Manager getting burned out at work

The Problem with “Servant Leadership”

There are many reasons for increased manager burnout. I want to call attention to a particularly pernicious problem: servant leadership.

Like many people, especially in the military, I regarded “servant” as the highest form of leadership [selfless service is one of the Army’s values.]. 

After all, leading includes service to a higher purpose, the organization, and the people in it. Seventy percent of Fortune 500 companies reportedly say they practice servant leadership.

Well, servant leadership burned me out. 

I was wrong to advance an unexamined piece of conventional wisdom, and I encourage you to rethink it and focus simply on being a good leader.

Do you worry about burnout? You are not alone. According to Harvard Business Review, over 50% of managers feel burned out. 

Burned-out managers exhibit behaviors that degrade their performance, well-being, and the overall health of their teams and organizations. These include:

  • Decreased productivity
  • Increased irritability
  • Poor decisions
  • Self-neglect
  • Lower creativity
  • Less appreciation of employee efforts
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Poor communication

According to Merriam-Webster, a servant is “a person in the employ and subject to the direction or control of an individual or company.” A servant lacks agency. The implications are significant.

Ripe for Abuse. Almost anything goes when “the cause” is the highest good. 

“I want you to stay until 10 pm tonight to work on this presentation.” 

“But it’s my anniversary, and I promised to go to dinner with my wife.”

“I’m sorry about the timing. I really need you to work on this. You are a servant leader in this company, so you have to sacrifice for the greater good.”

Reliance on selfless service and servant leadership is a common way to cover up poor planning, sloppy time management, bullying, and other dysfunctional behaviors.

No Boundaries. As a selflessly serving servant, you have to be “on” at all times. Responsiveness is vital. When your boss texts you at 11 pm on Saturday night, you had better reply within minutes.

Dinner with your family? Storytime with your kids? Softball game? You’d better have your phone ready to answer your boss’s call.

When one of your employees is stressed out, you take on their emotional burdens and workload. You’ll do anything to serve your people.

Constantly prioritizing the needs of others emotionally and physically drains you. That’s what your company demands when they tell you to be a servant leader.

Denial of Self. There can be no self for those who serve selflessly. As a servant leader, you are expected to neglect your own well-being because everyone and everything else comes first. You need to go everywhere, do everything, be everyone for everyone. 

I’ve lived this life, and it costs me and my loved ones. I thought it was the price of being a leader. I tried not to pass on this mentality to my direct reports, encouraging them to set boundaries and take care of themselves, but my personal example sent mixed messages.

Yes, serving is part of leading, but so are requirements like making tough decisions, enforcing standards, and firing people. It can be exhausting, and you need to be vigilant about your capacity and energy to lead the way your company and people deserve and to be the kind of parent, sibling, friend, etc., that your loved ones deserve. 

Here’s What to do instead

Be a leader; forget the label. Use your judgment. Focus on being a good leader who inspires people to contribute their best to your organization’s success. Sometimes, the good of the organization comes first; other times, the needs of the individuals rise to the top. As I note in Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, Be trustworthy, treat people with respect, and be a good steward of your company.

Encourage the Gas Mask Principle. When facing a drop in cabin pressure or a chemical attack, apply your mask before attempting to help others. Otherwise, you put yourself and the person you are trying to help at greater risk. Spend time with your loved ones, sleep, eat right, exercise, and do important things outside of work. Encourage your employees to do the same.

Co-create boundaries that you and your direct reports respect. My mentor, Michèle Flournoy, explained how she and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did this together and its impact on her and her family. Gates famously left the office by 5:30 pm daily because he knew that staying late encouraged others to do so, even if they had little to do but be seen. 

Provide Perspective. Most matters can wait until the next morning or next week. If you have to write that email tonight to get it off your mind, time it to send tomorrow morning. By sending it tonight, you encourage people to respond tonight. You won’t sprint your way to completing a marathon.

Manage Exceptions. There are rare times when you need that late night. When you respect boundaries and encourage people to take care of themselves and have a life outside their work, they will rise to the occasion when a crisis hits, and you need all hands on deck.

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