The Trouble With Servant Leaders

“I’ve failed.” Mark’s voice shook as we met to discuss next steps for Lisa, his troubled employee. He’d tried everything to help Lisa succeed. She’d get better for a while, but then her old habits would surface. Lisa was impacting the team and results. It was time for her to find something new. “I can’t believe I couldn’t help her, I’m usually better than this.” Mark kept shaking his head. This servant leader was filled with compassion for Lisa, but had none left over for himself.

I know that feeling. Seeing such potential, investing everything you have to help, and then watching the backwards slide. The truth is humans are complex. Most of the time we can help a great deal, and sometimes what we have to give is just not enough. You bring in reinforcements, and they still struggle. When they fail you feel like you’ve failed. It’s hard to let it go.

Servant leaders have such compassion for others, that often they have little left for themselves. They forgive others when they struggle, but don’t offer themselves that same latitude. Servant leaders don’t want to let anyone down in their serving. They hold themselves to a higher standard, and feel depressed when they can’t be everything they hope to the people who need them.

Words I’ve heard from some of the best servant leaders I know, this week:

  • “My team’s working so hard, I’m doing everything I can to help them… I just feel so bad for them.”
  • “I know he’s got issues outside of work, but I should have made a bigger impact.”
  • “I’m so sorry, I couldn’t pick up your phone call, I was taking my son to school.”
  • I feel so guilty, I just haven’t had enough time for my kids this week.”
  • “I’m sorry to let you down (she hadn’t), I’ll do better next time”
  • “I just wish I could do more.”
  • “I’m so tired.”

My Wish for You

  • Give yourself the same compassion and understanding you give those you lead.
  • Know that sometimes people will take too much, you don’t need to serve takers
  • Know that tomorrow’s challenges bring more opportunities to serve.
  • Know others appreciate you more than they say.
  • Know that you’re more helpful than you think.
  • Know that others are wrestling too.
  •  Know you will fail, and that’s okay.
  • Know you can’t help everybody.
  • Know that your best is enough.
  • Know that you’re not perfect.
  • Know that life has seasons.
  • Know that it’s okay to rest.

* Photo by Larry Kohlenstein

Posted in Authenticity & Transparency, Employee Engagement & Energy and tagged , , , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Karin- I am stunned as you wrote ” The truth is humans are complex”. I am writing now a presentation, the title of which (till now) is “Businesses on the Complexity Fire”. Changes invite for more changes such as changes in leadership, in incentives and in motivation. The more the complexity is, the more we need trial and error approach and learning by doing. We earn as we learn.
    Surely, if somebody lacks something, soon he/she shall be unable to extend it to others. We need to sympathise with ourselves to extend the same to others. Is there a simple way to do that? Karin, your pyramid-like suggestions stand out as a real pyramid.

    • Ali, Your presentation sounds so important and exciting, please do share it here once it’s done. Thanks as always for your very rich and thoughtful sharing

    • Karin- I shall do. Your post is making me re-think. For example, you listed the following among others:
      Know that your best is enough.

      Know that you’re not perfect.

      Know that life has seasons.

      What if one is below his/her best? Or, forgetting that life has seasons. will the outcome be simple? In our complex words these may sound as easy steps, but the differences in outcome may show the Butterfly Effect in action. These are probing steps that warrant deep thinking.

    • Karin, I don’t think we can ever know what our “best” is. However, we can know if we’ve made progress and we can know if we are celebrating that progress versus criticizing ourselves for not having been perfect. If we focus on progress, rather than “best,” I think we’ll not only perform better, we would also be happier and more fulfilled.

      I’m not a big fan of the term “Servant Leadership.” Servants don’t have ultimate responsibility for decisions and outcomes–leaders do. Servants don’t get to set priorities and they don’t have the authority to say “No.” Leaders must do both. However, if something fails, of course, it’s the servants fault. So perhaps the servant leaders you portrayed were simply fulfilling their roles and accepting blame.

      I agree with the spirit and intent of the phrase “Servant Leadership,” but I think the term is woefully inadequate.

      Loved your post!

  2. Wow, Thank you. I’ve often told my team, sometimes we can do everything right and still lose. We cannot always control outcomes.

