by Judy Ryan
When it comes to being human, no matter what age, experience, title, or role, my goal is always to level the playing field and create conditions for expanded human potential. That’s why I often struggle with the notion of “servant leadership.” For many, this phrase is a well-intended step forward. To me, it has always conjured an image of someone in authority benevolently bestowing service to direct reports below. Maybe that’s because I was introduced to this idea when I was a very little girl through my family’s faith tradition. This caused me much confusion and guilt. I see the same in others.
The idea of being a servant to one another is healthy and caring but must be accompanied first by a recognition of people as worthy and important in and of themselves. Ideally, the process of healthy individuation (knowing one is worthy and deserves a healthy sense of belonging and significance) and social interest (recognizing and intending specific, loving consequences to others) should be developed in people simultaneously and in a compassionate, patient and comprehensive way. Such is a primary objective of LifeWork Systems. That’s because many people were not provided this foundation in their homes, schools or social encounters. Without realizing the needs of individuals and the collective, servant leadership can be another top down, even competitive dynamic.
When servant leadership comes up in conversation on podcasts, radio interviews and with friends and colleagues, it is most often raised by successful, accomplished white men. That is not to say this is bad or that only white men embrace this shift to serve others. These men share with me their fulfillment in moving into a servant mindset, and I believe them as I enjoy the same. What is often unrecognized is that each such man had significantly successful periods in their early lives when they were able to effectively individuate through validation and success in school, sports, business, and love, and by being extraverted, popular, wealthy, and given recognition. One told me that until he was urged to grow past it, he did not realize he was a “me-former” rather than an “in-former” with others. He shifted to a servant leader mindset when someone more mature pulled him aside and challenged him to figure out how to care more about others than he had done so in the past. He now teaches the importance of listening to, validating, supporting, and caring about others and their success. He is a loving, caring servant leader. I cautioned him to remember that not all people have been provided the foundation and validation he had experienced that fostered him into becoming such a leader.
While servant leadership is likely a sincere and noble reversal and shift from self-centeredness to mutual respect for many, it often still feels top-down in orientation and, in my experience with others, as though some age-old win/lose dynamic has now shifted to lose/win. To be fair, it’s likely a necessary bending of a social coat hanger — in other words, an attempt to evolve and fix an imbalance by reversing conditions disproportionately so a final result is fair for all. Still, I offer a key perspective. What if servant leadership is clarified as all people can and deserve to be developed in serving, and all people can and deserve to be developed in leading. That means servant leaders must also encourage and allow others to serve them, too. Only then is servant leadership equitable. By specifying servant leadership as mutual, we all rise together, and we all win together; there is no top-down and no win-lose.
In the work of LifeWork Systems, everyone is nurtured to become a fully developed leader and servant. To become a servant leader, each person must feel empowered, lovable and connected, and given chances to contribute. They must experience a healthy sense of belonging and significance. Each must spend time in a safe and encouraging community and get the right support needed to extend self-love into love for others.
Judy Ryan (judy@LifeworkSystems.com), human systems specialist, is owner of LifeWork Systems. Join her in her mission to create a world in which all people love their lives. She can also be reached at 314-239-4727.
People hire LifeWork Systems because we help businesses become agile and manage their priority system: their human system. I hope this article helps you make sense of what’s most crucial to your evolving organization!