Servant Leader, Not Butler or Maid

by Elmer Boutin on October 21, 2010

Our Butler There was a little bit of off line discussion after I posted the “Servant Leadership What?” article a few weeks ago.

When one mentions “servant leadership” what comes to mind in some people is the thought of, well, serving. The problem isn’t the serving part, but what they consider when they think of “serving.” Perhaps I can clarify a bit by explaining a couple things servant leadership is not.

Servant leadership doesn’t mean being a butler or a maid.
Your job as a leader is not to cater snacks or lunch. If you want to bring in doughnuts or take the team out to lunch once in a while, that’s OK. You have too much to do to worry about that kind of minutia in people’s lives. If you want to provide lunch (as some companies do) hire someone to do it for you.

You job is not to clean up people’s messes, either. As you develop your team, you need to find people with high leadership potential and start teaching them how to do your job. After all, you want to get promoted one day and you don’t want to leave a mess behind when you move on.

You also want people on the team who are willing to take responsibility for their actions. Finger pointing and playing the blame game when something goes wrong takes too much time and energy which could be better focused elsewhere.

By making people learn from their mistakes and fixing problems they create you will help them be better team members and better leaders. Helping them figure out good ways to fix things is OK, you actually fixing is not.

Servant leadership doesn’t mean being a doormat.
Some leaders think it’s part of their job to cover up problems within their teams so upper management doesn’t get wind of anything bad. Sometimes this is out of fear of being “found out” they’re not “perfect” or to make themselves look good. But, this is not how it should be.

There is a big difference between handling things at the lowest level and covering up:

  • Handling things at the lowest level means the leader doesn’t bother his or her bosses with trivial stuff he or she has the authority to handle. Taking care of issues quickly so the team can get back to work is the goal here.
  • Covering up is hiding things in order to advance one’s self. It’s dishonest and is a practice unworthy of a good leader.

Servant leadership also doesn’t mean one covers up incompetence or bad work habits. One of your jobs is to make sure, as Jim Collins puts it in Good to Great, you have the right people on the bus and the right people in the right seats. Again, covering up is not good. By keeping someone on who can’t (or won’t) handle the job does you, the company, and that person a disservice.

Confrontation is hard. Letting someone go is harder still. But sometimes it has to be done.

I think the best summary of what a servant leader does comes from Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership teaching: A servant leader takes time to find out what team members need to do their jobs better. A butler or a maid won’t be able to do this.

What about you? What do you think? Please feel free to drop your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Sarah_Ackerman

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Juan Felix October 22, 2010 at 5:35 pm

I agree with your definition of the servant leader. I also think it is not easy for a lot of leaders in companies to be servant leaders. Maybe it is even impossible for them to do it. They will notice it soon enough when their employees leave the company.


Elmer Boutin October 22, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Difficult, yes. But, many things of value are difficult. I don’t think it’s impossible, though. As I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s certainly worth giving it your best shot.


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