When Servant Leadership Goes Awry

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead…..The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?” ~Robert Greenleaf 

The concept of servant leadership can often seem the antithesis to many organizational cultures, where top-down, command and control are the norm. Even in organizations that are supportive of the concept, it can be a challenge. Especially now.

I’m noticing that in the wake of the Great Recession, many leaders may be taking the concept of service to others too far. As their organizations have become leaner, the work that is required to keep them afloat seems to have multiplied. They are faced with an enormous amount of work that must be accomplished with less money and fewer people available to do it.

Some of these servant leaders express reluctance to “impose” on others to help with the workload.  They are also not communicating their boundaries about what they can and cannot do.  Thus, they wear themselves out, exhibiting signs of exhaustion. Their physical and mental health begin to suffer.

If you see yourself in this dilemma, recognize that you doing everything yourself isn’t serving you or your organization. Consider the following:

You will serve others best by taking care of yourself first. Spend a few minutes with the wheel of life to see what areas of your life will help you to become more balanced. Set some goals and create an action plan to assure that you can become healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous. You’ll be less cranky and more effective. Your followers and your organization will thank you.

You will serve others best by helping them to grow and develop. I know you are reluctant to give someone on your staff “one more thing to do”. Yet someone might be grateful to have the chance to do something new as an opportunity to grow and develop. Talk to them now.  Coach them to find a way to prioritize or stop doing some of their less important “to do’s” if necessary, so they can focus on these growth opportunities.

You will serve others best by saying “no”. When you can begin to refuse to do the things that have lower impact for you and the organization, you are on your way to truly being a servant leader. By saying “no”, you free up your time for the things that are most important: creating an inspiring vision, coaching and developing others, being available to those who need your guidance. Be courageous; what are you willing to say “no” to?

Set an example for self-care and managing priorities. You will then be helping others to do the same. This is exactly what Robert Greenleaf intended.


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Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.

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