The Psychological Pitfalls of Servant Leadership

It had already been an exhausting morning when my boss walked in. A new employee needed to be trained. There were concerns about the production schedule. Orders hadn’t come through, ingredients were misplaced, an extremely impatient and entitled customer… and all of it needed my personal attention when I wasn’t getting my own production done.

When my boss came in and saw all the activity- busy, but not quite chaotic- she asked if there was anything she could do to help. “It’s great that your training the new girl today, but maybe just have her shadow you today instead of giving her tasks? That way you don’t have to be distracted all the time answering questions.”

I refused partly because she was asking good questions and learning well, but mostly because by handing off simpler, smaller tasks for her to learn on, I could focus on the tasks that needed a managers touch- like the lady that thought an incomplete order behind the counter was hers and tried to walk away with it.

It was busy that morning, and it felt like chaos, but it wasn’t. Everything got done, well and on time. What made it feel like chaos and created stress was answering questions that didn’t need answers and handling problems that had already been handled.
I’m a big believer in servant leadership, but there’s a serious difference between that and learned helplessness.

“Of His Fellows Greatest”

Servant leadership is a philosophy in which the role of “leader” in a group is not to order, demand, dominate or assert control of the team. Instead, they facilitate, organize, and support. The leader provides the goal, vision, training, and plan, then says “What can I do to help you make this all a reality?” That support usually takes the form of organization, logistics, guidance, discipline and coaching. I learned the philosophy when I was taking a Wood Badge training course in the Scouts. In short, the whole philosophy is summed up by the phrase “He who serves his fellows is of his fellows greatest.”

What supporting and serving your team doesn’t– or shouldn’t- look like is nannying and hand-holding. Quite the opposite, servant leadership (and leadership as a whole) involves good delegation so the leader is not so busy “supporting” their team by doing everyone else’s working and making all the decisions for them that they can’t get their own tasks done- the tasks that need to be done by a leader or administrator.

This is the part I’ve had the biggest problem with lately. The ability to delegate, set priorities and boundaries prevents servant leadership from devolving into people-pleasing. If you already have a history of anxiety and people pleasing though…

“You’re gonna have a bad time.”

My Problem With Guilt

“I win when the team wins.” “Never order someone to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself.” “Lead from the front- no one is too good to wash dishes and mop floors.”

All of that is great leadership advice, but just because you are willing and able to do anyone else’s tasks doesn’t mean it’s wise for you to do so. If you are in a leadership role and have the skills to back it up, your administrative skills are also a resource. If your time is being taken up doing tasks that anyone else can do, it means that resources- namely your time, your expertise, and your personal attention- are not being utilized well.

Just because I can (and am willing) to slam out pies and crusts with my assistant doesn’t mean my time is best served by doing that. Of course I have no problem pitching in to help when they are swamped or we’re on a deadline, but if there’s work that needs to be done that only I have the skills, authority, or knowledge to do, then I’m doing my team a disservice by letting them slip.

Unfortunately, the Anxiety-riddled brain has a tendency to interpret all of this leadership wisdom in the worst possible way-
It’s your responsibility! All of it! Don’t dump it on other people- you are the most skilled person, so YOU should be doing that job if you want it done right. You don’t want to put more work on your team- stop being selfish and lazy!”

Mix that toxic vibe with good leadership principles, and it’s a recipe for a very overworked, stressed out manager and a team wondering why you don’t trust them.

There’s a difference between “dumping” work on people and delegating to use your personal resources better. Your team knows it, and so should you. It’s not selfish to put your time a efforts in the best direction. Be present, be reachable, help when needed, and show support by serving your team in the ways that only you can. Pitching in when you have a minute is good, but letting your work go by the wayside to “help” makes people wonder why the chef spends all their time in the dish pit.

You don’t need to be doing this to yourself…

My Problem with Control

I wouldn’t say I have trust issues, but I definitely have control issues. One of my worst fears is others having to deal with the consequences of my failures. If failure is possible, than the only logical option is to makes sure I’m always the one responsible for dealing with it.

It’s the impulse that whispers that things won’t go right unless I handle them personally. It’s a combination of anxiety over outcomes and the unwillingness to “be a burden” on others- that I constantly need to “pull my own weight.” It tells me that delegation is lazy and irresponsible. It tells me that asking for help is weakness and inviting disaster.

Yep… and working yourself to exhaustion needlessly “builds character.” If I am doing any kind fo a good job as a trainer, my staff should be able to do at least a passable job at any task I feel the need to do for them. If you have enough faith in your abilities that you think you must handle everything, include the ability to communicate tasks with that. Learn to take your hands off the wheel a minute and trust your team to handle things that don’t need your attention, and set priority on the things that do.

Serving your team doesn’t mean doing everything for them. Instead, work hard to support them by doing the things only you can do. You can’t serve if you are exhausting yourself on minutiae- and no one takes instruction from a worn out doormat either.

Stay Classy,

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