Does Servant Leadership have an Image Problem?

Not long ago, I interviewed a best-selling author whose book advocates servant leadership ideals but never uses the term “servant leadership.” I asked if the author was familiar with servant leadership.

“Yes, I think so, but I’m not sure how you define servant leadership. If you mean that leaders must always sacrifice themselves for those they lead, then I’m not a big fan.”

Caricatures of Servant LeadershipIf you define servant leadership that way, then I’m not a big fan of it either. To always sacrifice your self for others is not service – it’s martyrdom.

Upon reflection, I realized that my author friend was not a big fan of servant leadership because he held a caricature of it in his mind.

Many caricatures of servant leadership result from its blending of two seemingly contradictory elements – “servant” and “leader” – into one powerful philosophy.

Let’s explore three of the most frequent caricatures of servant leadership:

1. Servant leadership is soft. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have put it best when he admonished that, “We must always be tough-minded and tender-hearted.” That’s a great characterization of servant leadership – hard and soft at the same time.

Servant leadership blends both competence and consciousness. It requires tough, hard-edged, strategic actions on one hand; on the other hand, the servant-leader always considers how those actions affect the people involved. Oh, and if you are not totally persuaded, just ask softie organizations that practice servant leadership – like the US Navy SEALs, for example – just what they think.

2. Servant leadership is faith-based. Servant leadership is certainly consistent with all the great religions of the world, but no religion would rightly make an exclusive claim to it. Servant leadership requires that we submit ourselves in service to something bigger than ourselves – a cause, a community, our company, for example – and all the stakeholders thereof.

Servant leadership is powered by what philosopher’s call transcendence and that does make it seem religious. But at the end of the day, servant leadership is as appropriate in the corporate boardroom as it is in any particular place of worship. 

3. Servant leadership promotes subservience. This last caricature can be the harshest, especially for groups that historically have suffered oppression. No doubt, the word “servant” is loaded with negative connotations and many people are turned off by it. But at the same time, many other people are drawn to the paradoxical aspect of the servant-leader as a person in some position of power choosing to use that power for the benefit of others. That’s a radical notion and one that is certainly transformative.

Servant-leaders are the most powerful leaders precisely because they share – and thus multiply, power. Servant-leaders are the ones with the most devoted followers, the greatest influence and the ones most likely to bring sustainable transformation.

What other caricatures of servant leadership create barriers for people? How do you help people in your spheres of influence embrace an accurate understanding of servant leadership? Please share your comments below.