Why Being a Servant Leader is Transformational: For the leader and those they lead

Why Being a Servant Leader is Transformational: For the leader and those they lead
By Shannon Lee (she/her)
Executive Director, Leadership Columbus

I am a fan of Servant Leadership, a superfan. And the reason for my passion for Servant Leadership is because it has transformed my entire life. I don’t think anyone can ‘just decide’ to be a Servant Leader and then be one. The reason is that Servant Leadership requires such a heart and mind shift on the part of the leader. We simply aren’t born this way.

Also, let’s get a shared understanding of what I mean when I say ‘Servant Leadership.’ Words matter, and the term Servant Leadership gets tossed around quite a bit. This leadership style is challenging to adopt widely because the term ‘Servant Leadership’ gets used to describe behaviors not genuinely associated with Servant Leadership at all. So, let’s examine first what I mean when I say ‘What is Servant Leadership?’ (There are many varied definitions of Servant Leadership. What I share below represents my experience with Servant Leadership. I don’t aim to deliver the only definition of the term.)

Servant Leadership is a style of leadership where the leader essentially changes the old hierarchy to bring the wants and needs of all stakeholders into harmony. The servant leader believes in their core; this is possible. This belief drives their need to create this harmony. The servant leader seeks the win-win in every situation, however, not through rose-tinted glasses, ignoring reality. Instead, the Servant leader faces reality and leverages it to bring everyone into harmony as much as possible. To create this new environment, the Servant Leader looks at old problems in new ways. These new mindsets require a transformation in thinking and feeling, resulting in behaviors occurring more organically. Finally, the Servant Leader believes the internal change that occurs by creating the new mindsets necessary to think this way is just as rewarding as the results of the leadership style itself. 

Changing the Paradigm

When I first started giving talks and delivering workshops about Servant Leadership, I noticed there was little to no cognitive dissonance around most of the ideas within the leadership style. Most of the high-level ideas in Servant Leadership are quite agreeable and desirable. And we like being associated with things that seem positive and ‘good for others’ so we cognitively agree when we hear a concept that sounds good. 

The problem with this reaction in my workshops is, the data did not support this reaction. The research that went into creating the content told me most managers and supervisors struggled to embody the behaviors of Servant Leadership even though they cognitively agreed with the concepts.

Why was and is this true? While I do not have all the answers, as behavior and values alignment is a nuanced issue, one shift in my workshop made all the difference in helping managers see the gap. By helping folx uncover their most honest reactions to Servant Leader behaviors, I was able to find their underlying belief systems. Our belief systems often drive our behaviors subconsciously. I would call these ‘Pushbacks’ in the workshop and we used a process often used in other modalities called Identify, Challenge, Change.  

In ‘Identify’, we identified the pushback to a concept then challenged the pushback with lots of questions to test the validity of the pushback. Finally, we considered some other truths (Change) that could also be true to expand our thinking on the topic.

Below, I’ve chosen some common ways Servant Leadership is transformative and then I’ve identified some common pushback I’ve heard in the past. The pushback may not be true for you, however, asking yourself what is your pushback, is valuable. Wait for the answer and see what comes up. Maybe there is none. Also maybe there is a wonderful discovery.

Finally, I’ve included some cultural considerations for each section because my experiences are just that: my experiences. And while my experiences are valid, we all need to be aware of how concepts such as these impact and/or need to take into account cultures that have experiences other than our own.

Work Is Generative, Not Punishment
The concept of work traditionally is “effort against resistance.” The very notion of that definition brings up negative visions of labor associated with stress, hardship, and maybe even oppression. Most certainly, work was and is still used to do those very things. No wonder going to work is referred to undesirably by many and viewed as a punishment. But what if work is redeemable? What if the very essence of work is life-giving and generative?

How could this be? When work ties to something bigger than we are, we feel inspired. The work takes on a larger purpose and becomes missional. You may argue that the person just starting in their career and/or at an entry level job could never feel missional about their work. My response to you is, ‘why not?’ Also, why are we viewing specific jobs as not worthy of mission?

