Servant Leadership Misconceptions

by Shannon Lee

I recently read an article from AZcentral, outlining the problems with servant leadership. The article saddened me because it further solidified my belief that servant leadership is so misunderstood. Here are a few points from the article and my counter arguments:

Argument: Servant Leadership is “Too Internal”
“…this leader might spend the majority of business meetings discussing how meaningful work can be for everyone while neglecting to formulate a plan to increases profits.”

Counter: Servant Leadership is an internal and external balance
Someone who truly understands servant leadership knows that you never meet the needs of one at the expense of another. In other words, a servant leader looks for the win:win for ALL stakeholders because they operate from a belief that it can be found. This means that a servant leader will never sacrifice profits in the name of “meaningful work” because the servant leader believes both can be achieved and sees it as their responsibility to find the way.


Argument: Growth Problems
“Employees can lack motivation when their manager is always present to chip in to help with work, provide all the answers and “baby” them.”

Counter: Growth Mindset
A servant leader’s job is not to chip in and help with the work and provide all the answers. I can see how servant leadership could be viewed this way, however. A more accurate portrayal is that the servant leader helps the employee by EMPOWERING them to accomplish the work for themsevles, not by doing the work for the employee. This means providing the who, what, when, where, resources and why behind the assignment. This posture means that the servant leader is available to help the employee figure out how to overcome obstacles…not enable the employee to give up. It is poor leadership to step in and do the work for anyone that we lead.


Argument: Possible Bullying
“When a leader is so dedicated to serving his employees, it can make him a target for manipulators. An employee, for instance, might feign not knowing how to perform work tasks and ask the manager to repeatedly demonstrate the duty while he observes. On the other hand, the servant leader could be the manipulative figure, though this goes against the core reasoning of this leadership style. Regent University School of Business and Leadership contends that a servant leader could use the argument that since he helped the employee, the worker should respond by serving him. This is an unethical practice, since servant leadership should encourage employees to reciprocate not by serving him but by paying it forward to others such as customers.”

Counter: Appropriate Boundaries
While manipulators certainly exist, the responsibility to draw boundaries lies in the servant leader’s hands (and anyone’s, for that matter). This is a victim stance placing the servant leader at the mercy of those they lead. This paints a weak and wounded picture of the servant leader. Any leader can fail to draw appropriate boundaries. This is not unique to any leadership style but rather, a problem of another sort. For a great video on boundaries, check out this one from Brené Brown.

The Regent University School statement is not describing a servant leader. Traditional leaders can tend to lead by manipulation. By definition of servant leadership (see ours below), manipulation does not come into play.

Final Thoughts
While Robert Greenleaf may be known as the Father of Servant Leadership, more contemporary study on the subject has further clarified the attributes of servant leadership. Still, much is to be learned.

An online article from Management.Issues states:

“As it stands servant leadership is simply too vague, hence we must conclude that the idea, in this sense, is true but trivial as it says nothing distinctive, nothing that separates it from every other model of leadership that also attacks autocratic, heroic models of leadership.”

Now with this I can agree to an extent. The tenants of servant leadership are inherently good and almost intuitive, but they are also vague. In fact, as we set out to help more people embody servant leadership, we quickly learned how difficult servant leadership was to grasp. This is why we created a simple model for servant leadership; a model that makes this esoteric idea more familiar.

That model is called CARE to Lead and we have a public workshop on the model coming up on February 20. I’d love to see you there. All the information and registration is HERE.

We define servant leadership this way:

“Servant Leadership is a style in which the leader balances the interests of others and self while relentlessly pursuing a win for all stakeholders. These leaders seek to enrich lives, build better organizations and care for one another.”

What ideas do you have about servant leadership you’d like to discuss? Contact me at shannonlee@relaleadership.org. I’d love to hear from you.

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