May 16, 2016 | Leadership

A few weeks ago, I was meeting with a CEO who is an avid student of servant leadership.  This was the fourth in a series of sessions in which I was helping him write a speech about the benefits of being a servant leader.  Here’s a paraphrased version of the conversation:

CEO:  I nearly cancelled our meeting this morning because I was not prepared.

ME:  Why do you think you were not prepared?  

CEO:  The firm is growing fast, and I have so many people to serve.  I’m exhausted.

MEAh, yes.  The servant leader’s dilemma.  “How can I effectively use my leadership position to serve others without burning myself out?” 

The concept of servant leadership was originated by Robert Greenleaf nearly 50 years ago.  Greenleaf was an iconoclast who argued that leaders should use their positions of power to help their teams succeed rather than for self-interest and personal glory.  It’s a powerful concept that has been put to the test by many organizations, large and small, such as Southwest Airlines and Federal Express.

Servant leadership has a strong appeal for leaders with a bias for being good stewards of humanity.  Yet, many who start down the servant leadership path quickly run afoul when applying it to their teams.  Consider these two areas identified by Dr. Tony Baron, author of The Art of Servant Leadership, that can result in the servant leader’s dilemma:

The doormat.  

Leaders who are attracted to servant leadership are also often repelled by the traditional command-and-control, top down, leadership style.  They’ve seen traditional leaders who demoralize and dispirit their team, and create a culture of fear.

However, servant leaders can swing the pendulum in the opposite direction.  They emphasize the character traits they want to display and to see in their management team. Traits like integrity, humility, respect, and compassion are rewarded.

While these traits are honorable and can serve a leader well, teams need leaders who can effectively balance character with performance. In The Servant Leader author James Autry notes, “Servant leadership is not about being nice or being loved, nor is it about never having to do the gut-wrenching stuff like firing people.  It is the combining of personal characteristics with self-discipline and the unwavering commitment to creating a workplace of efficacy and productivity.”

Nobody wants to follow a doormat.  You can care about people and have an intense bias for action at the same time.  After all, you’re not really serving others if you’re not helping them make and keep their performance commitments.

The empty vessel.

Executives who aspire to be servant leaders care deeply about helping others grow. But, like the CEO described in the opening conversation, they often misapply the concept and exhaust themselves in the process. If you spend all of your time giving to others, you’ll find yourself at a place where you have nothing left to give.

Those attracted to servant leadership want to be generous to others.  But, as Dr. Tony Baron suggests, “you cannot be generous by emptying your cup but by sharing what is overflowing in your life”.

Leaders who spend too much of their time meeting others’ needs first run the risk of serving themselves into exhaustion.

Do you feel that your team is taking advantage of your good nature?  Are you exhausting yourself in the service of others?  If so, it may be time to ask yourself if you’ve ever misapplied the principles of servant leadership.

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