Next question: Whose job is it to connect the day-to-day work to the mission and vision? The leader. The Servant Leader intuitively sees value in all work and can creatively combine the work to the mission, helping folx see value in their job by connecting it to something bigger. If you are having trouble doing this, it might be because you do not yet believe in the value and dignity of all work. Don’t worry. You can transform your thinking over time.

Common pushback: “Trying to reframe work as life-giving is counterproductive. People just need to work harder.” 

Reflective questions: From where did this narrative come? Who taught me this? Who benefits the most from this mindset? Is it true that people can’t produce and feel a life-giving presence in the process at the same time? Why not?

Alternate Perspective: I’m not suggesting we abandon rigor in our daily work. However, there seems to be an equivalency with hard work and success here. I am suggesting that this equivalency is not what engages folx, but rather, being inspired and tied to a mission. I’m sure there are people who are driven to that bottom line and that’s what inspires them. Servant Leaders are primarily inspired by bringing people together around a common purpose and that common purpose is not working harder for the sake of hard work.

Cultural Considerations: The notion that work is generative may be difficult for folx who do not have opportunities to work in environments that are generative and/or have access to support to help with their own personal growth in this area. From a leadership perspective, the idea that people just need to work harder to be successful (from the pushback) is a fallacy. It’s a fallacy because it is unfalsifiable. No matter how hard someone works, if they failed, anyone could just say, ‘Well, they didn’t work hard enough.’ How much work is needed exactly? This belief system could create inequity in the workplace and cause disparate treatment.


Disillusionment is Progression, Not Regression
Every time a staff member gets discouraged or disillusioned, I get excited. You may think this is strange but hear me out. As humans, we naturally believe when something feels wrong, it is terrible. So, when we are faced with a new goal, task, job, or role and hit a barrier, we assume we are not progressing, and our performance is poor. As a collective, we generally see challenge and discomfort as a negative thing. Furthermore, we expect that our progress is linear when learning something new.

The expectation of linear growth is unrealistic and has rarely been true over the span of our lives.

In early childhood development, we first learned to walk by standing and holding onto something. Then gradually, we let go of that something. At this point, we probably fell—a lot. Mistakes were made. We repeatedly tried to make our legs hold the weight of our big heads until eventually we figured out our legs could move forward, one step at a time. But even then, we didn’t just begin walking. We walked and fell, got up again and fell. Again, mistakes were made. Bruised knees, tears on cheeks, and hopefully, encouragement to get up and try again. Why? Because the adults around us knew the disillusionment we felt was just a part of the progression. There is no walking without falling. And you can apply this same framework just by learning anything new.

The Servant Leader knows how to view mistakes, “dropped balls,” and the like as development needs, not personality issues or inherent flaws. From their core, the Servant Leader knows disillusionment and regression are a vital part of the development process because these setbacks reveal the gaps between where someone is and where they need and want to be. They indicate the actual developmental need. What a gift!

Common pushback: “If I hire someone to do a job, they should do it. Why should I hold someone’s hand and fix their problems?” This process is not about doing the work for others. Instead, this is about understanding and meeting the developmental needs of team members. Part of the job of the leader is to develop their team. Develop. Development doesn’t stop when you find the new hire, development begins there. I also want to mention, it makes a lot of sense to feel initial frustration and annoyance when a team member fails to perform in a desired way. Please do not feel shame or guilt around those initial feelings. Instead, turn it into a time to reflect and consider what pushbacks you are having.

Reflection questions: Have I given my team the direction and support they need? Am I fully committed to developing others? What are my motivations for leadership? Have I created clear goals for my team, communicated those goals, and then provided development opportunities that support the competencies needed to achieve those same goals? What is my part in their development process?

Alternative Perspective: Keep in mind we all have varying core drivers in our personalities impacting the way we naturally interact with our teams. I am quite an independent person, so I implement some tools (a work in progress) to ensure I check in with my team collectively and individually on their development in both formal and informal ways. This feels unnatural for me. Because of my individualistic nature, it feels like I’m doing “too much” but to my team it’s what they need. Sometimes, we fail to give our folx what they need when they need it, not because we don’t want to, but because we are viewing their needs through our own lens.

