Servant Leadership is NOT What You Think

If you’re like most people, when you hear the term “servant leadership,” you probably think of someone who works tirelessly to serve people, always putting others before themselves. While that’s one aspect of servant leadership, it’s not the only one. By the end of this article, you will understand what servant leadership is NOT, what genuine challenges of servant leadership are and how to overcome them.

What is Servant Leadership?

The concept of Servant Leadership is based on the idea that leaders should serve others. This leads to strong ethics and engaged employees who are motivated by their desire to help people rather than for self-serving gains like more pay or better benefits packages.

Challenges of Servant Leadership

I’ve been reading and researching about servant leadership for over a decade. One thing I always noticed is that most of the material I read is always focusing on why servant leadership is great for organizations. It often lacked providing insights about the challenges and disadvantages of servant leadership. Addressing these will help you understand whether it’s the right style of leadership for you and your people.

1. It can be time-consuming

When I first experienced being in a supervisory role, I thought I could get people to follow my lead in a few weeks. Was I wrong… In any style of leadership, most notably in servant leadership, everything takes time. You need to observe your people, connect with them, and try to understand them. Why they come to work, who they are, and what motivates them?

2. It can affect motivation

This may sound strange, but servant leadership can negatively influence motivation. I’ve seen this during my hospitality career. There was a manager who was trying to serve others. Everyone felt great for a while because the leader made them feel like they matter. Giving a helping hand and providing guidance all seemed like the right thing to do.

After a while, the feeling has worn off because it became a routine. Some people, including myself, felt demotivated, as everything was seemingly okay. Why should we exert more effort when I know my manager will be there to step in if we fall behind on responsibilities?

3. It may seem like taking all responsibility

Yes, it does. After I transitioned from construction to hospitality industry, I became a facilities manager, taking care of all aspects of building and grounds maintenance. I had a small, 5-people team to do that. Anything that went wrong in the first 3 months, I took the responsibility for it. I believed it was the right thing to do.

Well, it was, but my team felt left out. If something went wrong, I would jump in and work through it myself. Over time, I started feeling burned out and disconnected from my people.

4. It’s difficult to achieve

Every time I think about the goals during my career, I was thinking about the end, the outcome. This is where it becomes a challenge for servant leadership, as it’s not the end goal. There’s no finish line. That can cause some confusion for people who are just starting their leadership journey. I was one of them. I often asked: how can I know if I became a servant leader?

5. It may seem confusing at times

While servant leadership is the ultimate style of leadership in my dictionary, for some people, it can cause confusion. In a fast-moving world that we live in today, being adaptable is a must. This principle applies to leadership styles, too.

Adaptable leaders often use a mix of styles, depending on the situation, and internal and external factors. Depending on the industry, this may be servant leadership combined with free-rein, or democratic style, with a touch of bureaucracy. For untrained observer or inexperienced team member, this can lead to even more misunderstanding.

6. It can reduce formal authority

By serving others, you are empowering them to decide. They know if they make that decision, you’ll be there to support them all the way. Sound great, doesn’t it? It does. It can also have a negative impact on the relations between the leader and team members. Why? Because team members will feel that they don’t need their leader anymore to decide and therefore change their perception of authority within the organization.

7. It requires a high level of authenticity

This is the toughest challenge in servant leadership. Authentic leaders need to stay true to themselves and their values and beliefs. Doing this consistently, without losing track of the outcomes, and serving your people at the same time can cause overwhelm, even to the most effective leaders.

True authenticity at a high level requires you to be adaptably authentic. This translates into an even more complex approach to servant leadership, which can be difficult to achieve.

How Can You Be an Effective Servant Leader?

Imagine having to overcome all these challenges and struggle with the disadvantages of servant leadership. Would you still be willing to invest time and effort to develop yourself as a servant leader? If the answer is yes, outstanding! If the answer is maybe or no, I’ve prepared several ways you can use to make it work for you or anyone else in your organization.

1. Be a selfless mentor

I can attribute a lot of my success in overcoming challenges in life and career to the guidance I received from my mentors. I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of mentoring until I tried being one. Your role as a servant leader is to serve your people. Mentoring is an amazing way to serve them, as you will be able to share everything you’ve learned in life. This will bring a tremendous amount of joy to everyone as your knowledge and experience will continue to live on and help others, who will then be able to serve more people.

2. Develop a culture of service within the organization

Being a servant leader is not about one person doing it. You, as the visionary of the organization, department, or a team, should serve as a spark that will ignite the culture of service on all levels. You might wonder how this is going to work. If everyone is serving everyone, who is doing the work? Everyone! This approach encourages collaboration through service.

3. Foster strong communication skills

Communication skill is the power skill of the 21st century. As a servant leader, your vision, direction, and goals need to be communicated to your people before you can start serving them. Doing so will enable them to make better decisions and be the best versions of themselves. Practice being concise when communicating and providing clarity so your people can move forward with ease.

4. Keep the organization’s goals in mind

While serving others, you still need to accomplish goals that contribute to your team’s or company’s vision. Even though you are prioritizing others, you are bringing them along on a journey. Each member of the team contributes throughout that journey, and you are there serving a dual purpose. Helping people succeed and providing a guiding light to others.

5. Don’t forget to practice empathy

Empathy plays a huge role in servant leadership. As you develop the ability to emotionally share other people’s experiences, you will build better relationships with your people. It will also help you understand them better, as the goal of empathy is to listen and understand. Along the way, people will feel cared for because you created a safe environment where people can be open with each other.

6. Help others develop holistically

Having goals and direction can be great for developing your people. That is only a part of the big picture. Developing them spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically will harmonize the organization and contribute further to creating a culture of service within it.

7. Practice self-awareness

Anytime I can, I mention the importance of self-awareness and the need for daily practice of it. You can’t be an effective servant leader if you are not aware of the actions you take and their intended or unintended outcomes. If you practice and develop self-awareness, you will also notice how those outcomes influence those around you. If your actions align with actions of your team, your service to them will be complete.

Does servant leadership really work?

Servant leadership is a timeless concept that is based on the idea of putting others first. By being a selfless mentor, creating a culture of service, and fostering strong communication skills, leaders can set the tone for an organization that serves others first. You must also remember to practice empathy and develop holistically to be an effective servant leader.

When it comes down to it, servant leadership matters because it creates positive change not only within the organization, but also in the world. You can start today by becoming adaptively authentic. If you want to learn how to develop your ability to be agile and adjust, check out the article below. In it, I shared 8 actionable steps you can take today and become an adaptively authentic leader.

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John Todorovic

John Todorovic

I help aspiring and existing leaders improve their skills through effective coaching.

As a restless knowledge seeker, I love acquiring new knowledge on a daily basis through various types of research techniques. All this aligns with my life's mission: sharing knowledge is a privilege and an obligation.

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