29 January 2023 |

The problem with Servant Leadership


As I have grown my career as a leader, I’ve generally adhered to the philosophy of Servant Leadership. This approach to leadership focuses on selfless service and empowering others by leading from a position of humility.

If you are a servant leader, you are developing your people, celebrating the success of others, listening deeply, leading with empathy, and putting the needs of the team before your own.

While I’ve found Servant Leadership to be personally and professionally rewarding, there are some drawbacks to this approach. Let’s look at two criticisms of this philosophy you should be aware of:

1) Servant leaders often struggle to find balance

To be an effective leader, you need to be able to set boundaries. Schedule and block out time that is entirely focused on YOU. Don’t let self-care become optional.

There will always be another problem to solve or another meeting to attend. Canceling time set aside for you is a slippery slope. Remember, you will be better for your team when you are first taking care of yourself.

  • Make time for that walk
  • Get to bed early when you can
  • Put away your phone while you are with your kids

You are a big deal, so be sure you treat yourself like it.

But I also know this is easier said than done. When you care about your team, you want them to know you are there for them, and sending people to voicemail when there is a real emergency will make them feel unsupported and like their boss doesn’t have their back.

Here are two things you can do to prevent this:

1. Proactively communicate your time away.

Let your team know what your plan is. For example, if you are going to be unresponsive from 7 am-8 am every day because you are going on a walk and enjoying a cup of coffee, let them know that you need that time to prepare for the day. They’ll understand and appreciate proactive communication.

2. Give support and give feedback

The time will come when even though you communicate your expectations, you still get calls while you are at dinner with your family or on your morning walk.

My recommendation is to answer the call when you are able to. Assume their best intentions and that there is actually an urgent matter that may require your attention. (Especially for first-time offenders.)

After providing the support or guidance needed, remind your team you trust them to make decisions independently. These moments are a perfect time to provide feedback and encourage small changes that will help develop leadership on your team.

2) Servant Leaders struggle to make decisions

Making decisions can be difficult when using the servant leadership approach. As a servant leader, you are focusing on the needs of the team as a whole. This can mean having to weigh the pros and cons of a decision from multiple points of view, making sure it’s the best decision for all involved.

There will be times when this is exactly what needs to happen, but other times you will need to have the courage to make a decision based on the information available. On top of that, you’ll need to have the courage to stick to your decision and not back down, even when faced with opposition from team members.

Be confident to speak about why you made the decision. Providing context can help your team understand your goals and the obstacles you were looking to avoid.

If you lack the confidence to make hard decisions, you will lose your team.

When you make decisions that don’t turn out the way you hoped, be flexible, adjust, and communicate the lessons you learned along the way. (Growth Mindset is a big deal.)

Your homework for this week:

Look at your self-care plan and boundaries. Do you consistently make time for yourself? If not, what is ONE small change you can make this week to make self-care a bigger priority?