Serving versus Servant

You hear all the time that you should have a servant’s heart, you should focus on service, you should serve others, on and on. I don’t disagree; and while I think Situational Leadership is key starting with Servant Leadership and flexing and pivoting from there will be your best default in my opinion. Servant Leadership looks like going into each interaction considering the other person’s needs and finding a way to help them, build them up, create opportunities for them.

If I’ve lost you already because you’re “not a leader” please keep in mind that leadership is not confined to a role within the office. You are a Servant Leader at home when you intentionally choose a meal everyone will eat without complaint because you know your spouse has had a hard day. You’re a Servant Leader when you see someone nervously checking their watch in the check out line at the grocery store and you let them go ahead of you. You’re a Servant Leader to your children when you intentionally take time before bed to turn off screens, read with them, and listen to their day. You are putting their needs ahead of your own and finding a way to show up in support of them. Very likely you had a different meal planned, you also have places to be after the store, and you had things you wanted to do in that hour after dinner and before bedtime for the kids, but you set those things aside to be of service to another.

Winding down and practicing his reading skills before bed.
Also, when did independent reading become a Kindergarten activity?

Now, here is my slight hang up with Servant Leadership. A servant gives you everything you want and what we’re aiming for is something that you need. Wants and needs are two very different things. So let’s flip the script a little shall we? Before bed you child wants to watch YouTube and eat candy while jumping on your bed (or is this just my kids?). Giving in to that is not serving your kids well. That one is obvious right? Ok, moving on. That person in the grocery store isn’t just checking their watch but is ranting and raving about how long the lines are, how slow the cashier is, and how he has places to be! Again, giving in and letting him go ahead might be what he wants but what he needs is a lesson in patience so quietly ignoring him and allowing him to wait is probably the better option. Ok, still obvious. Maybe we wouldn’t handle it that way in practice but I think we can mostly agree that, with this person, this approach makes more sense than the first. For your spouse, they may enter the scene declaring they are going to quit their job after the day they’ve had. Instantly writing up their letter of resignation and scouring job sites for them is likely not the best way to serve them in that moment. You know they might want to quit right now but really they just need to blow off some steam and have your support.

For some reason when we get to our careers that clarity runs away. We forget that Servant Leadership is about service and not acting as a true servant catering to their wants and whims. We fail to set up appropriate boundaries for others (and for ourselves) that allow us to serve to the need. Let’s take another example, your co-worker comes to you and says, “I got here late and need to leave early can you cover for me?” Your immediate response is most likely “Sure” or “What do you need me to do?” Or maybe your boss shares that they’re seeing an attitude problem with some staff and asks you to help them in situation by reporting back on things you see and hear on the floor. You might shift in your seat a little but you’ll probably tell them that you’ll let them know anything you see if not diving into a full on report in the moment. If your team comes to you saying they are too busy and can’t keep up, for many leaders, the go to response is to jump into the trenches and help. I will tell you right now, this is a servant to want mindset rather than one of service to the need.

Completing work at night, over the weekend, or while on vacation can be another ‘perfect’ example of
being a servant to the want.
Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on

I can see some of your faces right now. If you’re thinking, No it’s not. Those people need help! Let’s think back to our earlier examples, in all of those we were able to see past the initial ask (or demand) and look for what the deeper need is. Why do we default to expecting that what they asked for was actually what they needed at work when we know so often everywhere else, that is not the case? Now, I’m not saying that it’s wrong to cover for a co-worker, share information with your boss, or work along side your team. I’m saying that there may be a better way to serve the need if we look beyond the initial want. Maybe the co-worker has a bad habit of working partial days and needs to be held accountable. Maybe your boss needs to spend more time with the team understanding what is causing the attitude shift. Maybe rather than putting a band-aid on by doing the work yourself, you need to put your effort into a staffing proposal to fix the problem. In our personal lives we apply our knowledge of the person and the situation to decide the best course. If we don’t know, we ask more questions or just wait and listen so that we can get to the need and serve them well. You are meant to lead in service to others in all places, not in all places except work. The next time you feel inclined to take the ask at face value, challenge yourself to take a beat. Think for a moment about if this is truly a need that you can serve at face value or if you need more information to get to the root of the problem and serve that instead.

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