Servant Leadership?

In my last post I talked about subtlety and reading between the lines. I grew up reading and experiencing servant leadership and have become an advocate for it. Can servant leadership survive in a world of politics and subtlety? It seems the individual who speaks first and the loudest often succeeds.

Servant leadership is a concept promotes humility and serving your staff and donors. I like the idea of taking the perspective a good manager does everything in their power to help their staff succeed. When working with volunteers servant leadership offers to go the extra mile and help them out.

It sometimes seems to me this kind of leadership can allow people to walk all over you. Instead of setting up boundaries around what can and cannot happen it opens up possibilities. This means an idea or conversation can be hijacked by someone with their own agenda or method or plan. It appears everyone has to be on-board with the model of servant leadership in order for it to be successful.

What do you think? Have you experienced this kind of leadership? Do you agree or disagree with some of my observations?


7 Responses to Servant Leadership?

  1. Alex B. Hill says:

    Servant leadership is a great working concept, the problem that you rightly highlight is getting walked all over. If you are to employ servant leadership you have to be prepared to get a little walked on, you have to be dedicated to educating others how to be servant leaders, and you have to be ok with little or no recognition. Being a true servant leader you have to define success by the accomplishments of the entire body, staff, or organization. You have to know that your humble leadership has allowed your staff to shine and do great work.

  2. Meghan says:


    Sorry – pointing out typos is a lame thing to do but it does change the meaning of your opening (and third) line. Fixing it may help people make more sense of it.

  3. Jayson says:

    @Meghan: typo? Maybe you’re thinking of subtly, but Jason’s talking about subtlety.

  4. Jason says:

    Meghan & Molly- I appreciate you pointing out my typos. Sorry to be unclear in what I was writing about. I’d rather my writing was accurate than confusing. Thanks for letting me know.

  5. Janice Chan says:

    I think this goes back to effective leadership – which does not include getting walked all over, but it does include understanding that your success as a leader requires the success of the team/staff/committee/organization as a whole – just as Alex said. Sort of like how the measure of a teacher is how well his/her students do, not whether or not they are all sitting up straight writing down everything the teacher says. But the team won’t succeed if the leader is getting walked all over and everybody’s off doing their own thing rather than working together in a cohesive and coordinated effort. You still need to set some boundaries, and provide some direction, but they should all be for the sake of achieving the goal, and as long as they are, I don’t think setting boundaries makes it not servant leadership. I guess that’s a long roundabout way of saying that servant leadership means that you need to share all the credit while still seeing the whole project/etc. as your responsibility. It’s not for everyone.

    Personally, I really appreciate a leader who doesn’t ask anything of the group that he/she wouldn’t do, and that type of leader gets a lot more respect (and loyalty) from me. Like at a company that’s not doing too well and the CEO takes a pay cut before asking employees to or laying off anybody. Not that some internal competition/incentivization doesn’t motivate people–I think it’s healthy as long as it’s still driving that ultimate goal. When people put more effort into the competition itself rather than just achieving the most they can (or just lose sight of the bigger picture), then it starts to get ugly or at least detracts from the goal, much like how you slow down in a race if you start looking at other runners rather than keeping your eye/mind on your track and the finish line.

  6. CE says:

    Your third paragraph is a great summary of what I’m dealing with. I think that the concept of servant leadership fits neatly within the world of gen-x workplaces. I am a young(er) leader of a nonprofit, and all of my employees are under age 35. I have a very flat management style, with lots of brainstorming and participatory decision-making. It worked great until recently, when I gained an employee who is really territorial about her work and questions everything (and I don’t mean in a constructive way). Now I’ve been forced to start making decisions without input, because where there was consensus before there now is defensiveness, resistance, and questioning. I’ll let you know when I find the perfect balance between servant leadership and hard-line “I’m the boss” mentality…

  7. SZ says:

    I learned first about servant leadership in 2000. The concept resonated for me in some powerful ways, and seemed to fill the void I’d experienced in other ego-driven environments. My boss was (and is) a student of the concept and regularly held conversations through which we uncovered ways to employ it. His leadership was a gift, along with the concept. Most of us went on to acknowledge our own leadership, even in small ways – and THAT’s the point of the concept: ultimately to help others find their own leadership niche and style.

    The most difficult piece of servant leadership I think, is that it must be in some way supported by the culture of the organization in order to be wholly effective. “On Board” may not be critical for all, but it does help if those being led or those who supervise the leader at least hold a basic understanding. A culture of respectfulness is critical to success as a servant leader.

    Another critical component to servant leadership is coaching. Led by a skilled practitioner, this can be the building block needed to construct the respectful culture in an organization. For struggling or substantially ego-driven groups, pressing reset through some shared experience (a retreat for example) may be needed to jump-start the process.

    If servant leaders get walked on, their response can be through a coaching conversation in which the effect of the “walk” gets acknowledged and strategies and accountability to avoid it in the future are created. That can be a wonderful growth experience both for the walker and the walked.

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