Every now and then, I hear someone describe servant leadership as an “oxymoron.”
Which is a mistake.
Servant leadership is not an oxymoron.
An oxymoron is a combination of contradictory or incongruous words. “Open secret” and “cruel kindness” are examples. “Jumbo shrimp” is one of my favorites. In examples like these, the words are opposites.*
That’s why servant leadership is not an oxymoron. The opposite of “servant” is not “leader.” And the opposite of “leader” is not “servant.”
“Servant-master” or “follower-leader” – each would be an oxymoron, accurately speaking. But not “servant-leader.”
Robert K. Greenleaf, the man who coined the term “servant-leader,” never says servant leadership is an oxymoron.
Indeed, Greenleaf begins his 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader, by asking:
“Servant and leader. Can these two roles be fused in one real person, in all levels of status and calling?”
Greenleaf rightly recognizes that serving and leading are simply two distinct activities. There is nothing contradictory or incongruous about them.
Indeed, long before Greenleaf’s time, serving and leading were viewed as totally harmonious – even noble – things done together.
Can I give an example?
George Washington. Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and first President of the United States.
Washington is considered an exemplary servant-leader.
And do you know how he signed his letters?
“Your most humble servant, George Washington” **
Washington was a supremely powerful leader but aspired to be a humble servant. No one would have called him – or his signature – oxymoronic.
OK, why am I writing a whole blog about this? Is it because I’m overly fussy when it comes to English usage?
It’s because, as I promote servant leadership in the workplace, I try to stamp out any hint that serving and leading are antithetical.
In a great leader – a servant-leader – serving and leading are consistent, congruous and compatible!
That’s why I say servant leadership is not an oxymoron.
What do you think? Would you agree, servant leadership not an oxymoron?
As always, we appreciate your views.
And don’t forget to download our latest ebook, Servant Leadership in the Workplace: A Brief Introduction. It’s free!
* Here’s a famous collection of oxymora (the plural of oxymoron – something I learned while researching this post) from the mouth of Romeo and the pen of Shakespeare:
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first created!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this
Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 2.
** That’s Washington’s signature in the photo above. Another post on Washington: “Servant-Leaders Lift Trees”