Have you heard of “servant leadership”? It’s a leadership philosophy driven by those who want to make a positive impact on the world. With the slew of public scandals executed by greedy, high-profile corporate executives, I am glad to see that servant leadership is having a comeback.
And yet, there’s a common mistake that servant leaders make, and yes, women are the most vulnerable to making it, even though some men fall into the trap, too. Servant leadership has a way of turning well-meaning leaders into what I call “mommy” leaders.
But first, a brief primer.
Back in the 60s, Robert Greenleaf, one of the first leadership consultants, was disturbed by the lack of character and integrity within organizations that were motivated purely by economic growth. His revolutionary 1970 essay The Servant as Leader put forth a new philosophy in which leaders prioritize employee growth over economic growth. Servant leadership’s main tenets of listening; persuasion; access to intuition and foresight; intentional use of language, and pragmatic measurements of outcomes cover all the bases of a fair and just leadership philosophy. Popular leadership expert Simon Sinek has repackaged many of Greenleaf’s ideas in his book Leaders Eat Last, in which he recommends that leaders create a “circle of safety” for their teams by tending to and focusing on their needs.
Empathy and its discontents
A mission-driven leader I work with frequently uses the phrase “servant leader” when discussing her style and the culture she aims to create. She wants her staff to know she is there for them and on their side. When asked about her greatest leadership challenge, she responds: “It’s hard to get my work done.”
Why? Because with her “safe space” open door policy, staff members stroll in and sit on her fluffy beige couch throughout the day, sharing their struggles with clients and other staff members, and airing thinly veiled complaints. “One employee came in to tell me that the paint color we had chosen for the office walls was interfering with her mood,” she told me. “Our conversation didn’t solve the problem, and a half-hour of my day was gone.”
In another scenario, the well-liked CEO of a start-up that just went through a huge growth spurt is in the weeds. She’s leaving the office at midnight and burning the candle at both ends. She knows it’s time to delegate lower level tasks to her staff, but she hesitates. “They’ve been through so much change, I hate to give them more work . . . ” Then she confesses, “I don’t want them to be mad at me.”
Yes, staff members should ideally feel emotionally safe: secure in their jobs and free to speak up. But these scenarios beg the questions: how far should a leader go to prioritize emotional safety for their staff? Is there such a thing as too much empathy for a leader?
The “mommy boss” bind
Thank god we’ve evolved from the days when emotional expression of any kind was viewed as unprofessional. But when creating emotional safety becomes its own job in which leaders protect their staff from and tend to their emotional upset, servant leadership veers into “mommy” leadership.
Playing the role of a mommy boss will demonstrate a leader’s concern and care, but often betrays a leader’s authority. In fact, as exemplified in the case of the open door fluffy couch policy, workers may consciously and unconsciously rely on the kindness of a leader to avoid doing their work.
And, as in the case of the start-up leader above, women leaders, in order to avoid the dreaded label of “bitch,” and even male leaders trying not to be “too aggressive,” may end up caring to the point of doing their staff’s jobs for them. Finding a balance between being emotionally sensitive and holding others’ accountable isn’t always easy. A leader may fear that enforcing a strong work ethic will alienate their emotionally oriented staff. She may not know that boundaries — those clear lines of which behaviors are and are not accepted — are a part of being a good leader. He may not know how to enforce those boundaries without coming across as mean.
And there’s an even sneakier catch: under the umbrella of servant leadership, a well-intended leader may secretly be serving his or her own ego, protecting a need to be seen as fair, to be liked and admired, above all. While it’s understandable, it’s not what the leader is being paid to do, and it makes the task of leading more difficult.
Back to the basics:
This blurred line is especially common in nonprofits and public service organizations. If you’re a well-meaning leader (or you work with one) and staff and/ or board members seem to seduce you into a mommy role, there are some important questions to ask.
- How am I responding to my staff’s emotional needs? Oftentimes, when a staff member gets emotional, a caring leader will join them in an emotional response. You may need to replace some reactivity with curiosity. Suggested read: No Hard Feelings: The secrets of embracing emotions at work by Mollie West Duffy and Liz Fosslien, to help yourself and your staff understand how to increase their professional emotional intelligence.
- Am I afraid of delegating, or hoarding work to protect my staff? Remember the outcomes you are truly responsible for, and learn how to step into your leadership authority.
- Are staff members siloed or working collaboratively? Do they think to consult with each other to figure things out before coming to you?
Moving out of mommy leadership into servant leadership is not always an easy shift. If you need guidance on transforming your leadership effectiveness, don’t hesitate to reach out.