Service Is Not Servant Leadership 

Dr. Richard Blackaby told the story of a minister to college students who proudly explained he was teaching his students lessons on servant leadership. The minister related how he had taken his protégés to a downtown location where they had served soup to the homeless. Blackaby commented, “This man, while sincere, was misguided. Service is not identical to servant leadership.” He quoted James MacGregor Burns who said, “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.” Then Blackaby continued, “I would add that within the field of leadership studies, few philosophies are cited more often, or more incorrectly, than servant leadership.” (Servant Leadership in Action, p. 167)

Some, like the minister in the story, erroneously believe that Service + Leadership = Servant Leadership. That misconception has led some to conclude that a servant leader is just a leader who is willing to serve. Others believe a servant leader is a leader who is subservient to the led. Yes, servant leaders serve, but that service is more about elevating the led than being a servant or subservient.

Characteristics of a Servant Leader 

To clarify, here are three characteristics of a servant leader that transcend subservience:

Servant Leaders are Demanding – Servant leaders care more for others than some think they should, do more for others than some think is fair, see more in others than they see in themselves, demand more of others than they believe is possible, and then relentlessly devote themselves to helping those they lead become all they were meant to be. Servant leadership is more succession planning than soup kitchens.

Servant Leaders Get Results – All leaders must get results. Subservient leaders are more concerned with regard than results. Servant leaders get results and earn regard through relationships with those they lead. Ron Mittelstaedt, CEO of Waste Connections, said, “We ultimately believe that relationships equal results. Leaders spend so much time worrying about results…but they spend so little time worrying about those who are going to drive those results. They believe they drive it. We believe that they don’t drive it; the people drive it. So our belief is that if you spend your energy taking care of the people that drive the results—by establishing a relationship—the results are an outcome. They happen.”

Servant Leaders are Wisely Unyielding – Servant leaders wisely yield to those they lead on matters of method and material but are absolutely unyielding on values. To a servant leader, the organizations’ core values are not just a poster on the wall or a list on the company “About Us” web-page; they are deeply held beliefs that govern action. When an employee compromises the values, the servant leader serves best when she is quick to reprimand or terminate the employee. When servant leaders are wisely unyielding on values, they establish consistency, character, and credibility and serve those they lead as they cultivate the culture.

In summary, Service + Leadership ≠ Servant Leadership. Servant leaders serve to elevate others not to be subservient to them. Servant leaders elevate those they lead by demanding more of them than they believe is possible, ensuring they achieve desired results, and holding them accountable to the organizations’ values.

Learn More! To learn more about Servant Leadership, get Ken Blanchard’s new book, Servant Leadership in Action. It is a collection of essays of over 40 thought leaders on the power of servant leadership.

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