Cultural Considerations: As we begin to grow as Servant Leaders and develop our teams in the ways I’ve briefly touched on above, it’s important that we develop teams in ways that are inclusive and equitable. One of the best ways you can do this is to ask every team member what their development goals are (not the same as performance goals) and what the organization can do to support their goals. Also, ensure team and office tasks are distributed equitably. Finally, evaluate who you seek input from and who has the most influence on the team. More importantly, who has the least and why. Get clear on those inequities and address them.


Let-downs Aren’t Disappointments but Opportunities
Have you ever had someone tell you how disappointed they are in you or something you’ve done? Once I began to study Servant Leadership thoroughly, I realized the need to let go of being disappointed in other people. I learned how manipulative it was to say this to someone because disappointment is my feeling. Of course, I am free to feel disappointment. But to project my disappointment onto another person is unfair and manipulative. Servant Leaders take responsibility for their feelings, explore them, and determine what they want to do about them. Servant Leaders don’t make others responsible for their feelings.

So, as I sat with this new realization, my subsequent discovery was what to do with my feelings of disappointment? What am I saying if I am disappointed in someone or something that happened? For me, this was usually something not going the way I wanted. And you know what? That’s life. I am not so sure about your life, but I have not had many things go as planned in my life. So, the upside-down disappointment now is this: What does this make possible?

And do you know why this is so powerful? It puts my focus back on what I can control: me. I cannot control that you let me down. I only have control over identifying my choices, so I need to consider those choices. Choices = opportunities. I may not like all the choices available to me, but it is very empowering to realize what those choices are, all of them. Even the choice to not act. Plus, I like the energy created by identifying choices versus the energy of “You disappointed me.” 

Considering what is possible moves things forward. This question causes my brain to create, and it’s hard to be disappointed in a creative state. Am I saying ignore disappointment and not process those emotions? Not at all. Like I said above: I am free to feel disappointment. However, I believe processing that disappointment in productive ways is also essential. And this is the way that has created the most peace and energy for me.

Common pushback: “It’s important to hold people accountable when they let you down. People shouldn’t be able to just get away with things.” There’s some nuance here that I love about this pushback, and it has to do with motivation. I believe in holding people accountable, but if my motivation for that accountability is that the other person change, my motivation is manipulation, not accountability. I have a secret desire for an outcome. Hear me out.

The word ‘accountable’ is about seeking a justification, reason, or explanation. It is not about seeking a change. When we say we want accountability, most mean we want things to be different, and we want the other person to change. You know what I’m going to say, right? You can’t change people. Ask yourself, do I seek to change in the other person, or do I just want to understand their rationale? If you wish to know why and you are truly curious, then you do seek accountability. If you want the person to change behavior because you say something, it is not the accountability you seek. Instead, decide if this is worth your time and ask what does this makes possible for me?

Another nuance to consider about accountability is speaking your truth, which I find incredibly valuable. Just consider your motivation for speaking your truth. What do you want the outcome to be? Sometimes I need my truth to be heard and I can speak it and let go of what happens. But other times, I will say I’m speaking my truth, but what I really want is for the other person to be hurt, I want to air a grievance, or discharge and project my anger. Those may not always be about just speaking my truth.

Reflection questions: What are my motivations for holding someone accountable? Am I seeking information, a reason or explanation? How am I feeling? Do I have something to prove? Do I envision a particular outcome? Will I be disappointed if I don’t get a particular outcome?

Alternative Perspective: As a supervisor, there are times I may feel disappointed and require that behavior change as well. But I do not use the manipulative tactic of projecting disappointment to get someone to change. Why is this not useful? I don’t want people to change because I’m disappointed in them. I want people to change because they see value in their developmental growth. Instead, I process my own emotions, and from a neutral state, I co-create a development plan for the direct report to help build competency in the area they are falling short. 

