The Major Flaw of Servant Leadership

It was 2020. 

The world was shutting down, and I was helping leaders transition out of the office. The would now be working from home and leading remote teams. Everything at this time was uncertain. Decisions made on Monday were undone by Wednesday, and this made it difficult to lead effectively. 

In times like these your team is looking to you for answers, but you don’t have them. You want to assure them that everything is okay, but you don’t know what is going to happen.

I was an advocate of servant leadership. I would consistently remind leaders how important it was for them to put their teams first and be there to lead with empathy. I felt like it was the most important message for me to deliver at that time.

Fast forward a few months, and I started to see a trend. 

These leaders appeared reliable, productive, attentive, and understanding on the outside. But as I listened to their struggles, I realized they were actually feeling anxious, burnt out, lonely, and unable to set boundaries. I started seeing a therapist myself as a way to help me navigate my own mental health–and I still do, best decision I ever made. 

Seeing so many people close to me struggling was hard.

Reflecting back on this time, I realized there are components of servant leadership, the message I was rallying behind, that are flawed or at least misunderstood.

By feeling like they had to put the needs of their team above their own, these managers stopped being leaders and started becoming people pleasers. 

How did I not see this coming?Are you a Servant Leader or a People Pleaser?

Feeling like leadership means prioritizing the needs of others above your own is a slippery slope.

As a recovering people pleaser, I can relate. 

Let’s work through this together.

Signs of people-pleasing:

  • Find it hard to say no to requests
  • Regularly take on extra work, even if they do not have the time
  • Often overcommit to plans, responsibilities, or projects
  • Avoid advocating for their own needs, such as by saying they are fine when they are not

The hard truth of doing business during a difficult time is that you still have to hold people accountable for following through on their commitments. When you don’t, things start falling apart and everyone suffers because of it.

A person with people pleasing tendencies may also feel:

  • pressure to be friendly, nice, or cheerful at all times
  • anxious about creating unease or standing up for themselves
  • stressed due to the commitments they have taken on
  • frustrated that they never seem to have time for themselves
  • that their own wants or needs do not matter in comparison to others
  • that people take advantage of them

It might feel good to take time away from the things important to you and be there for others. But it’s like money in the bank. If you keep scanning Apple Pay without making a deposit in your bank, you are going to be broke. 

Eventually, you might even start becoming resentful of the people you are leading. (This is a dangerous place to be!)

If you are a people pleaser, remember this:

  • You deserve boundaries
  • Your emotions have value
  • Empathy and accountability can exist in the same place
  • Your needs are important because they are important to you

People pleasing isn’t leadership. In order to be an effective leader, you have to be willing to balance prioritizing your own needs and have direct conversations when they are needed.

Remember: You matter!So is servant leadership all bad?

Back to 2020…

At the time, I didn’t make the connection between servant leadership and the lack of boundaries I was seeing. 

These leaders were constantly putting their people first, but their inability to set boundaries was preventing them from taking care of themselves and from being successful in their roles.

The major characteristics of servant leadership are extremely valuable to focus on:

  • Developing people
  • Collaboration
  • Empowerment
  • Responsible morality
  • Humility
  • Authenticity

Great leaders still embody all of these characteristics. 

The flaw of servant leadership is the visual of the leader being below their people.

Here is a better perspective: 

You are equal

Everyone on your team plays an important role in the success of the whole. The only difference is as a leader, you have different responsibilities.  Your team matters, so listen. You matter, so set boundaries.

Jacob Espinoza is a leadership coach in Salem, Oregon. For more information visit JacobEspinoza.com.

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