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November 2, 2015

The Paradox of Servant Leadership

Rachel Salaman

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Like many people, I’d viewed the idea of ‘servant leadership’ with a fair amount of skepticism. Not knowing much about it, I thought the term itself was a contradiction. How can someone be subservient and lead at the same time?

So I was curious to hear what Sen Sendjaya had to say, when I interviewed him for our Expert Interview podcast. He’s the associate professor in leadership at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and was one of the first academics to research and write on servant leadership. He’s now a global expert on this topic.

His new book, “Personal and Organizational Excellence through Servant Leadership,” clearly presents the theory, but it also gives a lot of practical tips for leaders and managers at all levels who are interested in adopting this approach.

The first thing I wanted to find out was how someone can be a servant and a leader at the same time. Put more brutally, isn’t that just a weak leader? Absolutely not, Sendjaya says.

“I am fully aware that the coexistence of servanthood and leadership is seemingly absurd. It’s oxymoronic, but I don’t think it’s an oxymoron,” he explains. “I think it’s a paradox, and paradox is a simultaneous presence of contradictory elements which forms a profound understanding of something.”

In this case, that “something” is a particular kind of leadership, a holistic approach that engages “rational, relational, ethical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of both leaders and followers, such that they are both transformed into what they are capable of becoming,” according to Sendjaya.

That sounds impressive. Who wouldn’t want that? But does it actually work?

“Yes, certainly,” Sendjaya says without the slightest hesitation. “The studies that I’ve been involved in consistently show that [servant leadership] has positive effects on followers’ trust in leaders, citizenship behaviors, job satisfaction, work engagement, and creativity and innovation.”

In his book, Sendjaya outlines a solid rationale for implementing this approach, and discusses what it involves. For instance, he asserts that authenticity is essential, putting a rigorous spin on this overused word by anchoring it in five values: humility, integrity, accountability, security, and vulnerability.

When he leads executive training, Sendjaya spends a full day on those five attributes, which he places at the heart of servant leadership. The last three, particularly, can define a leader’s effectiveness.

“In most cases, leaders are either surrounded by yes men and yes women, or they are surrounded by alienated followers who make it their mission to point out every single negative area in the leader’s life,” he reflects.

“One leadership scholar put it well: ‘Pity the leader who is caught between unloving critics and uncritical lovers.’ I thought that was a brilliant line. So a lot of leaders actually prefer to be surrounded by dishonest followers who praise them, rather than indifferent followers who criticize them, but given enough time, both of these [types of] followers will render leaders ineffective.”

The answer, he believes, is to bring accountability, security and vulnerability to the fore. These three attributes are connected, he says, because “accountability requires vulnerability” and a willingness to be open, “and only leaders who have a secure sense of self are willing” to open themselves up.

Demonstrating authenticity in this way can turn “unloving critics” and “uncritical lovers” into “critical lovers, who are willing and able to tell [leaders] the hard truth in a loving manner.” This helps build the mutual trust that underpins servant leadership.

In this clip, from our Expert Interview podcast, Sendjaya shares his views on developing servant leadership, including how team members can make a difference.

  Listen to the full Expert Interview in the Mind Tools Club ¦ Install Flash Player.

Do you think servant leadership would work in your organization? Are you already a servant leader? Join the discussion below!

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5 comments on “The Paradox of Servant Leadership”

  1. I recently read the following: "If serving is below you, then leadership is beyond you." Says it all, doesn't it?

  2. I also agree that servant leadership is something that is very relevant with today's teams. The idea of the leader being at the forefront, hoping for everyone to keep up behind them, does not fit into today's market, where people are spending less time in a position, therefore allowing less time to build an effective team. Servant leadership allows the leader to be involved in other's personal growth and success, and attempt to train a team that is ready to step up when you move onto to bigger and better things.

    1. Thanks MCook for sharing your thoughts. I particularly like your idea of training the team to be ready to step up! That way, everyone gains and wins!

  3. I have loved hearing from Sen Sendjaya, a lot of emperical literature on the subject of servant leadership have refered to him and had read alot about him ... to hear his speaking on the subject was very moving to me! I commend you creative job at Mind Tools - bravo; MUSHI Peter

    1. Thanks Peter for sharing your thoughts and feedback. I love it when that happens that you hear of a person/author and then start hearing more and more about them! For me, it's a sign to take note!

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