in servant leaders, here are a couple:

Nelson Mandela waves to the camera. He has a big smile, mostly white hair, and wears a dark grey suit, with a bright grey tie.

Nelson Mandela

After being imprisoned for 27 years, related to his anti-apartheid work in South Africa, Mandela was eventually released. He could have easily sought vengeance against his antagonists and opposition. Instead he pursued a route of reconciliation while simultaneously driving the abolition of apartheid. He was elected South Africa's first black president in 1994.

Arthur T. Demoulas of Market Basket, stands at a podium and gestures to the crowd with one hand while holding a microphone in the other. He wears a dark suit and maroon tie.

Arthur T. Demoulas

CEO of the 71 store New England grocery chain, Market Basket, Arthur DeMoulas is known for humility and service to employees and their families. Through his work, the privately-owned company went above and beyond their competitors with regards to salaries and employee benefits. In 2014, an attempt by rivals to oust the CEO failed terribly, when employees and customers boycotted the store for weeks, until they returned the servant leader to his post.

Question: What do you think is the most important attribute of a selfless servant leader?

1. Spears, Larry: Power of Servant Leaders (Greenleaf, Spears, 1998); Servant Leadership: A Journey into… (Greenleaf, Spears, 2002); and more
2. Sipe, James W. & Frick, Don M.: Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership: Practicing… (2009)
3. Russell, Robert F. & Stone, Gregory A.: A Review of Servant Leadership Attributes: Developing… (Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 2002)

Read More About The Acronym Model of SERVANT Leadership®️


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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