Leading as a Servant: Exploring Your Fear

Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to a group about Servant Leadership, someone almost always comes up to me afterward and says something like this:

“The idea of servant leadership is very appealing to me. It just feels like the right thing for me to do. But I work for a boss, and for an organization as a whole, that’s very much about command and control. I’m afraid that if I start to practice servant leadership, I’ll be seen as a weak leader. I could get side tracked when it comes to promotion. I could even lose my job. I’m not sure what to do.”

Wow. That’s a tough situation for anyone to be in.  You may be facing a similar challenge yourself.

Let me say first that there’s absolutely nothing weak or soft about servant leadership. Does anybody really think that Herb Kelleher—a dedicated servant leader—built Southwest Airlines into an industry leader by being weak? Did the servant leaders who’ve built organizations like Starbucks and Toro and Marriott and Zappos do it by being soft or weak? I don’t think so.

Yes, servant leadership is about caring for the people in your organization—caring about their opinions, their well-being, and their growth. But that means not only giving them opportunities to grow, it means helping them grow by raising the bar, having high expectations for their performance, and holding them accountable for meeting those expectations. Nothing soft about any of that.

There’s no question, however, that if you work in a command and control environment, and you start behaving like a servant leader—being more collaborative, giving your people more room to take initiative, even more room to make mistakes—there will be an initial transition period. The people you lead will wonder, “What’s going on? Is she serious about this? How should I react?” They may be slow to trust that you really want them to take more responsibility. They may test your commitment in ways that are not always easy for you to handle. But trust me, if you stick with the program, eventually your people will get on board and the results will be dramatic.

But what about the other leaders in your organization—including your boss? One real possibility is they may not even notice that you’re doing anything different. In other words, your fears in this regard may be based on assumptions that just aren’t valid. These “manufactured fears” can seem very real, even if they never actually materialize. (I know, because I’ve had my share of manufactured fears in my own professional and personal life.)

It’s also possible that your boss will notice the change in your leadership style and will initially see it as a sign of weakness. In other words, your fears in this regard may in fact be quite valid. But what will happen when your servant leadership makes your group more productive? What happens when your group really turns it up a notch, when great people want to come work for you, when your group’s performance jumps to a new level? Will your boss still think you’re a weak leader?

Unfortunately, there’s no one answer to this critical question. If your boss cares first and foremost about results, he or she will not only support your servant leadership but may even start to follow your example. That’s how organizational change builds from within.

On the other hand, your boss may never get it. He or she may focus less on the positive results you’re producing as a servant leader and more on the fact that you’re not following his or her example of command and control. If that happens, your fears could be realized: you could get passed over for promotion, you could lose out on desirable projects or development opportunities, and yes, ultimately you could even lose your job.

But here’s the thing: if your organization is so committed to command and control leadership that it can’t tolerate a servant leader who delivers great results, do you really want to work there?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s never to tell people how they should feel! But for what it’s worth, I think it’s important for each of us to develop our own “true north,” our own individual sense of what we stand for and how we should behave. As leaders, that means developing our own “leadership identity.” If the organization in which we work won’t accept that leadership identity, it may be time for us to move on.

So—is there a risk in becoming a servant leader if you work in a command and control organization? Sure, there is. There’s always a risk in behaving differently, in standing out from the crowd. But being a leader always involves risk. How you handle risk is in fact what determines what kind of leader you are.

What it always comes down to is what kind of leader do you want to be? What kind of leader do you need to be in order to follow your true north?


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