    I love the admonition to extend the same grace to myself as I do others. It’s very wise.
    For those of us in the Judeo Christian tradition, we have the wise words of the Torah (I’m sure they are duplicated in other faiths or ethical systems) Love your neighbor ‘as yourself.’ Loving yourself is a foundation.

  3. Great insights on servant leadership, Karin! Thank you.
    For struggling servant leaders one thing to be cautious of is not to think that you are the only leader to these people. Especially if you’re the manager for a group, that doesn’t mean that you’re “the” leader to these people. Help others to lead, and they may be able to assist a person of concern.
    Another thing to remember is that servant leadership is service first. That is the prime responsibility. And if the person you serve chooses to follow, then you can lead.
    A third item I will mention is that servant leadership is more than helping people. Helping them can actually be a disservice if we’re not careful. Servant leadership is about growing people. As Robert Greenleaf said, “The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

    • Daniel,
      So awesome to have you join the conversation. You raise three really important points here. It is so very important to spread the “responsibility” of leadership and support. You describe that eloquently. Thank you.

  4. I’d say, it’s not about you the leader, it’s about the constituent.

    It’s up to the individual to make the change. As the leader, you can’t take it personally.

    I receive compliments regarding my coaching skills. I appreciate them all. However, I tend to think I work with brilliant people. Clients who want to excel and do the work required to get better.

    I’ve delivered great coaching and some clients have done nothing with it. On the other hand, I’ve provided average coaching and the client has moved mountains.

    Hope this helps.

  5. We sure can beat ourselves up if we are not careful.

    Reading this reminded me of some layoffs I had to do a couple of years back. Talk about some sleepless nights, but looking back at things now, it was all part of a season and everyone managed through it in the end.

  6. Karin, Excellent! Encourage leaders to accept the gift of time away. Being refreshed will keep our serving mindset and leadership moving in the right direction. Just as we except others to accept what we give, we need to take the time to do the same. Great points. Thanks! Jon

  7. Hi Karin. These are wonderful thoughts that all leaders with a serving heart need to hear. Just a few days ago I tweeted that “leader’s cannot give what they do not have” and we have to take the time to fill up our own buckets so we have enough to pour out to others.

    Thanks for the reminder!



    I love the way the text makes a shape too 🙂

    I love the concept of servant leadership. The greatest leader of all came to serve, not to be served. But even Jesus WAS served. He rested. He allowed others to help him. Duh.

    Sometimes, and this is NOT ALWAYS TRUE, some people wear the servant leader label like they are some sort of a martyr. To be blunt…it’s sickening.

  9. I’d also like to add another common problem I have seen with some people who aspire to be Servant Leaders: They think Servant Leadership means fixing everyone’s problems.

    I once took over responsibility for several departments from a colleague who was retiring. I met with my new department managers individually to get to know them and their operations. During our initial private conversations, three different managers asked me, “Can I take a more active role?” They all used different words to describe what they wanted but essentially, they wanted to fix their own problems. They wanted to take responsibility. They wanted to learn and grow. They wanted to be accountable. I responded, “YES!” And together we established the expectation that managers were now responsible and accountable. I came to learn that my predecessor believed her role was to fix each manager’s problems. She rounded on each manager twice per day. In her roundings, she collected their issues and reported back on the ones that she had solved or was working on. She believed she was being a high-touch, hands-on manager. She believed she was helping. She described herself as a Servant Leader.

    She had a pure heart, but what was she really doing? She was dis-empowering her managers. She was stunting their growth. She was robbing them of the joy of leading. Most of the manageress were fully capable of leading their departments and fixing their own problems. A few required some coaching and one opted out of the new expectation by relinquishing his managerial role. She was also wasting the organization’s resources. It was quickly obvious we did not need to replace my colleague.

    I once heard someone say, “The first responsibility of a leader is to grow other leaders.” I believe that is true. I believe this is the true essence of being a Servant Leader. It grows people. It strengthens the organization. It creates a pipeline for succession.

    To grow others requires leaders to hand off responsibility to others so they have new experiences and learnings. The wonderful side benefit to this is it frees the leader to take on new more challenging experiences and grow themselves. It creates a virtuous cycle of leadership, strengthening and growth. It’s good for people. It’s good for the organization.

