servant leadership workplace-negative example

Servant Leadership: Learning by Negative Example

Who taught you about servant leadership?

In response to that question, I usually hear names of parents, teachers and coaches. In the workplace, I hear names of great bosses. Sometimes I hear names of historical or religious figures.

That is, I hear names of positive examples: Role models and those who walk the servant leadership talk.

What I usually don’t hear?

Names of negative examples: Role anti-models (I just made up that term) and hypocrites who don’t practice what they preach.

But let’s not overlook those bad apples.


Because, in my experience, bad apples can be good teachers of servant leadership. You can learn a lot from negative example.

Take the three cardinal virtues of a servant-leader: humility, generosity and foresight.*

You can learn a lot about humility by observing the arrogant; you can learn a lot about generosity from observing the selfish; you can a lot learn about foresight by observing the short-sighted.

Moreover, experiencing the negative example teaches you what it feels like to suffer under poor leadership. That’s a unique learning experience.** It can have a profound and lasting effect.

Indeed, in my professional career, I’ve had my share of crappy bosses.  I’ve spent a lot of days at work being been treated like . . .  what’s the word I’m looking for . . .

. . . crap. Yeah, that’s it.

I can easily name those crappy bosses. And I can easily remember what they what they said, what they did, and – most powerfully – how they made me feel.

How do I know those negative examples were good teachers?

Because, sometimes when I start to make a mistake in the course of my own leadership, I catch myself, stop and say to myself:

“Self, watch out, you’re acting like [insert name of crappy boss here].”

In the perfect world, I suppose we would only have people providing positive examples of servant leadership.

But since it ain’t a perfect world, let’s make the most of the negative examples of servant leadership we encounter.

Let’s use those negative examples as teaching tools to aid us in our continuing servant leadership educations.***

What do you think? Can we learn about servant leadership from the negative example? What’s been your experience?

As always, we appreciate your views.



And don’t forget to download our latest ebook, Quotations for Servant-Leaders. It’s free!


* Check out this post: “3 Cardinal Virtues of a Servant-Leader”

** This reminds me of a favorites quote:

“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” – Mark Twain

From, “15 Great Quotes About Learning”

*** Here are a pair of posts on whether servant leadership can be taught. See what you think:

“Can Servant Leadership Be Taught?”

“Can Servant Leadership Be Taught? Wisdom from the Crowd”