Why Servant Leadership Can Sometimes Be Top Down

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No matter age, experience, title, or role, my goal is always to level the playing field. That’s why I often struggle with the notion of servant leadership. This phrase is for many a well-intended step forward. To me, it has always conjured an image of someone in authority benevolently bestowing service to direct reports below. Maybe that’s because I was introduced to this idea when I was a very little girl through my family’s faith tradition. This caused me much confusion and guilt. I see the same in others

“The goal of many leaders is to get people to think more highly of the leader. The goal of a great leader is to help people to think more highly of themselves.”

― J. Carla Nortcutt, Professor.

The idea of being servant to one another is a healthy and caring one but must be accompanied by a recognition of people as worthy and important in and of themselves first. Ideally, the process of healthy individuation (knowing one is worthy and deserves a healthy sense of belonging and significance) and social interest (recognizing and intending specific, loving consequences to others) should be developed in people simultaneously and in a compassionate, patient, and comprehensive way. Such is a primary objective of LifeWork Systems. That’s because many people were not provided this foundation in their homes, schools, or social encounters. Without realizing the needs of individual AND the collective, servant leadership can be another top down, even competitive dynamic.  

When servant leadership comes up in conversation on podcasts, radio interviews and with friends and colleagues, it is most often raised by successful, accomplished white men. This is not to say this is bad or that only white men embrace this shift to serve others. These men share with me their fulfillment in moving into a servant mindset and I believe them as I enjoy the same.

What is often unrecognized is that each such man had significantly successful periods in their early lives where they were able to effectively individuate through validation and success in school, sports, business, love, and by being extraverted, popular, wealthy, and given recognition. One told me that until he was urged to grow past it, he did not realize he was a me-former rather than an in-former with others. He shifted to a servant leader mindset when someone more mature pulled him aside and challenged him to figure out how to care more about others than he had been. He now teaches the importance of listening to, validating, supporting, and caring about others and their success. He is a loving, caring servant leader. I cautioned him to remember that not all people have been provided the foundation and validation he had that fostered him into becoming such.

While servant leadership is likely a sincere and noble reversal and shift from self-centeredness to mutual respect for many, it often still feels top-down in orientation and in my experience with others, as though some age-old win/lose dynamic has now shifted to lose/win. To be fair, it’s likely a necessary bending of a social coat hanger; in other words, an attempt to evolve and fix an imbalance by reversing conditions disproportionately so a final result is fair for all. Still, I offer a key perspective. What if servant leadership is clarified as ALL people can and deserve to be developed in serving and ALL people can and deserve to be developed in leading. That means servant leaders must also encourage and allow others to serve them too. Only then is servant leadership equitable. By specifying servant leadership mutually, we all rise together, and we all win together; there is no top-down and no win-lose.

In the work of LifeWork Systems, everyone is nurtured to become a fully developed leader AND servant. To become a servant leader, each person must feel empowered, lovable, connected, and given chances to contribute. They must experience a healthy sense of belonging and significance. Each must spend time in a safe and encouraging community and get the right support needed to extend self-love into love for others. Even as this grows, most don’t often yet know the practical applications for such love until they are given the information, the tools, the support, and the experience to become good at it. While the ability to develop into a servant leader has been much easier for white men, it is well within the reach of every one of us. This article is not about genderism or racism as much as it is about recognizing the conditions needed for everyone that make it possible to become strong, caring leaders and servants. It is not about WE until it is about YOU AND I. Call me if you want this in your business or organization and your life!

This article is published in the column The Extraordinary Workplace in St. Louis Small Business Monthly, August 2022.

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Business owners and executives, community leaders, parents, educators and individuals hire LifeWork Systems because they know that effective conditions and conversations make all the difference in building trusting relationships, achieving dreams, and creating solutions and innovations for our evolving world. When people are happy and responsible, emotionally and socially intelligent, confident, and appropriately seen, heard, and supported, they always exceed expectations. We help instill into every person common concepts, terms, tools, and processes that result in healthy, happy, caring and contributing individuals, teams and organizations. Our mission is to create a world in which all people love their lives!

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