    • David, thanks so much for sharing your really powerful story. So glad to have you expanding our LGL conversation. I just ran into a similar situation recently… the leader had basically shut down folks up down and sideways, wanting to do it all himself… in order to “serve.” So limiting, and results were suffering as a result. Yeah…. that’s not serving any one or any cause. You nailed it in your example. Thank you. Hope to see you again with future insights.

  10. I’ve found the concept of care vs ‘overcare’ helpful in these situations.

    Care is nourishing, nurturing and feels good to give. Overcare can be smothering to those who receive it and the related anxiety you feel clouds your judgement.

    Poor judgement can lead to poor decisions thus making things worse, not better.

    You don’t need to be detached, you just need to remain aware of the emotions you invest in the situation. In doing so you will experience less negative emotion and more of the authentic you; the great leader you know you are, or aspire to be.

    Anxious = negative = clouded judgement

    Compassion = positive = clear thinking

    I always encourage those in these situations to pause and step back so they can see the big picture, gain some perspective, put things in context or, simply give themselves a break so they can regain the energy needed to keep fighting the good fight.

  11. Great post, Karin.

    The servant leader mentality, like all others, is loaded with both positive and negative. The healthiest servant leader doesn’t want to let anyone down in their serving. But I’ve found that servant leaders often have a need for others to look up to them so, in turn, they tend to nurture an emotional dependency. That’s is where their heart is fed: from being needed.

    Keeping that healthy balance can be a challenge for all servant leaders.

  12. When I left consulting and moved into HR one of my mentors that made a similar move gave me the following advice (At least this is how I remember it!)… People will take from you as much as you can give. Know this: The work will be there tomorrow. You need to decide for yourself – leave at 6, 7, or 10 each day but make it a choice not because someone else chooses for you. Only you know what you need to do to give your best to yourself and others too.

    Really beautiful, Karin!

  13. Karin, so many times when I come to this blog, you’re posting exactly what I need to hear, either for myself or for people I’m serving. Today, it was me who needed to be reminded that life has seasons and I am enough. Thank you.

    And I second your comments about Ali Anani’s presentation. I would be very grateful if he could share it here. Complexity plays a huge part in our approach with clients. I’m hungry for other’s thinking and perspective.

  14. Karin, what a great perspective on the superhuman efforts that must be given by a servant leader! At least one that doesn’t take it personally and become overwhelmed. Servant leaders have to lift their chin and lead in a manner that is consistent with their principles and desire. To answer your final question, “how do you encourage servant leaders to have the same compassion for themselves as they give to others?” I think one great way is to point them to this blog post! Successful sales attributes such as persistence and the ability to accept rejection and defeat go a long way. Taking care of oneself is the ultimate answer. A servant leader has to continually remind themselves that life doesn’t just throw obstacles in their own path, but in the paths of others.

    • Chuck, Such a powerful addition. Thank you for sharing. I love the parallel to sales. I led a sales organization… and I believe you are spot on. You’ve got my mind churning. Thank you.

  15. Great. This reminded me of the in-flight instructions we hear from the attendants that we must help ourselves FIRST before trying to help others in case of fire on the plane.

  16. I’ve been wrestling with commenting on this post for a couple of days. There are certainly a lot of comments already.

    Good servant leaders have proper balance. They don’t work in anyone’s best interest if they don’t make the team or organization successful. The best servant leaders serve the team or the organization. No individual team member or leader is more important than the success of the team. In fact, I believe the best servant leaders find ways to make sure that the best thing for the team members is the success of the team itself.

    Challenging post. Thanks for the discussion. Mike…

    • Mike, I know how passionate and committed you are to building servant leadership. I’m so glad you weighed in. Your comment adds such an interesting and important dynamic… it’s about the greater good. Keeping the big picture in mind is vital and liberating.

  17. Great thoughts and I totally agree. I think it’s important to remember if we first take care of our self’s then we will be able to better serve and help others. I’ve had times when I was serving and helping so much that I did not take care of my own needs, which in turn caused me to not be as much help to others as I could have been.

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