Servant ~while~ Leadership

The more time I spend with the concept of servant leadership, the more I find it to be going the way of the notion of ‘leadership’ generally: regularly defined as including nearly every positive virtue imaginable, so that it becomes an amorphous and unhelpful catch-all category which somehow still receives nods of affirmation as a worthwhile perspective. We like the sound of the term and have decided to elevate the idea, even though we usually don’t know exactly what we’re talking about. (See: Leader: the ideal human being?)

Following on from our recent 2-part series on Follower-Focused Servant Leadership, in this post and the following one, I’ll offer four additional perspectives on ‘servant leadership,’ each of which seems to be occasionally intended when using the term, and yet they are significantly different ways of leading, in my opinion.

So, what does ‘servant leadership’ mean?

Serve While Leading. In this implementation of servant leadership, the leader does possess a leadership title, but is functionally working only as a servant: doing tasks for others, largely operating in the background, perhaps while adopting a (false?) posture of humility.

While some of this outworking is positive (e.g. being in the trenches just as one’s followers are), the challenge comes in ensuring that such an individual does actually lead. Leading cannot always occur from the background, nor can it solely exist as an avenue for hands-on task-accomplishment. Such an approach is not multiplicative in impact, nor does it make the best use of organizational structures (& hierarchy) to achieve larger goals and purposes.

This perspective can interestingly include a broad spectrum of leaders—from people like me who would prefer to simply be helpful to my followers rather than directively lead them in any substantial sense, all the way to micromanagers who insist on fulfilling tasks personally and thus are also guilty of not actually leading—and perhaps feeling more like they are ‘acting’ (taking action) rather than ‘serving’.

The usual broad sphere of relationships, knowledge, awareness of opportunities (and needs) that accompanies a leadership role may foster the kind of environment that tempts certain individuals to engage as a ‘servant leader’ but which really means being a ‘servant-who-happens-to-possess-a-leadership-title.’

Such leaders need to overcome the internal challenge to truly engage their authority, and fulfill the full range of leadership responsibilities and relationships.

Lead While Serving. In this approach to servant leadership, the leader firmly acknowledges his/her leadership responsibility (it is not just a placard on their office door, as above), but implements that leadership through service-oriented behavior. Such a person might be considered to operate as a facilitator, a come-alongside leader who leverages their leadership platform to enable followers to complete their tasks.

Here again, there is great virtue in such an approach, but the challenge comes in being willing and able to break from the service-oriented approach and engage other leadership behaviors when the circumstances warrant other styles.

Such a leader, when faced with a daunting task such as firing someone, and who tries to maintain a service-oriented posture, ends up taking the angle of ‘enabling the dismissed employee to find greater fulfillment within a new environment or opportunity,’ when perhaps what needs to be communicated is that they’re getting sacked because they’re not collaborating well with their peers, refusing to grow personally & professionally, or producing sub-standard output.

The leader here does indeed carry out the firing (something almost completely unimaginable for the previous type), but can’t let go of the service-orientation when the current task would benefit from doing so and adopting a different leadership posture.

So here, there is another internal challenge in breaking routine (perhaps generated by one’s personality preferences) and becoming more of a multifaceted, situational leader.

Additionally, there may also be an organizational/cultural/relational challenge to be faced in that not every expectation, not every leader-follower dynamic, can be embraced and enacted through acts of service. Not every element of organizational operation can be engaged solely through service, and if there is a matrix of cross-cultural perspectives present, these cannot always be satisfactorily addressed by this leader’s personally preferred inclination toward service.

Summary. In both of these approaches, the ‘while’ notion puts service and leadership alongside of one another, but only loosely (if at all) really being simultaneously present and activated. The serve-while-leading servant leader very much has his or her leadership in the far background, and the only thing tangible is the acts of service.

On the other hand, the lead-while-serving servant leader effectively (& exclusively) defines their leadership as service, and so melding and equating the two notions to such an extent that other approaches to leadership which may be better and more appropriate in a given circumstance or leader-follower dynamic no longer become accessible.

In our next post, we’ll explore two more implementations of servant leadership: lead by serving and serve by leading, and we’ll appreciate the distinction of operating ‘by’ rather than merely ‘while.’


For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:


Followership Guide coverEmbracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Feb 2016), and  A Discussion Guide for Teams & Small Groups (Dec 2017) —

along with our variety of free downloadable resources and the index of other posts on this site.

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