As more leaders and managers embrace the ideals of servant leadership, the organizations they lead develop cultures of service with high levels of trust and engagement. The concept—that leaders serve employees and customers, and not the other way around—has grown into a global leadership movement and shows no signs of slowing down. When people feel as though their interests, passions, and development are just as important as their leaders and the success of the organization, they develop the confidence to do great things knowing they have a supportive and understanding boss in their corner.
Yet, despite its potential to drive positive change in the workplace, many organizations still struggle to implement the fundamental practices that enable servant leaders to flourish. Why? There are major gaps in the knowledge and understanding of servant leadership, as well as the characteristics that define success. As Cheryl Bachelder, author of Dare to Serve, points out, “proponents of servant leadership present well the tenets of caring, respecting, and being concerned for others — the loving acts required in servant leadership. But we shy from and even avoid the tougher topics of excellence, performance, and accountability.” Servant leadership as a leadership style isn’t always sunshine and roses, and avoiding conversations about servant leadership without acknowledging the myths and challenges that surround it can easily skew one's perception of what it means to serve others and ultimately influence their propensity to adopt this model.
In this blog, we’ve identified three common myths and misunderstandings that get in the way of growing servant leaders. Debunking these misconceptions will help your organization confidently grow servant leaders who inspire and develop outstanding employees.
Myth 1: Servant leaders are pushovers
If a servant leader constantly bases their leadership style and practice on others, which might mean resolving competing interests, how does anything ever get done? Worse yet, should an aspiring servant leader be worried their team might take advantage of what could be perceived as wishy-washy leadership? This fundamental misunderstanding of what servant leadership actually is in practice elides the core premise of the framework—this is a leadership style that thinks holistically about what service truly means, and it has been widely embraced by a diverse range of people for decades. Servant leaders still lead, but they do so from a position of humility and understanding rather than one of unfettered authority and fear.
In the best-selling compilation of essays by servant leaders around the world, Servant Leadership in Action: How You Can Achieve Great Relationships and Results, contributor Raj Sisodia defines the qualities of servant leadership and conscious leadership with a perfect acronym: SELFLESS. The acronym stands for:
- Long-term orientation
- Emotional intelligence
- Systems intelligence
- Spiritual intelligence
Sisodia also writes, “The servant leader is a whole person, not a fragmented being.” As a whole person, a servant leader isn’t weak, but uniquely strong because he or she has made the effort to understand and prioritize the employee. The skills of the SELFLESS framework enhance the servant leader’s ability to forecast potential blind spots in team dynamics, build trust among confrontational personality types, and boost innovation by empowering teams to bring their most creative selves to the workplace. Placing others’ needs first doesn’t make servant leaders pushovers, but rather earns them respect that employees thrive upon. When trust and respect are built mutually and both the leader and employees are working to meet each other’s needs, a symbiotic and open relationship can blossom. This dynamic encourages a healthy workplace, rather than a place where people are engaged in toxic behaviors that put their own needs above everyone else’s.
Myth 2: Servant leaders overlook past mistakes
Let’s get one thing straight: Servant leadership is not about blindly trusting people. The pervasive myth that servant leaders have tunnel vision when it comes to understanding and supporting their employees to the extent that they overlook poor performance and past mistakes goes against what lies at the heart of this leadership style. Servant leaders motivate with love, trust, and respect, and tell others what they need to hear to grow, even when they can’t admit it themselves. Although servant leadership does focus more on the present and the future than the past, it shouldn’t give employees a free pass when they fail to meet expectations.
Ken Blanchard, best-selling author, co-editor of Servant Leadership in Action, and a longtime champion of servant leadership, offers the practice of “redirect, not reprimand” as a highly effective strategy for leaders as they deal with and learn from an employee’s mistakes. Redirecting guides employees toward productive engagement with their missteps, unlike taking disciplinary measures, which de-incentivizes growth and drives a wedge between manager and employee. Blanchard writes, “… while reprimands may have worked years ago in a command-and-control management environment, they aren’t appropriate today. Why? Because in today’s workplace, leadership is more of a side-by-side process.”
Redirection focuses on performance and respect, not on failure and admonition. Servant leaders don’t overlook the past and ignore the present; they uniquely incorporate them into future understanding and results.
Myth 3: Servant leaders don’t challenge employees to grow
On par with the previous two myths, the myth that servant leaders are more worried about what their employees think of them suggests that servant leaders don’t want to say or do anything that might challenge an employee to grow into their potential. You may have heard some iteration of this fallacy before—servant leaders don’t challenge or inspire employees to take chances or to develop because that could rock the boat. Although such a manager may be content to let employees who are happy in their current roles and responsibilities carve out their own paths, that doesn’t mean they are against growth, development, and advancement. In fact, it’s the total opposite; servant leaders are perfect allies for ambitious employees who have their sights set on the horizon.
With such a hyper focus on employees, managers are intimately familiar with the goals and dreams of the people they oversee and make it a priority to keep those conversations open with those they serve. This knowledge produces tailored, deeply personalized leadership toward each employee—from someone who is happy to clock into their 9 to 5 and not bring their work home with them to someone with high potential who is showing signs of a budding CEO. A servant leader may nudge workers who are ready for the next step to take risks—perhaps even providing opportunities for development—and will support the worker no matter the outcome. Servant leaders don’t fail to challenge; they keep conversations open about career development, aspirations, and passions, and work to create opportunities that align with each employee’s values and strengths.
Lead by Humility; Be Humble to Serve
As we’ve written about before, servant leadership is one of the most effective leadership styles that puts people first, and those who identify as servant leaders have demonstrated just how successful they can be when the people they serve are able to realize and maximize their full potential. The myths we’ve described here are simply obstacles that can pull any aspiring servant leader off course. Beginning with a sense of humility and acknowledging that there is much to learn and misconceptions we all have to unlearn is a promising first step for growing servant leaders.
In Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, author Edgar Schein writes, “How does one produce a climate in which people will speak up, bring up information that is safety related, and even correct superiors or those of higher status when they are about to make a mistake? The answer runs counter to some important aspects of U.S. culture—we must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.” Servant leaders take this idea to heart, knowing that if they’re doing all the talking, there is no way to engage in any serving.