Servant Leadership Workplace-Enemies

Servant-Leaders Make Enemies

There is a line in our new ebook* that says, in the workplace context, servant-leaders “make tough decisions – including tough people decisions – disappoint people and even make enemies.”

Some readers wondered about that line. Servant-leaders make enemies?


That doesn’t seem to square with the picture we sometimes have of the servant-leader as a beloved and saintly figure.

But let’s consider three beloved and saintly figures usually acknowledged as servant-leader exemplars: Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Did they make enemies?

You bet they did.

In fact, their enemies persecuted them, threw them in jail – and in the cases of Gandhi and King, assassinated them.

Fortunately, things in the workplace are not quite so dramatic. But servant-leaders in the workplace can still make enemies.


At least three reasons.

First, servant-leaders lead people towards change. And many people don’t like change.

In his novel, Don Quixote, Cervantes tells of Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, passing through a village. As they move along, a pack of dogs begins to bark at them. Don Quixote says to Sancho:

“Let the dogs bark Sancho, it is a sign that we’re moving forward.”

When you lead people anywhere – when you move forward – dogs are bound to bark.

Second, improvement is by definition a criticism of the status quo. And many people don’t like criticism.

I bet you’ve seen this: A servant-leader in the workplace suggests an improvement to a system, process, technology – to anything; but the person initially responsible for that system, process or technology feels criticized, takes it personally and gets defensive.

It’s silly, I know, but I’ve seen it happen – making individual enemies by trying to make organizational improvement.

Third, and most seriously, it’s about authority and power.

In the workplace, servant-leaders derive power from the voluntary consent of those they lead. People follow servant-leaders not because they have to, but because they want to.

Which means, in some cases, a person with organizational authority can feel threatened by a servant-leader without it.

Which, in turn, is a recipe for enemy-making.

In my experience, people who hold power often guard it jealously. They fear disruption.** Sometimes they punish those who challenge their authority or seek a share of their power.

Remember Gandhi, King and Mandela . . . I bet you could add more names to that list.

So, I stand by the statement that servant-leaders make enemies.

What do you think? Do you agree? What am I missing here?

As always, we appreciate your views.




* Click here to download your copy of our new ebook: Servant Leadership in the Workplace: A Brief Introduction. It’s free!

** See what you think of this post: “Time for Some Disruptive Servant Leadership?”