After being in the workforce for many years and owning a business for more than 25 years, I find it dangerous to hastily follow trends such as servant leadership. Sadly, I find that many people jump on the bandwagon instead of actually doing their research.
Nowhere is this more widely seen than in women adopting the idea of servant leadership. I have seen first-hand how accepting and buying into this “phrase of the decade” has damaged and stunted the vertical growth of magnificent women who have grown in their roles and moved up the career ladder, only to be met by a brick wall.
The philosophy of “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
Since then, it has been successfully translated and used by John Maxwell and others who positioned the message successfully to groups of leaders who at that time were mainly composed of men. Translation: It was written for a group of people (men) who at that time were not perceived to be committed to the people side of the business.
I am not necessarily opposed to many of the aspects of servant leadership and believe it has its place in your life. I am, however, opposed to the blind adoption of it, especially among women who have already mastered this in their personal and professional lives.
Why Is This Term Dangerous For Women?
All these years later women are still struggling with the issues of worth and value. As women we have seen the statistics about what we accept, what we don’t negotiate and what we willingly take on without recognition or compensation. Women, in general, are widely perceived as being collaborative, team-oriented and focused on helping others to succeed. Although this is not bad in itself, we can easily be perceived as weak in our strategies.
In addition, when faced with the choice of “serving” and playing the secondary role or stepping forward in a commanding manner, the term servant leadership gives us permission to step back, remain quiet and subsequently get passed over.
While there may be many that would be well served to check their egos at the door, think about how people perceive us (and how we perceive our role) when we describe ourselves as servant leaders.
Some of Our Internal Conversations are:
- The group’s needs and interests are more important than mine. In order to maintain positive relations and ensure I don’t’ cause more problems, I need to walk away from what’s important to me and defer to them. This will maintain the peace and I will be perceived as a team player.
- I‘m not worthy of being followed so I must prove my worth to others by serving them.
What We Outwardly Tell the World:
- We are absolutely fine with betraying ourselves, our principles and what is important to us as long as you are happy, we are happy.
- We will focus on the people and you can focus on the business.
- We aren’t comfortable living in our own decision making capabilities so we will look to others for validation.
- We are fearful of taking a tough stance, or making a decisive, unpopular leadership decision.
- When push comes to shove ‘the people’ are more important than the business so that is where we will advocate.
- We are perfectly comfortable in a lower level leadership role, guiding a small team, but not yet ready to lead cross-functionally or at the strategic levels.
- You are a good hire, within your subject matter expertise, but not a high potential for upward succession planning.
Rather than feeling the need to use a descriptor to your leadership style that focuses solely on the people side of the business, why not reframe the term ‘leadership’? By doing so, you begin a process of utilizing words that include both the people and the strategy sides of the business. We use and teach the following principles and characteristics of leadership according to Executive Command, Inc. as shown below:
- Successfully Influences Others to Accomplish the Mission.
- Projects Certainty in Ideas, Competence in Actions, and Confidence in Words and Deeds.
- Is “Intellectually Honest” and Projects a Moral Courage Focused on Supporting Growth, as Opposed to Doing What is Popular and Not Necessarily Beneficial to an Organization.
- Employs Leadership Types and Styles Appropriate to the Situation.
Our definition is all-inclusive. It bridges gender, race, creed, color, sexual orientation and religious affiliation. It states there is someone in charge, not to dictate, but to inspire and build success on the strengths of the organization and its people.
Joy often sneaks through doors we didn’t know we’d left open. Perhaps today you may be opening your Leadership Door to all areas within your organization.