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Servant Leadership: The Duty to Serve

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

In Robert Greenleaf’s seminal work The Servant as a Leader, he refers to “the enemy” not as those leading poorly, but as good leaders who aren’t leading. He also calls out people who choose to follow a non-servant.

“The enemy is strong natural servants who have the potential to lead but do not lead, or who choose to follow a non-servant.”

Guilty as charged! I am guilty of having done all these things! I have not led when I could have made a difference. I have followed non-servant leaders. I didn’t realize how energy can accumulate so easily in a positive or negative way. I vow to you, dear readers, from today forward, I will fulfill my duty to serve.

Servant Leaders who are not Leading.

The world is a tough place. Natural servant leaders may not be immediately recognized as leaders, or they may be discouraged and hold back. Or worse, they might give in to the pressure and lead by domination and manipulation because this is the behavior they see rewarded.

Co-Active Leadership defines a leader as ‘someone who wants to take responsibility for their world.” Leading doesn’t mean that you have to be in charge, it means that you are actively shaping your world. If you yearn to lead, and you’re not, work on removing whatever is blocking you.

Do you feel that you are not positioned to lead? Greenleaf suggests that we lead from wherever we are. I am reminded of the movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, he was always planning to write his masterpiece, and took a teaching job in the meantime. At the end (spoiler alert) he finds out that his he already had his masterpiece in all the lives he touched through his teaching.

Look outside yourself. Do you know someone who is a natural servant leader, but not fulfilling their potential? You can serve by helping that person. Let them know you see them as a servant leader. See what they say. Maybe that will be enough. Maybe you can do more.

Following a Non-Servant.

Again, the world is a tough place. Bad leaders abound, and if you want to keep your job and not be shamed in the PTO you better just do what the alpha-leader says and keep quiet. Maybe you can even curry favor with them and get on their good side. You’ve successfully navigated, you’ve learned to work well with others, you are managing up. Yay, you! But you have left the world with a bad leader, and you’ve signaled that it’s ok to follow a bad leader.

When you follow a non-servant you do a disservice to the leader as well as the people following. By going along you have signaled to the leader, “Yes, this is working. Keep doing that.” You also signal to other potential leaders that coercive leadership is effective, and they don’t have other options.

Following a non-servant leader also hurts the followers. When you follow someone, you increase the energy of their direction and signal to others that it’s ok to follow this person. Before you know it, there’s a movement behind something no one believes in.

Consider the Dancing Man Video, the first follower was a key ingredient for a good time dancing. What if he was the first follower of a deadly riot? The same dynamic is at play, momentum builds. Make sure you follow the good.

What happens when you have a boss that leads through domination and coercion? I’ve seen teams act like abused children, trying to stay out of the line of fire. What is this avoidance doing to your peers? What can you do to send a different signal?

That’s right if you follow a non-servant you too are complicit in creating a world of bad leaders.

How have you fulfilled your duty to serve? Let us know!

Cartoonist Comment: I can't believe I passed on the opportunity to use the word "DOOTY" in the toon. I'm slipping ...

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