Cultural Considerations: Accountability has taken on a whole new meaning right now when it comes to racial equity and justice. You may have heard the terms ‘calling out’ and ‘calling in’ ) in reference to bringing accountability to people who have demonstrated damaging discriminatory behavior and speech. I believe that when a Black, Indigenous or person of Color takes their time to call someone out or in, it is important to listen and reflect. Our businesses and organizations, which are majority white-led, will benefit greatly from their experiences, wisdom, and education. Get clear on what accountability means to those you lead and how it should be integrated into your work environment. 


Conflict Doesn’t Have to Divide; It Can Bond
We all experience conflict in our lives and especially at work. There are those who tend to avoid conflict at all costs, and this avoidance creates more issues than it alleviates in the workplace. 

One of the reasons we avoid conflict is the perception that conflict is painful, and let’s face it, we prefer pleasure. I’ll be the first to admit I used to run from conflict. However, growing as a Servant Leader has helped me reimagine conflict to bonding with my team in ways I never thought possible. When we disagree, I now see this as a means of learning more about them, and they are learning more about me. Conflict allows us to work through complex issues and create common ground. 

Conflict doesn’t mean we all see exactly eye to eye, but it often means we have elevated respect. It almost always means we have a deeper understanding of one another’s perspective that was nonexistent before. These achievements on a team are hard to come by without conflict.

Please know I do not advocate staying in unsafe environments. When I refer to conflict, I refer to common workplace conflicts, like disagreements on projects, differing ideas on various topics, or timelines. I would not encourage anyone to enter a challenging conversation where they feel their emotional, psychological, or physical safety is at risk.

The more we know one another – even in conflicting ideas – the better off we are. The Servant Leader sees these experiences as exciting ways to grow the team and become better leaders at work and in the community.

Conscious Leadership uses several prompts to help teams use candor to own their thoughts and emotions in discussions, and I find their approach especially helpful in times of conflict. Two of the prompts are:

  • The thought I am having is __________.
  • The feeling I am having is __________.

These starter sentences get the individual thinking about their mental and emotional state in the moment of conflict and owning their thoughts and feelings. 

What does this accomplish? In conversations where conflict may arise, this approach helps the individual not project their thoughts and feelings on others, making the conflict worse. These statements allow others to respond in the same way and reveal that we all have thoughts and feelings in moments of conflict that are often not rooted in fact but speculation

Common pushback: “If I lean into conflict, I’m afraid I’ll say something I regret. I don’t want to offend or hurt anyone.” This pushback is so common. I’d guess most people consciously and subconsciously avoid conflict for this reason, all the time. However, I do not believe this is actually rooted in caring about other people’s feelings. This does not mean we do not care for others in general, however.

Reflection questions: Am I avoiding this conversation or situation to spare the other person’s feelings or to avoid my feelings of discomfort? Where did I learn that conflict avoidance was kind?

Alternate Perspective: If we are honest with ourselves, we do not want to feel the discomfort of the other person’s reaction. We do not want to feel the awkwardness of their response to our conflicting ideas. Our avoidance is all about self-preservation; it is a selfish act. The solution is to reframe conflict as an opportunity for growth, learn more about the other person, and be vulnerable to let others know us. In other words, enter a potentially conflict-ridden conversation with curiosity instead of fear and avoidance. 

Cultural Considerations: When it comes to conflict in the workplace, I believe it is usually a good practice to consider who is in conflict, why and are there patterns? If you find there are patterns around culture, race and/or ethnicity, be aware that bias plays a large role in how we interpret facial and other bodily cues from people. Are those two team members really having repeated conflicts about a project or is one person misconstruing the other person’s behavior as being aggressive because they have a hidden bias against a certain group of people? These are real, common issues affecting our ability to work on teams and the more aware we are, the more we can take action to dismantle the oppressive systems that perpetuate division.

If you are interested in diving deeper into Servant Leadership contact us about programming that can help you do just that!