Somewhere along the way, we got confused about what servant leadership is and what it is not. Here’s how to know.

Servant Leadership as a professional approach was coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970 and is still recognized as a desirable leadership style. The focus is on serving first, sharing power, and developing others. It sounds good, but somewhere along the way, the concept of what it means to serve others as a leader has gotten lost.

Several years ago, I was teaching a workshop focused on servant leadership and a participant offered the following observation, “It seems like I just need to be a nice person to be a leader.” I wanted to crawl out of my skin. She was missing the point. “Nice” and servant leadership aren’t the same thing at all.

But this is a misconception that is easy to believe. It’s part of where we have gotten confused about this seemingly simple concept. What is Servant Leadership, really? Let’s start with what it’s not.

Servant Leadership is NOT being nice.
Those who see servant leadership as “being nice” live as people pleasers whose main objective is to make others happy and avoid conflict. The servant leader, while often kind, is more than nice. He is intentional and strategic. He desires to add value and help others without pretense but is intrinsically motivated by the greater good and the bigger picture. The servant leader works tirelessly to advance initiatives, meet common goals, and strive for continuous improvement. He does not shy away from conflict because he knows, if done well, it will lead to a better outcome. The servant leader is grounded in the way behind the work

Servant leadership is NOT losing so others can win.
Some think that servant leadership means giving up what I need or want in order to let you have what you need or want. Not true. The win-lose approach is much too simplistic for the servant leader. She is interested in a win-win solution. This means starting by defining the issue and common goal. Then, the servant leader engages in dialogue, asks tough questions, and looks beyond individual desires and emotions. Her work is difficult, but only because it doesn’t come with easy answers. She strives for creative and collaborative thinking to find a win for all.

Servant leadership is NOT submissive.
A servant leader does not simply submit to say, “Whatever you want, I’ll do.” The servant leader will take control and make decisions as needed but does so with intention. Keeping the big picture in mind, the servant leader knows how he and his team can best add value. He knows the strengths and expertise for himself as well as those around him. That means he knows when to step in and when to involve others. In the eyes of the servant leader, no one person (himself included) is more important than another. It is expected that each person will contribute his or her own best work when needed. No single person makes the decisions and no single person simply follows any and all direction. Dialogue is more valuable than submissive behavior.

Servant leadership is NOT always saying yes.
Servant leaders say no, but they have learned how to use that word appropriately, with grace, strategy, and intention. They know that saying no is often as important as saying yes and see both as viable options. Sometimes we must say no in order to stay the path that will maximize results, even when that “no” isn’t what others want to hear. Again, the servant leader keeps the bigger picture and the greater goal in mind and uses it as the compelling reason for the no or the yes.

Servant leadership is NOT letting the customer run the show.
It is true that sometimes the customer is right. But sometimes the customer comes to the leader because she doesn’t have the answer, doesn’t know how to solve the problem, and doesn’t know the process. She needs direction and guidance. The customer will never understand a company’s products or processes as well as the staff who work in that company. The servant leader acts as the guide, the educator, and the facilitator. He listens to learn and understand the customer’s story and then provides clear next steps. If there are options, he describes the pros and cons of each so the customer can make an informed decision. This is how he places more importance on the customer than himself. He helps from a place of empathy, but guides from a place of expertise, intention, and strategic thought.

Servant leadership is not always nice, but it is kind. It is not a competition, but it is about the win for all. It is not about submissiveness, but it is about guidance. Servant leadership dives below the surface to discover what is really going on and aims to meet common goals, work together, and gain forward momentum. It is so much more than being nice.

Author: Jess Almlie
July 30, 2018