Do Servant Leaders Make Good Executive Mentors?

executiveagenda Executive Agenda June 15, 2020

Becoming a Group Chair for Executive Agenda (EA) was a calling; and, it was one I started hearing shortly after I began down the crucial path on my servant-leader journey. As I reflect on Larry Spears’ article, “Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective Caring Leaders,” I realize my role as an Executive Mentor directly connects to that of a servant leader. Spears says a servant leader has a “commitment to the growth of people.” He writes, “Servant leaders believe people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As such, the servant leader is deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual within his or her organization.”   

I have the responsibility for the personal and professional growth of those in my EA group so I mentor them by sharing my business and life experience. My work as a Group Chair includes individual and group interactions. I work to ask thoughtful questions and facilitate conversations using a mentoring skillset to foster deeply-personalized learning. My most essential skill is that of listening. It’s a skill at which I am continuously working to become better.


Listening is generally the first characteristic mentioned of a servant leader. According to Spears, “Leaders have traditionally been valued for their communication and decision-making skills. Although these are also important skills for the servant leader, they need to be reinforced by a deep commitment to listening intently to others. The servant leader seeks to identify the will of a group and helps to clarify that will. He or she listens receptively to what is being said and unsaid. Listening also encompasses hearing one’s own inner voice. Listening, coupled with periods of reflection, is essential to the growth and well-being of the servant leader.”

Servant leaders use the “best test” as described by Robert Greenleaf in his original essay. Greenleaf says, “The ‘best test’ is to ask if those being served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” In my role as as an Executive Agenda Group Chair, I do everything I can to grow and serve the EA members in my group — personally and as executives. I work to model servant leadership and thereby contribute to the development of new servant-leaders.


Another characteristic of a servant leader, according to Spears, is empathy. As an Executive Mentor, because of my experience, I can empathize because I have, in many cases, been there. “The servant leader strives to understand and empathize with others,” says Spears. “People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirits.” Each member is an individual with special talents and unique needs. I seek to build relationships that are genuine and caring. I look to develop individual relationships based on the needs of the members that leads to a special trust I share with my member. The confidence that is shared requires me to be truthful, which sometimes means sharing what must be shared, not necessarily what a member would like to hear.

Yet, I use the “wisdom in the room” to help each member. I facilitate and foster learning relationships to develop all of our members. Our members deeply care for one another. Chairs often use a term called “carefrontation” that describes how we “care enough” to confront attitudes and behaviors that are not in a member’s best interest.

When an executive uses a consultant, they are generally looking for answers to questions, Executive Agenda members, working with their Group Chair, get their “answers questioned” through rigorous, time-tested group processes. Executive development and continuous improvement are only possible through trusting, caring, empathetic relationships. That said, I believe, a member of any EA group acts as a servant leader when engaging one another in Executive Agenda’s process.


Another characteristic of servant-leaders which aligns with an executive mentor is that of conceptualization.  As a servant leader, Group Chairs must conceptualize on behalf of members. Executive Mentors use their knowledge and experience to nurture the abilities of their members and to help them realize their dreams. The ability to look at a problem or an organization from a conceptualizing perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities. Servant leaders are called to seek a delicate balance between conceptual and operational thinking.


A characteristic of a servant leader explained by Spears, which is closely related to conceptualization, is foresight.  He states, “The ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation is hard to define but easier to identify. One knows foresight when one experiences it. Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future.” 

As Group Chairs and servant leaders, through One-on-One sessions as well as group meetings, we foster foresight through questioning and discussion. Our processes and a “carefrontational” approach yield intrinsic learning and development, allowing for continuous improvement and development of the member.

I believe my passion for serving comes from a genuine sense of gratitude for all my mentors who have shared with me and my desire to it pay it forward. The servant-leader characteristics of listening, empathy, conceptualization and foresight are manifested in my work as a Group Chair, and, therefore, part of my servant-leader journey. After each interaction with an individual member, and after our Executive Agenda group meetings, I ask myself, “Have those I have served grown as persons?”  If so, I am satisfied.


About the Author

Gene A. Wright is director of graduate management programs at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) where he serves as a lecturer. His classes focus on engineering management, new product management, marketing and strategy. Gene has been an Executive Agenda Group Chair since 2018 and serves one EA group (EA 15).  He also leads Wright Innovation, a consultancy dedicated to serving businesses at the intersection of business and technology for the purpose of innovation and growth.

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