, Why Servant Leadership Doesn’t Work

Why Servant Leadership Doesn’t Work

March 31st, 2018 Posted by Leadership Coaching, Leadership Tools

I was having a coffee with a colleague last week and, as it tends to do, the topic of conversation turned to leadership. In this case, it was servant leadership. My colleague expressed his view that servant leadership was great in theory but could never work in practice. “I mean,” he argued, “how can you be a servant to others but still make the decisions, and tell them what to do and the direction to take? There’s too much of a dichotomy to make it work.” I had to agree with him…to a point. There certainly is a dichotomy when it comes to servant leadership and, by itself, it doesn’t work. There has to be more to it than just literally serving others…and there is.

I went on to explain that being a servant leader is the goal. However, there are a whole range of other leadership skills that are needed to create an environment in which servant leadership can flourish. As well as setting up the environment, it must be maintained. Firstly, let’s talk about what servant leadership is.

Servant leadership is a philosophy that puts the team first. The role of the servant leader is to remove obstacles that the team might be facing, to help them solve problems, to provide support, and give feedback early and often. In servant leadership the team generally sets its own direction, determines how it’s going to work together, and determines the work it will do. This can be a bit of an issue for new leaders (it certainly was for me!) because if the team does all of this stuff, what does the leader do? Before we answer this question, let’s explore what needs to happen to create this environment.

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. ~ Mahatma Gandhi

The leader of a team is ultimately accountable for the team’s performance; therefore, getting the very best out of them is in her best interest. To do this, we need to create an environment in which the team can flourish. The first step is to completely forget about your role, and what needs to get done. We’re in this for the long-term. Unless there is a burning imperative, take a couple of weeks to get to know your team. Understand them; their strengths, their weaknesses, what they get up to in their spare time, the challenges they are facing in work…ultimately, who they are as a person. Share a little about yourself. Let them get to know you…be a little vulnerable. There’s no ego in servant leadership. I’m not talking about bursting into tears in front of them, but let them know that you’re human, and that you make mistakes. This is important because if you set the tone of infallibility, then they may be reluctant to own up to mistakes themselves.

Once you’ve developed a relationship and understand more about them, now’s the time to find out where they want to go with their careers. What are the skills they want to develop, the opportunities they’d like to be exposed to? Help them create a plan to get there. All of this one-on-one and team time is building trust with your team, which is vital to the servant leader environment. At this stage it’s useful to check in with your team, and discover what the real problems are. What’s preventing them from doing great work? What are their frustrations with the organisation, if there are any? Get it all out, and from this, facilitate solutions to these problems. This work is largely driven by the team. Facilitate in identifying a clear direction for the team. What will your promise to your customers be? And lastly, how will you all work together? What are the team values; what behaviours are acceptable, and what behaviours are not?

Once you’ve got a team that trusts you’ve got their best interests at heart, a clear direction and clarity about how you’ll work together, you’re almost there. Depending on the environment you work in, you may need to facilitate what needs to happen to achieve your goal (team strategy). In all of the exercises above, it’s best to be guided by the team…but there’s a caveat. Your role is to guide your team to make the best decisions. If what they’re talking about makes sense and you’re aligned, great! If not, then help them explore other options and guide them towards the right outcomes, both for themselves, and the business. The leader part of servant leadership is to ensure the team is heading in the right direction and making the right decisions. Remember, you are ultimately accountable for the team’s outputs, so they need to be the right ones.

Relationships are never about power, and one way to avoid the will to power is to choose to limit oneself—to serve. ~ Wm. Paul Young

So now you’ve got the environment set up, it’s time to kick into full servant leadership mode. Take a step back from the front, and let the team get on with what they do best. Continue to check in to make sure they have everything they need, follow through on your promises to them, and provide regular and consistent feedback. If you have a capable team then everything is likely to go well. If you find that one of your team is straying a little or not performing to expectations, it is important to hold them to account. Have those crucial conversations, always remember to listen and fully understand things from their side (remember, no matter how thinly you slice it, there’s always two sides to a story!)

As a leader, your job is to look up and out. Ensure everyone is tracking well and the team is heading in the right direction. Guide them in solving their own problems as much as possible, and be there to support them and help them when they are stuck. Of course, things rarely run as smoothly as I’ve outlined here, and that’s where the experience of the leader comes into play. However, that, in a nutshell, is servant leadership. It’s multi-skilled, requires quite a bit of maturity, and moves from the front to back, and to the front again.


If you’d like to know more about becoming a servant leader, or if you’d like to explore how coaching can help you become a better leader (of others or yourself!), or even if you’re just generally curious about what professional coaching can offer you, please contact us at any time for a free consultation.


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