I don’t love the term “Servant Leadership.”
And I don’t even love all of concepts of the style.
But it has grown great popularity, and here is why it works well.
Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy and style that emphasizes the leader’s role as a servant to their team, focusing on the well-being and development of their followers. It works well in various ways due to its people-centered approach and its emphasis on collaboration, empowerment, and ethical behavior.
For funzies, let’s use the lens of Servant Leadership and apply it to one of my favorite movie/show plots; Zombies.
We will use Rick Grimes (the main character from the television series “The Walking Dead”) as an example of a servant leader. He exhibits qualities of a servant leader throughout the show’s various seasons, and while he may not embody all aspects perfectly, his actions and decisions often align with this leadership style.
Here are some ways in which Rick Grimes demonstrates servant leadership traits:
- Putting Others First: Rick consistently places the well-being and safety of his group members above his own needs. He takes on the responsibilities of leadership to ensure their survival and protect them from threats.
- Compassion and Care: He shows genuine concern for the physical and emotional welfare of his team. He makes decisions that take into account their feelings and needs.
- Selflessness: Rick often takes personal risks for the greater good of the group. He is willing to put himself in harm’s way to protect his team members.
- Leading by Example: Rick doesn’t hesitate to take on difficult tasks that he expects of others. His willingness to engage in the same challenges he asks his team to face creates a sense of unity and shared purpose.
- Conflict Resolution: Rick seeks peaceful solutions to conflicts whenever possible, and prioritizes negotiation and finding common ground over aggression.
- Adaptability: Throughout the series, Rick demonstrates flexibility and adaptability in response to changing circumstances. He adjusts his leadership approach to meet the needs of the group.
From these examples, Rick Grimes is the epitome of a servant leader.
And while he exhibits many servant leadership qualities, there are moments in the series where his level of selflessness is on the verge of sacrifice. And that is when it doesn’t work.
This brings back some of the reason why I don’t like the term “Servant Leadership.” Too much service or sacrifice to others is actually not good. It’s a problem. And this is the area in which the concept could use a “level up” – here’s where it could be better.
As examples, these are some instances where Rick’s behavior might be seen as crossing that line:
- Excessive Personal Sacrifice: Rick sometimes places himself in unnecessarily perilous situations, endangering his life for the sake of his group. While selflessness is a servant leadership trait, overly sacrificial behavior can undermine his ability to lead effectively.
- Taking on too Much: In earlier seasons, Rick tends to take on too much responsibility himself (in an attempt to protect others), preventing others from stepping up and growing into leadership roles. This can hinder the overall development of the group.
- Failure to Set Boundaries: Rick’s desire to protect his group leads him to make decisions that don’t consider the long-term consequences or the limits of available resources. This could result in unsustainable strategies and potential harm to the group down the line.
- Underestimating the Impact on Others: His decisions often have far-reaching consequences that affect everyone in the group. While he makes these choices with good intentions, he might not always fully grasp how they impact individual lives.
- Ignoring Individual Needs: There are instances where Rick’s focus on the collective survival of the group cause him to overlook the individual needs and desires of his team members. This could lead to resentment and neglect from others.
- Burnout and Stress: Rick’s constant burden of leadership and decision-making can take a toll on his mental and emotional well-being. By not prioritizing self-care and seeking support, he risks burnout, which could ultimately harm his ability to lead effectively. He does not put on his oxygen mask before helping others.
Now, I know that this has been a bit theoretical, but I am hoping you have followed along with me in how this carries over to using the Servant Leadership style within your organization. And despite it’s popularity and support, it is a controversial style.
While servant leadership is generally well-regarded for its emphasis on employee well-being, there are some aspects of this leadership style that can be viewed as controversial or challenging.
- Perceived Passivity
- Potential for Exploitation
- Conflict Resolution Challenges
- Balance between Individual and Collective Needs
- Risk of Ineffectiveness
- Cultural Variability
- Long-Term Viability
- Potential for Exploitative Leaders
- Leadership Transition Challenges
- Undermining Hierarchies
It’s important to recognize that controversies around servant leadership stem from differences in perspectives, organizational contexts, and individual values. And as these controversies exist, it highlights the need for nuanced discussions about leadership and the diverse ways in which leadership styles can be effective or challenging in various situations.
I’m leaning into a level of curiosity about how we can dive into something that is so supported among work cultures (Servant Leadership), and challenge it to become even better.
I look forward to digging in a bit more in the next article!