We know that servant leadership brings real benefits to the workplace – meaning, prosperity and joy, principle among them.*
So, the practice of servant leadership is certainly a means to an end. People can and do practice servant leadership simply because it works.
Which leads to a question I get asked about the virtues of a servant-leader:
“Are servant-leaders altruistic?”
“It depends in how you define altruism.”
Altruism can be defined three different ways.
- Altruism defined generally: Unselfish concern for the welfare of others.
- Altruism defined by lack of reciprocity: Attitude of caring for others with no expectation of return.
- Altruism defined by disadvantage: Willingness to act in favor of others even if it brings detriment to the actor.
Are servant-leaders altruistic?
Applying each definition, here’s how I see it in the workplace context.
1. Altruism defined generally – Yes, servant-leaders are altruistic.
It seems safe to say that, generally speaking, servant leaders at work are altruistic. Servant leadership is grounded in a deep desire to serve others. Servant-leaders see the common good and serve it. Those two things make servant leadership different from other leadership approaches – and special.**
2. Altruism defined by lack of reciprocity – Usually yes, servant-leaders are altruistic, but not always.
Generosity is one of the cardinal virtues of servant-leader. And truly generous people give without expectation of return. But in the workplace, servant-leaders are smart givers, not doormats. They know when to give, when to hold back and when to strike a bargain.***
3. Altruism defined by disadvantage – Sometimes servant-leaders are altruistic, and sometimes they are not.
Servant-leaders in the workplace always place the organization’s interest above their own. And sometimes they do sacrifice their personal interests when they don’t have to – taking the blame when their team screws up, for example. But servant-leaders are strong enough – and wise enough – to stand up for themselves at the expense of others when necessary. Because, they know that few people will follow a leader who is weak and foolish. Or one with a martyr complex!
That’s how I see it.
How do you see it? In the workplace context, are servant leaders altruistic?
As always, we appreciate your views.
* More on the benefits servant leadership in the workplace: “Want More Meaning, Prosperity and Joy?” And don’t forget to download our latest ebook, Servant Leadership in the Workplace: A Brief Introduction. It’s free!
** “What Makes Servant Leadership Special?”
*** Two on generosity: “3 Cardinal Virtues of a Servant-Leader” and “Servant Leadership – Doormats Need Not Apply”