Misconception #7: Servant Leadership has a Problematic, Confusing, and Contradictory Name

This is the 8th in a series on the topic of Misconceptions and Objections to Servant Leadership. Why, after all these years, is servant leadership not more practiced? Why is this powerful approach so easily dismissed as being irrelevant or impractical to day to day organizational life? This series explores the common misconceptions that often result in leaders ignoring a way of leading that can bring their organizations greater health and higher performance.

If you have studied servant leadership in any depth, you have come across this issue of the problem of the name – Servant Leadership. The name seems contradictory, confusing and unappealing. After all, who wants to be someone’s servant? Is that a role I want to be known for?

Servant Leadership is Paradoxical

Some have offered that the name is such an issue that we should come up with another title. Some suggestions are values-based leadership, caring leadership, humble leadership, quiet leadership and the like. The problem with these titles, though they communicate something important to the concept of servant leadership, is that they are incomplete. And, they miss the point. The term servant leader or servant leadership is an intentional paradoxical title that forces us to consider deeply what it truly means to lead others. We should be cautioned against taking away the tension of the unique power of this approach to leadership. When leaders from a position of power and influence, choose willfully to put their own self-interest aside to focus on the best interests of their followers, they are intentionally accepting a humble position, one that stands out more by nature of the fact that it is unexpected and may even be unappreciated. Also, when leaders do this without relinquishing the authority and power of their leadership role it is even more effective. (Laub, 2018)

So, though changing the name of servant leadership may make it more palatable to some, we would end up losing the creative and necessary tension that exists between those two powerful words. Servant. Leadership. Peter Senge (1995) addressed the value of this interesting title when he states that

Servant-leadership is an interesting phrase, a juxtaposition of apparent opposites, which immediately causes us to think freshly. But, I actually think that the phrase is a sort of gateway … it leads us into a different universe … a universe in which most of us, I believe, have a deep hunger to participate.

I agree. Servant leadership, though a troublesome name to many presents a concept that is even more scandalous than its name; the idea that a leader’s main focus is to put the needs of his or her followers above their own self-interest.

A Rose by any other Name

So, call it what you will (a rose by any other name) but realize that there is a unique power in the leveraging of joining the word servant to the word leader. Servant leadership has a rich and long tradition that provides much value if we are willing to live within the healthy tension it creates. (Laub, 2018)

Your fellow servant,


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