Ethical Voices on Service

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Ethics is fundamentally about thinking beyond ourselves, and service is an extension of that thinking. Service in leadership involves dedicating ourselves to the success of others.

Service“A servant leader does not consider himself above those he leads. Rather, he is primus inter pares from Latin, meaning ‘first among equals.’ That is, he sees those he leads as peers to teach and to learn from. He is willing to lead others in order to reach an agreed upon goal, but he doesn’t believe that being the leader makes him better than others.”

Servant Leadership: Accepting and Maintaining the Call to Service, Community Toolbox, The University of Kansas,

Through serving others, we quickly remember that we are not the only one trying to get somewhere, and that we are not the only one with challenges, struggles and victories. When we serve, we focus on making the journey richer for others – and in doing that, we grow our leadership capability in important ways.

Ethical Voices on Service 

Here is a hand-picked collection of quotes that reveal how service, ethics and leadership are connected:

“Words only reveal half of your heart. Service defines the other half. Character is the combination of the two.”
― Shannon L. Alder

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”   ― Mahatma Gandhi

“Relationships are never about power, and one way to avoid the will to power is to choose to limit oneself – to serve.”
― Wm. Paul Young

“Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping him up.”  ―Jesse Jackson

“True leaders understand that leadership is not about them but about those they serve. It is not about exalting themselves but about lifting others up.”   ― Sheri L. Dew

“Joy can be real only if people look upon their life as a service, and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.”  – Leo Tolstoy

“Leaders in all realms and activities of life knew that the power they had come to hold existed because they were responsible to serve the many, thus power was position of service.”    ― Vanna Bonta

“Life is for service.”     ― Fred Rogers

“Helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. when you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.”― Rachel Naomi Remen

I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others… I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent.  ― Thomas Edison

“The more you become aware of and respond to the needs of others, the richer your own life becomes.”   ― Mollie Marti

“Service is the measure of greatness; it always has been true; it is true today, and it always will be true, that he is greatest who does the most of good. Nearly all of our controversies and combats grow out of the fact that we are trying to get something from each other–there will be peace when our aim is to do something for each other. The human measure of a human life is its income; the divine measure of a life is its outgo, its overflow–its contribution to the welfare of all.”     William Jennings Bryan

Through Service to Ethical Leadership

It is through service to others that we grow as leaders and begin to understand the fullness of what ethical leadership includes. This understanding informs our choices as leaders. As James McGregor Burns said, “Divorced from ethics, leadership is reduced to management and politics to mere technique.”

Without service to others, isn’t leadership just self-serving?


For more, see Linda’s book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

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  1. A couple of quotes from the work I’ve described in my link above

    “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect. ” (from the The Charter for Compassion)

    Terry Hallman who put the welfare fo children abandoned to state care ahead of his own life wrote this in 1997 about doing business for the benefit of other people:

    ‘Massive greed and consequent massive human misery and suffering do not have to be accepted as a givens, unavoidable, intractable, irresolvable. Just changing the way business is done, if only by a few companies, can change the flow of wealth, ease and eliminate poverty, and leave us all with something better to worry about. Basic human needs such as food and shelter are fundamental human rights; there are more than enough resources available to go around–if we can just figure out how to share. It cannot be “Me first, mine first”; rather, “Me, too” is more the order of the day.” ‘


  2. Thanks for the lovely quotes. This is so in coherent with the brief Twitter survey we did last week. See the results at The “ethical choice” is not as clear as it used to seem.


  3. Hi Linda, What a delightful piece to share on the first day of Lent. I’m attending a 1 day Ash Wednesday retreat to start the season and service will be a part of it. Thank you for all of your great service and I wish you peace today. Bill


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