How to Make Servant Leadership More Sustainable? Balance Self & Others

woman talks with colleague at work representing servant leadership and how to balance self and others

Many of us have likely come across the term servant leadership at some point in our careers. We may have been encouraged to lead by serving others, or to center the needs of our team before our own.

The servant leadership model has long been celebrated for helping leaders prioritize their people, and in turn, increase performance and profits for their organizations. There are critiques of the model, on the other hand, that suggest servant leadership can be interpreted and practiced in a way that advocates subverting self in favor of others.

Can we garner the benefits of servant leadership and do so in a sustainable way by encouraging leaders to take care of themselves first, in order to serve the team they lead more effectively?

What Is Servant Leadership?

The servant leadership theory, first popularized by Robert Greenleaf’s 1970 piece, “The Servant as Leader,” is often cited as a best practice for creating employee engagement and increasing productivity.

There are several elements to the model, which centers on what’s often described as “flipping the pyramid of leadership.” According to Greenleaf, “The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

The 4 primary tenets of servant leadership include:

  1. Sharing power;
  2. Putting the needs of others before your own;
  3. Helping others develop and perform highly; and
  4. Collaborating for the greater good.

This framework has many benefits, including helping to achieve direction, alignment, and commitment (DAC), our model for effective leadership:

  • “Collaborating for the greater good” means that everyone is working to achieve a common, shared direction — one that is understood and seen as helping the entire organization or community.
  • By listening closely and understanding employees’ roles, responsibilities, and goals, servant leaders increase alignment not only within their own teams, but across their organizations.
  • And by sharing power, servant leaders create a more interdependent culture that increases commitment to those shared goals.

Access Our Webinar!

Explore our webinar, Reimagining the Servant Leadership Model: Starting With Self, to learn new ways to approach the servant leadership model by leading with self-awareness and resilience.

Common Pitfalls Associated With Servant Leadership 

Servant leadership can fail both leader and team when the balance tips too far in one direction and leaders completely ignore themselves in favor of others. In most cases, the model breaks down when compassionate leaders have the very best of intentions — they want to care for their employees and serve their organizations and communities. But they forget that in order to accomplish that, they must know and care for themselves as well.

According to a systematic review of the research on servant leadership in The Leadership Quarterly, this imbalance may show up in different ways, including:

  • Leaders over-empathizing with their followers, resulting in their own burnout (burnout is especially common among nonprofit leaders);
  • Leaders overemphasizing the relationship aspects of work, resulting in lower task completion/productivity; and
  • Followers becoming overly dependent on leaders, and unable to make decisions and take action on their own.

In our work with clients around the globe, we’ve found that leaders often lean too far into putting the needs of others first, to the detriment of themselves. As their personal growth and wellbeing suffer, they find that the servant leadership style is less effective. When a leader’s own basic needs are not being met, it becomes increasingly challenging to support their team members.

infographic with 3 steps to reimagine servant leadership by starting with self

3 Steps to Reimagine Servant Leadership

Serving Others Better by Starting With Self

While it may seem like a paradox, the key to successful servant leadership in service of others is actually to start with self.

That’s why we help our program participants understand that there are 3 elements to positive servant leadership that are essential to achieving the original goals of the model: self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-care. By starting with a focus on yourself, you will be able to better serve your colleagues, teams, and organization as a fully realized servant leader.

1. Self-Reflection: Examine Your Values.

Servant leaders help their teams identify their values, learn from experience about themselves, uncover needs, and set goals. Do you do the same for yourself? While servant leaders are committed to helping their teams grow, you can’t forget to make time to for self-reflection to cultivate your own growth, too. It not only helps you as a leader, it sets an example for your team as well.

The first step is to look inward and examine your own values and experiences. Results from 360-degree assessments can be a useful tool here to better understand yourself, but you can also start by grabbing a journal and reflecting on a series of questions:

  • What experiences stand out in your mind as critical to who you are today?
  • How did those experiences shape your approach to others and your work?
  • What values did you learn and/or develop from those experiences?
  • What skills are you most proud of? What skills do you wish you had or could develop?
  • How do those skills reflect your values?

Getting to the true heart of how you became the leader you are today depends on understanding the values that underlie your approach. As organizational psychologist Adam Grant notes, “don’t ask why you’re the way you are — that often leads to rumination. Instead, ask what situations bring out the best and worst in you, and what you can do to improve.” By focusing on experiences and skills, you gain valuable insight without that potential spiral.

As you examine your values, it’s also an opportunity to ask yourself if they’ve been shaped by people with diverse experiences. If you notice that critical moments in your life have not been as inclusive as you’d like, seek out ways to expand your network. One quick way to do so is to take a look at your contacts on LinkedIn. Do they represent the diversity of people you work with, both as colleagues and clients? If not, make a conscious effort to change that by connecting and engaging with a more diverse network. This is one small step to begin taking action on DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion).

