Let’s be honest: Servant leadership is a sexy idea right now.  It’s softer and gentler and feels better than dictatorial autocrats drunk on their own power. But let’s be clear about what servant leadership is not: It is not friendship.  It is not equality.  Handled improperly, it can lead to dysfunction and dissension on a team, a failed project, and no return on investment.

Friend or Leader?

I learned a fundamental lesson about boundaries in leadership many years ago in university, when for several summers I worked at a job in the food industry.  I had two bosses and they were as different as different can be. Boss A was my favourite. Only thirteen years older, he was charming and charismatic, full of foul language and dirty jokes.  He teased me relentlessly and never tired of getting me all wound up, not hard to do for a high strung and incredibly immature undergraduate. Of course he expected me to work hard, and I did, but it always seemed secondary with him, somehow, and I revelled in our shared laughter and basked in his attention.  

One morning, during a difficult time in my personal life, I walked through the door at work and burst into tears, flying into the washroom in the back room.  He was, of course, right behind me. He took the hat we were all required to wear off my head and wrapped his arms around me, and I sobbed into his apron until I was ready to face my life.  I adored him. To this day, almost twenty years after my departure, I still occasionally stop by and visit.

Boss vs. Manager vs. Servant Leader

Boss B was a seasoned manager in the industry, less gregarious, and more imposing.  He was all business, all the time, and we were all, if not afraid, a bit on edge around him.  Excuses, there could be none. Histrionics, teenage dramatics, and laziness were not tolerated.  Flashing a winning smile got me exactly nowhere, and joking around was very infrequent, a rare chink in the armor of a serious man focused on his job and on managing an often unruly adolescent staff.

The final summer I was there, a situation with another employee was allowed to get way out of hand.  She was a toxic presence to say the least, mean and cruel, a bully and truly one of the nastiest human beings I have ever encountered.  Her personality was impossible and because her way was the only way, working with her was worse. We all complained about her, to each other and to the managers, but she never changed.

One busy afternoon, the situation came to a boil, along with my temper, and I lost my cool in front of some customers. Seeing this, Boss A suddenly suddenly shifted gears and called me to account for my behavior, as well he should have done.

I was having none of it.

Servant Leadership - Friends or Leaders?

I turned on my heel and exploded at him, challenging him about whether given all his casual conduct he could seriously expect me to see him as an authority figure.  I could have (and probably should have) been fired on the spot, but I didn’t care. Hell hath no fury, I guess.

Boss B wisely let me cool it until the next morning, when I walked in with my tail between my legs and started apologizing before I hit the front door.  I expected him to fire me, but instead we just spoke quietly and he let me tell him all he knew I needed to know about the mistakes I had made the day before.  My job was intact. So was my pride. I grew up a little bit that day.

And just like that, one of the most important lessons in leadership I have ever learned became crystal clear: Bosses cannot be your friends.  There will come a time, perhaps only once, and perhaps not for awhile, but there will come a time when the leader has to be the boss.  If that leader has not established authority by setting clear, appropriate, consistent and effective boundaries, power will not be accepted at key moments.

I sure wasn’t accepting it.  Would you?

The point is this: Servant leadership is NOT friendship.  It is NOT submissiveness It is NOT total equality, and neither is it hiding from power or from being in charge.  It is leadership that empowers a team to be effective and reliable, to serve an organization’s vision and principles, and complete a project.  But it is still, and always, leadership.

Teams do not becoming high performing because their captain is their buddy. They become high performing because their captain is their guide. As a servant leader, you can become a steward of your high performing team with our ShuHaRi program.

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