The Servant Nature of Leadership

by  Mike Henry  |  Leadership Development

Have you ever been misdiagnosed by someone when they thought you weren’t trustworthy?  They doubted you or your motives or something you did or said.  I’m not talking about people who don’t trust you for valid reasons, but something you don’t understand.  You mean them no harm, but it seems that they are afraid you are a threat.

We all have a radar built into us for our own protection.  We notice body language and voice tone.  We compare words to actions.  If we decide someone is using us to get what they want, we tend to resist.  We doubt their motives and we process every thing they do, every request they make, and every action they take through our mental filter.  We begin filtering for more actions to justify our impression of them.  After a very short while, if we’re not careful, we only look for evidence that will convict them of being out-for-themselves.  And the more evidence we find the more we filter.  Eventually it is extremely difficult for that person to change our perception of them.

When your team, organization or business thinks you’re looking-out-for-number-one, they withhold energy and commitment from the effort.  They believe they must look out for themselves.  They don’t think you will look out for them.  The loss of trust creates an immense obstacle or a heavy weight for your group’s performance.  That lack of trust creates friction.  And that friction opposes the creation of a healthy, vibrant, successful team. It creates heat any time you try to get something done.  Left alone long enough and your team will become more and more dysfunctional eventually locking up from the heat and wear and tear.

Trust lubricates relationships

Trust lubricates relationships.  Service creates trust.  Leaders who serve their team find their service lubricates the relationships and frees everyone up to do their best.  When your people feel looked-out-for, they are free to give everything their best effort.  Like a golfer with a grip that’s just too tight, tension reduces freedom of movement and hampers performance.  Service creates room for coworkers to relax and do their best. All of the moving parts remain cool. Service reduces fear and friction and enables relationships to grow.  Many people who feel cared for also feel free to care for others.  Now you’re multiplying the lubrication.

Sensing friction in your relationships? Serve your people and oil the gears of the team.  You’ll see tremendous benefit from small things.  Fill in for them on a painful task or sacrifice something for them and you will break the tension.  Serving others gives them the assurance that they’re going to win.  You can’t have win-win unless your stakeholders win.

© photoiron –

Note: This post originally ran on Dr. Jack King’s Northfork Center for Servant Leadership as Frictional Coefficients.

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About The Author

Articles By mike-henry
Chief Instigator (Founder) of Lead Change Group and VP of IT for a mid sized technology company. Passionate about character-based leadership and making a positive difference.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Tristan Bishop  |  10 Sep 2010  |  Reply

I enjoyed this post, Mike, thank you. I totally agree that demonstrative service, coming from a genuine heart, is a way to build trust between a leader and a team. I often say that change management is difficult because those “selling” the change are distrusted by those about to “experience” the change. It is only when folks see how a proposed change will truly benefit them that they sign on and become supportive.

Mike Myatt  |  10 Sep 2010  |  Reply

“Trust Lubricates Relationships” – You absolutely nailed this Mike…I’d take it even one step further: without trust there are no real relationships, just feigned or contrived interactions.” Thanks for sharing this Mike.

Mike Henry  |  12 Sep 2010  |  Reply

I agree. In the absence of trust you can only manipulate others or defend against them. Thanks for the reminder.

Mary C Schaefer  |  13 Sep 2010  |  Reply

It’s so interesting that you chose to write about this right now, Mike. I ran across this article recently that sort of got my hackles up: “Why servant leadership is a bad idea” by Mitch McCrimmon –

I realize the writer was being provocative. I think the word “serve” trips some people up.

To me, you hit on the noble intent of Servant Leadership with: “When your people feel looked-out-for, they are free to give everything their best effort.” What *does* it mean for us as leaders to look out for our people, and at the same time, not fall into the traps McCrimmon brings up, particularly paternalism?

I find myself coaching managers on approaching performance problems with employees, for instance, with this: Every action you take and paragraph you speak should telegraph: “Hold them accountable and be on their side at the same time.”

Mr McCrimmon states, “The harsh reality in business is that employees are a means to an end.” Yes, and we should be held accountable for the job we are being paid to do, but as a leader, we don’t have to emphasize the “means to and end” part, and in fact we can create an environment for a better *end* by being encouraging, honest, and truly helpful – in this way *serving* our employees.

I don’t see why it has to be an either/or, but a both/and.

Mike Henry  |  13 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Thanks for the comment. I’ll read his post later, but I disagree with a core principle. Employees are the end. Profit is the means of providing for them, rewarding them for their contribution and making the world a better place. The idea that an employee is a means is exactly what creates our hire-layoff cycles.

I wrote directly about this over a hear ago in Who Do You Love ( and again in the 6 Facets of The Servant Leadership Diamond ( We don’t serve just anyone. We serve the team – people who join us in pursuit of a common goal. If they don’t join the team’s agenda, we can’t keep them on the team. The other extreme is putting them ahead of objectives. If we make the agenda just about them, we fail to reach the true objective and everyone suffers.

Servant Leaders serve the team. The team doesn’t survive unless it achieves the objectives. Everyone must be accountable to each other and the objectives or everyone loses.

Thanks for the great comment.

Mary C Schaefer  |  14 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Mike, thanks for your response. I think we are meaning the same thing, though we may be saying it in different ways.

This caps it for me: “Everyone must be accountable to each other and the objectives or everyone loses.”

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