2. Self-Awareness: Know Your Impact.

Servant leadership requires a high level of self-awareness in order to be effective. You can’t put the needs of others first if you don’t fully understand and reflect on your own values and how they shape your interactions.

Our research shows that self-awareness is one of the 4 core leadership skills necessary for effective leadership. In today’s environment, when change is a constant and solutions are complex, cultivating self-awareness is an increasingly important practice.

One of the best ways to increase your self-awareness is to focus on how you impact others by soliciting feedback. Feedback from colleagues, teammates, and family can help you understand how your behaviors and intentions align, and help you identify potential blind spots.

The key to soliciting and responding to feedback is to stay curious. Being genuinely curious about how your actions affect others can move you from feeling closed and defensive to feeling open and willing to seek knowledge. Curiosity feeds self-awareness and invites people to help you in your development.

Self-awareness through feedback creates a more effective servant leadership model by helping leaders create an environment of give and take, instead of total dependency and power imbalance. Your curiosity helps you better understand how your leadership impacts others, both in terms of your relationship and their work.

3. Self-Care: Build Your Resilience.

Resiliency has always been an important part of how we accomplish and manage our work. Pre-pandemic, the focus was often on achieving “work-life balance.” But with the onset of pandemic stress and lines between work and life becoming increasingly blurred, the conversation around resiliency has shifted from aspirational to mission critical.

There’s no question that self-care, preventing burnout, and recovery from overworking are top of mind for many people and organizations. But the actual application of resilience practices remain a challenge for many.

In addition, the traditional servant leadership model can often bend leaders too far towards care for others instead of care for self — a balance that’s subtle, but vitally important.

At CCL, our resiliency research focuses on helping people avoid burnout by burning bright, instead. Here are a few tips for starting your own resiliency practice:

  • Maximize “Time Confetti” — Breaks and pauses to recharge don’t need to be huge chunks of time. Use the few minutes you have between activities — the short moments we refer to as “time confetti” — to do something enjoyable and energizing, such as taking a few deep breaths, going for a quick walk outside, dancing to your favorite song, or calling someone you love.
  • Recharge Your Battery — How many times a day do you check your phone to be sure it’s charged? How many times do you check your body for the same purpose? Each time you reach for your phone, take a moment to check in on your body as well and give yourself what you need.
  • Express Your Creative Side — Do something that energizes you and engages a totally different part of your brain. Whether it’s an adult coloring book, singing, or painting a canvas, giving your brain something new to enjoy allows you to tap into your creativity and reduce your overall stress.
  • Savor Joyful Moments — Savoring is defined as deliberately enhancing and prolonging your positive moods, experiences, and emotions, and is linked to increased wellbeing, happiness, life satisfaction, and decreased depression. What do you savor? A good book, a funny movie, a hike, visiting a friend? Stop, and remember to savor the moments of joy you experience.

Learn more about how to enhance resilient leadership.

As with all aspects of leadership, your ability to balance self-care and care for others will ebb and flow. Practicing servant leadership is the same. Instead of always putting the needs of others before your own, you must make time to put yourself first, too.

Make Servant Leadership More Sustainable by Balancing the Focus on Self & Others

The reimagined servant leadership model better balances the energy focused on self and others. It leans on the leader’s self-reflection and awareness to better understand their impact on others. And it values self-care as an essential component to success. These “self” aspects of our version of servant leadership are even more important in our increasingly complex world, where leaders are called on to make tough decisions and change is the only constant.

To prepare ourselves to bring our best to the current world of work, we must transition away from seeing servant leadership as only about others and invite our teams and colleagues to do the same. Doing so will create an opportunity for leaders of all levels to participate in creating a culture where we achieve together and take care of one another, while we also care for ourselves.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Try on a more sustainable approach to servant leadership, and help your team form habits that create conditions for peak performance with our resilience-building solutions, which will help you avoid burnout — and burn bright instead.

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January 6, 2023
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Brook Wingate
Brook serves as Director of Development & Alumni Relations for CCL and is a member of CCL’s Societal Advancement Leadership Team. Brook leads a team that is responsible for business development and philanthropy that increase CCL’s impact in the social sector. Brook brings 20+ years of nonprofit leadership experience to CCL, including work in independent schools, regional professional theater, United Way, and a statewide child welfare agency.
Michelle Schneider
Michelle Schneider is part of CCL’s Societal Advancement’s Insights & Impact Group where she serves as Evaluation Faculty, helping to design and deliver evaluation services to measure the impact of CCL’s work on nonprofit leaders, their organizations, and the communities they serve. She has led work in the nonprofit sector for 20 years in various capacities, including as executive director, board member, and external evaluator.

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