The Paradoxes of Servant Leadership Paradoxes of Servant Leadership

Leadership is rife with paradoxes, seemingly self-contradictory statements that may nonetheless be true. We see this in the servant leadership framework as well as other approaches.


The Servant-as-Leader Paradox

In his biography of Robert Greenleaf (originator of servant leadership), author Don Frick said:

“Servant and leader are two nouns which usually describe two quite different roles. The hyphen holds them together in paradox, creating a Zen-like koan which stops the reader as he or she considers how two such dissimilar words could go together. Greenleaf was fully aware of this effect and wanted the reader to complete the meaning. He wrote that he was comfortable with paradox in his own life, and even welcomed it.”

Greenleaf’s concept of servant leadership seems paradoxical. How can one be a servant and a leader at the same time?

It depends on what means by “servant” and “leader.” If “servant” means that one must be in service to a master, or boss, because one needs that work, then it involves being submissive and subservient. Such a connotation may be conjured when one first hears the phrase, “servant leader.”

The historical connotation of the word “leader” isn’t of a servile and submissive person but instead an individual who’s strong, in charge, visionary, decisive, and in control. Greenleaf takes the concept of a leader to a very different place.

If a person appreciates the intrinsic worth, talents, and nobility of other human beings, then one understands that a master/servant relationship is abhorrent. (Greenleaf, of course, is talking about voluntary service, not about the abominable history of masters and servants.)

Unleashing the potential of others not only liberates them to achieve and be more fulfilled; it also helps the group achieve far more than they could via a boss/follower or master/servant paradigm. Over time, people will generally only willingly follow someone who serves them. Otherwise, it’s just begrudging compliance.

Greenleaf’s concept of a “servant leader” challenged the traditional understanding of leadership. Not only was servant leadership morally right in how we interact with other human beings, but it was also more efficient and effective. His paradox worked. But it requires sloughing off traditional conceptions of the terms, “servant” and “leader.” The focus is clearly on voluntary and honorable service as the defining characteristic of servant leadership.

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Paradoxes Emerging from Servant Leadership

Emanating from Greenleaf’s influential concept of the servant-as-leader are other paradoxes. Here are some:

  1. Being a leader and a follower. Once leaders understand that one of their primary responsibilities is serving others, and once those others feel empowered, a transformation takes place. People closer to the issue or opportunity, or people with unique talents or passions, step forward to lead. In the old paradigm, the leader could not have their position or power challenged. In Greenleaf’s paradigm, the servant leader is comfortable letting others lead at times. In servant leadership, the practice of leadership is fluid. It ebbs and flows among many people. Leadership becomes a group dynamic, not an individual phenomenon. It’s liberating. One never wants to go back to the old paradigm. Unleashing other leaders creates a high-performance culture.
  2. Flexing between the hard and soft edges of leadership (as we described in our book, Triple Crown Leadership). Servant leaders are collaborative and connected with their colleagues. They’re supportive, patient, and encouraging. They demonstrate vulnerability. We call these qualities the “velvet” side of leadership. But there are times, especially in crises, when the prime leader with organizational authority must be “steel.” That means being decisive, making tough decisions, and being strong and unwavering in their commitments. Leaders must know when to flex to steel (ideally only rarely) and when to remain as velvet. The servant leader flexes between “steel and velvet.”
  3. Listening first. Greenleaf said servant leaders listen first. They’re reflective, asking questions, testing ideas with logic and reason. Their communications reveal their humility, yet they remain optimistic about where the group is headed and how they’re performing. But there are times the servant leader must exercise authority and tell people what’s allowed, what isn’t, and what to do quickly. They acknowledge reality, still projecting confidence, using emotional exhortations, even if the reality is ominous. People don’t appreciate sugar-coating. Servant leaders may listen first, but they know when to speak up and lead by directing.
  4. Preserving the best of the past and embracing change. Some new leaders, especially those appointed to turn a failing organization around, feel an obligation to obliterate the past, overthrowing earlier practices and decisions. But the past may contain some valuable gems. Most organizations in crisis still have meaningful histories and practices. Servant leaders also know they must paint a picture of an inspiring future. Greenleaf said: “The very essence of leadership [is] going out ahead to show the way.… The leader ventures to say, ‘I will go; come with me!’” The servant leader preserves the best of the past while showing the way forward to a better future.
  5. Being competent yet always committed to continual learning. Servant leaders have their own skills and experience, potentially including: emotional intelligence, foresight, persuasion, synthesis, the ability to elicit trust and coach people, and more. Yet no leader has everything they need to lead well. Plus, the environment changes, demanding new knowledge and skills. So, servant leaders must project competence while at the same time being open and willing to admit limitations and engage in lifelong learning. Servant leaders must display competence while learning and adapting to change.


The Paradoxes of Servant Leadership Make It Powerful

In ancient Chinese philosophy, yin and yang represent the concept of dualism: how opposite or contrary forces may turn out to be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent. (Examples include the dualism of male/female, north/south, order/disorder, and more.)

Moving from an “either-or” mentality of having to choose between two contradictory statements to a “both-and” mindset may be the key to the power of servant leadership.

In a BBC article, “Why the ‘Paradox Mindset’ Is the Key to Success,” authors Loizos Heracleous and David Robson describe a “paradox mindset” as “the ability to simultaneously entertain conflicting or contradictory thoughts.” They cite “Einstein’s theory of relativity—how something can simultaneously be still and moving—as an outcome of a paradox mindset.”

They cite research suggesting that “when leaders adopt a paradox mindset, they foster innovation among teams. Further, a person’s ability to embrace contradictory viewpoints may indicate how well they can cope with challenges and constraints.”

Our experience confirms that servant leadership, with all its paradoxes, leads to powerful results for all involved. We encourage you to give it a shot.

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Postscript: Quotations on Servant Leadership

  • “Servant-leadership is more than a concept, it is a fact. Any great leader, by which I also mean an ethical leader of any group, will see herself or himself as a servant of that group and will act accordingly.” -M. Scott Peck
  • “…when you choose the paradigm of service, looking at life through that paradigm, it turns everything you do from a job into a gift.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “It’s not about trying to find something to help you be a more effective leader. It’s about trying to be a better person. The other will follow.” -James A. Autry

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Gregg Vanourek and Bob Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors (and son and father). They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps! Paradoxes of Servant Leadership