The Cost of Servant Leadership

“There is great joy in leading with authority, which is serving others by meeting their legitimate needs.”

- James C. Hunter, The Servant

For a large part of my management career I have been a strong believer, practitioner, and proponent of Servant Leadership. Servant Leadership is pretty much self explanatory. In a nutshell, a servant leader leads by serving those for whom he is responsible for – employees and customers. In last month’s post we talked about what I call “the Steve Jobs Effect.” Servant Leadership, depending on your point of view, could be called the opposite of “The Steve Jobs Effect.”

However, recently I’ve encountered a darker side to Servant Leadership…

As a servant leader, I believe it is my responsibility to ensure that fairness, standards, and openness are at the center of what I, as a manager, do. I believe it is my job to try and bring out the best in people. To remove the road blocks that staff members might encounter in performing their jobs or specific tasks, or empowering them with tools so that they can overcome those road blocks themselves. To me, Servant Leadership means that, fundamentally, I believe in people. It means that I have faith that people want to do a good job and respond better to encouragement, and a fair process, than threats, shouting, and summary dismissals.

But what happens when certain employees don’t, despite your best efforts, respond to this process? What happens when employees actually consider the process, and therefore you, fundamentally flawed? What happens when trust, fairness, and even faith, turn out to be misplaced?

The answer, of course, is simple – nothing.

While individual failures are disappointing, and extremely disheartening, they are part of the process and they are the cost of servant leadership. Nobody is perfect – including servant leaders – and not everyone will necessarily understand what you are trying to do, or why. However, if you have surrounded yourself with people who you have treated with respect, fairness, and who tried to make a success in both their lives and their jobs they themselves will be the ones to remind you – verbally or by their actions – of a simple fact:

Doing the right thing, whether it is ultimately right or wrong, is never a bad thing.

Certainly we should learn from our mistakes, but individual failures in a sea of success should not make you give up or consider the odd failure anything other than an unfortunate side-effect of the process. To all those disheartened, discouraged, and disappointed, servant leaders out there please don’t loose the faith. If servant leadership was easy, it wouldn’t be special, they wouldn’t call it leadership,  it wouldn’t cost anything, and it wouldn’t have value.


For those who wish to know more about Servant Leadership I strongly recommend James C. Hunter’s The Servant.

If you have any leadership crisis of faith stories or issues please feel free to comment below.

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