When Servant Leadership Goes Awry


“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead…..The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?” ~Robert Greenleaf 

The concept of servant leadership can often seem the antithesis to many organizational cultures, where top-down, command and control are the norm. Even in organizations that are supportive of the concept, it can be a challenge. Especially now.

I’m noticing that in the wake of the Great Recession, many leaders may be taking the concept of service to others too far. As their organizations have become leaner, the work that is required to keep them afloat seems to have multiplied. They are faced with an enormous amount of work that must be accomplished with less money and fewer people available to do it.

Some of these servant leaders express reluctance to “impose” on others to help with the workload.  They are also not communicating their boundaries about what they can and cannot do.  Thus, they wear themselves out, exhibiting signs of exhaustion. Their physical and mental health begin to suffer.

If you see yourself in this dilemma, recognize that you doing everything yourself isn’t serving you or your organization. Consider the following:

You will serve others best by taking care of yourself first. Spend a few minutes with the wheel of life to see what areas of your life will help you to become more balanced. Set some goals and create an action plan to assure that you can become healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous. You’ll be less cranky and more effective. Your followers and your organization will thank you.

You will serve others best by helping them to grow and develop. I know you are reluctant to give someone on your staff “one more thing to do”. Yet someone might be grateful to have the chance to do something new as an opportunity to grow and develop. Talk to them now.  Coach them to find a way to prioritize or stop doing some of their less important “to do’s” if necessary, so they can focus on these growth opportunities.

You will serve others best by saying “no”. When you can begin to refuse to do the things that have lower impact for you and the organization, you are on your way to truly being a servant leader. By saying “no”, you free up your time for the things that are most important: creating an inspiring vision, coaching and developing others, being available to those who need your guidance. Be courageous; what are you willing to say “no” to?

Set an example for self-care and managing priorities. You will then be helping others to do the same. This is exactly what Robert Greenleaf intended.


I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

10 comments on “When Servant Leadership Goes Awry

  1. Hi Mary Jo,

    I truly enjoyed your blog – it is a breath of fresh air. It reminded me in many respects of the speech that airline attendants give on airplanes – please put on your own mask first before helping others. As an effective servant leader, I agree that you need to make sure you are healthy spiritually, emotionally and intellectually before you can truly lead and serve others.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Chrissann Ruehle
    President, Black Lab Management Consulting

  2. Chrissann, thanks for your kind words. I’ve actually used that airline analogy with clients to remind them of the importance of taking care of themselves. Please stop by again!

  3. Good post Mary Jo. Servant leadership can often be unsustainably draining on both the leader and the organization. Especially if the servant-leader is so concerned with the that he/she neglects the organization.

  4. Mary Jo,

    I think you have identified what is needed to ensure a balance between being of service and feeling like a slave and that is to be clear about the boundaries you set as well as your expectations of others.

    To me servant leadership means that the culture of your organization embraces not only designated leaders being of service to the workforce but the workforce being of service to each other to accomplish established goals.

    To your point, this culture is not easy to develop but as you suggest, one person knocking him/herself out for everyone else without necessary reciprocity is exhausting and can’t possibly be sustained over time.

    This is an excellent post and a great reminder that being of service is not about subservience as much as it is about contributing to the greater good.

  5. Gwyn, you have provided much insight here. I especially like “being of service is not about subservience as much as it is about contributing to the greater good”. I think you could write my posts for me, in a lot fewer words and with a lot more punch. Thank you!

  6. Thank you for clarifying what so many confuse:
    1. Servant Leadership does not mean doing it all yourself.
    2. Servant Leadership does not necessarily being “the nice guy”. As you highlight and I agree, being a servant leader means having to say no, push others to excel and therefore sometimes even be perceived as “the bad guy”.

    Great post – thank you for sharing.

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