The Missing Ingredient in many Servant-Leadership Cultures

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

I like to joke that, if life is akin to singing a part in the larger symphony of the world, many, when warming up using the musical scales (do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do), never finish getting warmed up. 

The reason? They get stuck on one particular note: me.

Do…re…me…oh! I like the sound of that! Me. ME! 

Me-me-me…me-me-me-me…yup, I’m ready! Are there any other notes?

When you’re a watcher of people, it doesn’t take long to discover this one note playing out throughout the majority of lives around you. It is a byproduct of our freedom in the United States. If I choose to live my life in a way that displeases you, there is little you can do to stop me. Any attempt otherwise will likely cause blowback, because you are limiting my freedom. The multiplication of choices centered around self has seen a corresponding rise in narcissism and antisocial behavior.

But I’ll save that argument for another day. Let’s get back to “me”, and by that, I mean you.

When I sing the note of “you,” I am not singing about “me.” 

The same is true for “you”, if you sing in imitation of me. “You” stretches the chin muscles instead of the cheek muscles. Say it with me: “what can I do for youuuu?” Feel that chin stretch?

What does this have to do with servant-leadership? A servant spends a majority of their lives singing the note of “you”. A servant is not someone who sings the note of “me” in endless repetition because their livelihood depends on switching the note, from “me” to “you”. 

What is often missing in many servant-leadership cultures? Leaders who have not spent enough time singing the note of “you”. 

Too many people still singing the solitary note of “me”. 

The Way of the Servant

I often write about The Way on my other blog, an ancient term for the path travelled by a follower of Christ. The Way could just as easily be called “the way of the servant”. “The greatest among you shall be your servant” (Mt 23:11). In the gospel of Mark, Jesus adds, “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35). 

It takes a long time to learn how to serve the various multitudes found within this country. This education is not learned from being a leader first. Instead, the leader must step down from their lofty perch and drink in an ample amount of humility before they can say “What can I do for you?”

The training of a servant requires all of the skills described by Robert Greenleaf in his seminal essay, including listening and understanding, awareness, empathy, acceptance, commitment to growth and so on. Yet, this is only the beginning. It’s what the servant receives in return that matters. 

Better data. 

Whereas most leaders receive the kind of data corresponding to Hawthorne effects running wild, the servant breaks through walls and gets the scoop on what is really happening within their organization. They practice the kind of character traits facilitating trust, building better relationships in the process. When people feel safe, the truth comes pouring out, sometimes revealing entire systems of dysfunction. 

Everyone wants good servants in their organizational culture, but few are willing to become good servants. People who sing the solitary note of “me” need good servants for building their empires, but struggle to find or retain them for two reasons: they have no affinity with those they need most, and servants will only take so much abuse from a leader who sings off key.   

If you find it difficult to find or retain good servants, the problem may be the person you see in the mirror. Learn to change your tune. 

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