Unpopular Opinion Alert: I’m not a fan of servant leadership.
There, I said it. Whew, that feels good! If you’re still with me, please let me explain.
I like the idea, the original concept of servant leadership. But I don’t like what our culture has done to it – and consequently, done to us as leaders.
Every day, I work with women who embody the servant leadership mindset (or at least the version that our culture has created). They’re working hard to take care of their teams, earn their respect, and make sure they feel good about working at their companies.
That all seems pretty great, right?
But at what expense?
Many of my clients and those who follow me online are doing their best to create exciting workplaces that are engaging and provide meaningful opportunities for their teams to do important work. However, they’re also creating an environment where they’re no longer in charge.
They spend hours each day at the beck and call of their team members. Which, isn’t exactly what servant leadership was originally intended to be about.
What is Servant Leadership?
The concept of servant leadership has been around for ages, however, the well-known phrase “servant leadership” was originally coined in an essay titled, The Servant as Leader, written by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970.
The idea that Greenleaf explored was that one had a desire to serve others, to make their highest needs a priority, and as a leader, you put them first.
The original concept of servant leadership does not state to put all of your team’s needs above your own and allow them to do whatever they want.
Unfortunately, our culture has morphed servant leadership into doing just that. Leaders are persuaded to bend over backwards for their team members, often to their own detriment.
What servant leadership began as and what it is today are polar opposites.
I’m not saying the original concept of servant leadership is bad. Actually, it’s a great concept, when implemented properly.
I am saying that the extreme to which our modern society has taken servant leadership is damaging – both for the leader and their team.
Servant Leadership Gone Awry
When we put everyone else’s needs (yes, including our team members) above our own, it often leads to burn out, irritability, resentment, and more. When you’re trying to run a business and lead a team from this place, you’re not doing your team or your business justice.
Yes, we should take care of our employees, but not to the detriment of our health (whether physical, mental, or emotional).
“A leader must be well in order to serve others well.”
Leaders have become so burnt out that they can hardly function. They’re busy running around putting everyone else’s needs, wants, and desires above their own, neglecting to eat properly, move their bodies as they sit behind computer screens all day, and putting in 14 – 16 hour work days on the regular.
When did serving others become so harmful for self?
When we failed to set expectations and hold our teams accountable.
What I hear most often is, “I don’t want my team to think I’m mean.” It’s something we women struggle with more often than our male counterparts when in leadership roles.
We’ve translated “setting expectations and accountability” into “being mean.”
But these aren’t mean at all. In fact, the greatest leaders of all time (and yes, those who have implemented servant leadership), still set expectations (a.k.a. rules, guidelines, etc.) for their teams and then hold them accountable to reaching those expectations.
What Servant Leadership Is Not
The line can feel blurred and leadership can be filled with lots of gray areas. So, let’s talk about what servant leadership is not.
Servant leadership is NOT:
- Letting your team members call all the shots.
- Failing to set expectations, establish policies, and provide guidelines.
- Refusing to hold your team members accountable for their work.
- Avoiding difficult conversations and situations.
- Being inconsistent and wishy-washy.
Servant leadership is a lot of things, but it was never intended to create an environment where the leader sets herself up for failure.
How to Lead by Serving
Your leadership style greatly impacts your team’s overall performance – whether good or bad. Servant leadership, when implemented properly, is a way of making sure your team has exactly what they need in order to be successful. But what does that actually look like?
Teams need structure, goals, and the right tools to do their jobs well. They also need to know the guidelines and what you expect of them, so they know how to do their jobs well.
True servant leadership means providing all these things – and then helping your team members reach their goals (and yours!) through being consistent, supportive, and encouraging.
You help your employees grow in their roles through opportunities to learn new things, challenging them to come up with creative solutions to problems, and reassuring them that you’re there to support them – but not do their job for them.
Servant leadership also means that you serve your team by making sure you are whole and well. By being the best possible version of yourself, you can show up with the energy and attitude that inspires, motivates, and encourages your team to be their very best.
Are you feeling burnt out? Struggling with your team needing a lot of hand-holding? Or does it feel like everything is running amok?
I’d love to encourage you to reflect on your current leadership style and answer these questions:
- What is working well?
- What areas feel hard or challenging?
- How much time are you spending on YOUR top priorities?
- Why is ONE thing you could do today to support your team differently?
It may take some time to truly reflect on your leadership style from an objective point of view. If you’re finding it difficult, ask a close friend or trusted colleague to help you out. Self-awareness is one of the most important characteristics you can have as a leader. Without it, we can’t identify areas of opportunity and take steps to improve, grow, and evolve.
I hope sharing this “unpopular opinion” has been insightful and helped you look at your role as leader a bit differently. Remember, serving others doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your physical, mental, or emotional health or the health of your business operations. In fact, it should be the opposite. The more closely you guard these things, the more effective your team will be and the more successful your business will be, too.