The Other Side of Servant Leadership

Being a Servant Leader Also Means Accepting Our Own Human Needs

Years ago in a meeting for school principals, we were shown a video featuring a popular NFL coach. While most of the other people in the room immediately cheered seeing this man on screen, the confused look on my face gave it away that I do not watch football and had no idea who this man was. The people around me shook their heads and laughed at me for being totally clueless. By the end of the video though, I was a fan.

The video showed this coach explaining the concept of servant leadership – leading by meeting the needs of others. He viewed his role as supporting every person on his staff, not just the players. The coach struck me as humble and genuine. He spoke to my belief that where a person falls within a system’s hierarchy shouldn’t dictate how they are treated; that if we were working towards one goal, everyone should be valued for their part. It was inspiring and validating…and a little misleading. 

I still believe servant leadership is at the core of being a human-centered leader. I just also believe that the idea has been taken too far to mean that leaders must meet the needs of others at the expense of their own needs. As a school principal, I used to work all day without eating, spend all weekend trying to catch up, and made myself as available as possible to others regardless of how it impacted my schedule. It was exhausting! In fact, there came a point that every long weekend or holiday break I’d get sick. It was like my body knew this was the only way I could rest. 

I’m a believer that people need to do what is best for them and told colleagues that all the time. Somehow, though, I learned that as a “servant leader” the same message didn’t apply to me. I saw people who outranked me never showed signs of being tired or needing a break. They would openly tell us to call them at all hours of the day. When they went on vacation, they’d let us know they would be checking emails from the beach in case we needed anything. 

As much as I appreciated the support they conveyed, there was another message under the surface – taking a break was not a human need; it was a sign of weakness. The unintended message was that leaders couldn’t be tired, rest, or turn people away to care for themselves. No one meant that to be the message around servant leadership and, whether we realized it or not, we all picked up that message. 

It took a new position and COVID bringing schools to a grinding halt for me to reevaluate my own situation. Things slowed down just enough for me to recognize the unintended lessons I had picked up after years of grinding away at work, being praised for my commitment, and feeling guilty when I did take time for myself. I came to see that servant leadership does not exclude treating myself like a human being with needs. In fact, I realized that to best serve and lead others, we have to be open about what it means to be human.

Looking back at that video now, I still appreciate the intention behind this coach’s message. I also appreciate the new perspective I’ve gained – that leaders have the responsibility of accepting and embracing their own humanness.

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