Servant leadership is a trap

Here’s how Wikipedia defines Servant Leadership:

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s main focus is the thriving of their company or organizations. A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Fine, right? I agree. Good servant leaders build ownership and into teams and people, and that’s great. But many so-called servant leaders aren’t good. The term isn’t flawed, but it’s often misunderstood.

Let’s talk about Jeremy, a new manager. Jeremy found himself in the uncomfortable position of managing the people who used to be his peers. So he looked for every opportunity to say “nothing has changed, I’m still me!” and he did as little leading as possible.

When Jeremy stumbled across the term “servant leadership”, he said “Oh, finally! I’m not a weak leader, I’m just a servant leader!” He felt vindicated: “I don’t need to lead these people. I’ll just be here to support them when they need something.”

Jeremy paid too much attention to the “servant” part and ignored the “leader” part. And herein lies the problem. Too many people use “I’m a servant leader” as a defense for doing nothing unless someone asks for help.

Servant leadership is a tasty phrase that bad leaders use to justify inaction.

Good servant leaders don’t sit in the corner waiting to be called on. Good servant leaders are proactive. They see the cracks that need filling and empower the team to fill them. They build self-managing teams, and “build” is a word of action, not inaction. They are always moving, always watching, always asking questions, always coaching, always supporting, always unblocking, before anyone asks them to do any of that.

Leaders who sit around wait for someone to ask for something are not servant leaders. They’re bad leaders.

A recovering bad leader

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