Three Myths About Servant Leadership

I’ve posted about servant leadership many times, so clearly it’s something that I believe in and want other leaders to believe in as well. But I think the challenge for some leaders is that they just cannot overcome the biases or mis-perceptions they have regarding what it means to be a servant leader. And as a result, they have a hard time embracing this approach to leading.

There are various ways to define servant leadership, but the definition I use is this: “Intentionally placing the needs of others and the success of the organization before your own.” Most leaders would probably agree that this sounds good and they should aspire to lead this way. However, knowing it in your head and putting it into practice are two different things.

So I want to take a moment to dispel three myths that might be holding you back from fully embracing servant leadership. Here they are:

Myth #1: Servant leaders are weak. Lowering yourself and taking on the attitude of a servant can make you seem very feeble in the eyes of some people. Why? Because our society has conditioned us to think that we have to look out for our own needs first and foremost, sometimes at any cost.
Reality: Servant leadership actually requires a great deal of strength to put the needs of others before your own. It is not easy though. If it were, everyone would do it. As C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” To be a servant leader means being humble, and it takes great strength and confidence to display humility. In his business classic Good to Great, Jim Collins described the concept of Level 5 Leadership (very similar to servant leadership), and all of the leaders he examined possessed a high level of personal humility. These leaders of great companies were anything but weak.

Myth #2: Servant leadership is not effective. Again, the naysayers hear servant leadership and think it is something that sounds good on paper but doesn’t work in practice. The hard-charging, demanding, Type-A leader has a hard time seeing how this approach can lead to tangible results.
Reality: If you ever had doubts about the effectiveness of servant leadership, don’t. Need proof? Read Dare to Serve by Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeye’s. In her book she explains how a company-wide approach to servant leadership produced superior, sustained results throughout the entire company. Need more examples? Look at the success of other great servant-minded companies such as Chick-fil-A, Southwest Airlines, and Zappos, to name a few. The results speak for themselves.

Myth #3: Servant leadership is not relevant today. The world has changed so much in recent decades that perhaps such a seemingly simple approach to leading is not relevant and sophisticated enough for today’s work environment.
Reality: We have never been more in need of servant leaders than we are today. Whether it be in our corporations, governments, schools, communities, churches, or our homes, our world is starving for leaders who will have the audacity to place the needs of the people they lead first and foremost, instead of just looking out for their own self-interests. Servant leadership is absolutely relevant today, and it is desperately needed because of its power to transform and inspire people.

I hope addressing these myths has helped you better understand the effectiveness and importance of servant leadership. And I further hope that you will embrace servant leadership and adopt it as a model for how you will lead others. You won’t regret it.

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