The Servant Leader: How Society Perceives a Leader Who Serves

Have we forgotten what leadership looks like?

This weekend, two of my friends were in town for a documentary series they are appearing in. The film crew flew them here and put them in an AirBnB in the beautiful and eclectic part of Atlanta known as Midtown. I was so excited to learn that they were staying in that area because: (1) there are so many fun activities to do in Midtown, and (2) Midtown is only about a 45-minute drive from where I live.

Yes, my friends would be busy prepping and filming, but there would still be plenty of opportunities for us to spend time together over the weekend. I was amped! I spent the week before their arrival trying to make the perfect plans for their trip. Planning was complicated because of their filming schedules, so a few of my favorite ideas had to be scrapped. But, I made arrangements for us to visit downtown Alpharetta, where I live, bike the famous Atlanta Belt Line, and check out some really cool bars and restaurants.

They were filming on Saturday and Sunday. On the days they filmed, I tried my best to make their lives easy and light. I made the 45-minute drive twice a day to come be with them; chauffeured them around throughout the day. I excused myself to get them things like Tylenol and coffee when they needed it. I paid for parking, paid for gas. I packed a bag of cosmetics that I didn’t think they’d have been able to get onto their respective flights, and brought it to the AirBnB so they could be as camera-ready as possible. And when they had leisure time, I tried my best to make the weekend fun, comfortable, and relaxing.

The documentary’s film crew witnessed these acts of service I did for my friends throughout the weekend and often remarked about how kind it was that I was doing these things for my friends. It felt nice to be seen and acknowledged for what I was doing, but to me, this is just what friends should do for one another. What else would I do?

When the weekend was over and the film crew was packing up to leave, the producer of the documentary turned to me and said, “You’ve been really great being here for these girls this weekend. You are so lucky to have friends like them.”

I’ll admit, I froze. I probably threw a comical, if confused, look her way. I am so lucky to have friends like them?

Of course, I am lucky to have friends like them. I love these friends. I’m here doing these things for them because of how much I love them. But the thought that left me scratching my head was what have you seen this weekend that makes you believe I am lucky to have them and not the other way around?

I had done nothing but served. No one had done anything special or accommodating for me. I had left my husband at home with my high-strung son and sick daughter to be here for these friends. I sacrificed. My husband sacrificed. My kids sacrificed. All so I could show up for my friends who I love. I believe my friends would have done the same for me if the tables were turned. But this documentary producer had no way of knowing that. All she had witnessed was me serving them and getting nothing in return because that was just how it needed to be that weekend.

To me, that is what leadership looks like. Leadership is modeling kind and loving behavior to the people in your care. It’s being willing to make yourself small for a while because other people deserve to feel big. It’s putting aside ego and the need to be recognized, and instead choosing to serve. To be a servant.

But according to this producer, that didn’t look like leadership. It looked like servitude.

She perceived my service to these friends as an indicator that these friends are full of inherent value and worth, and that is why I serve them. I am their handlers, their inferior. They are big, and I am small, and therefore, I serve. By my acts of service, I earn the opportunity to be in the same atmosphere as these incredibly high-value people. By nature of serving, I was perceived as a servant. Not a leader.

Which brings me back to my original question. Have we forgotten what leadership looks like?

Whether you are a person of faith or not, almost everyone has heard the story of Jesus. He was the quintessential servant. He fed the hungry. Healed the sick. He washed the feet of his disciples — the people who were meant to serve him! He even washed the feet of Judas, the man he knew would betray him.

Throughout history, we’ve seen numerous servant leaders: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and Florence Nightingale, just to name a few. These people demonstrated that leadership is about using your power to care for others, not to amass power and care for yourself.

These people were powerful leaders. They loved the people in their care, and therefore, they served them. They were noted in history as remarkable examples of leadership because they served.

But somewhere along the way, we’ve lost sight of what power and leadership look like. We have decided that the people being served are the powerful ones. Whoever has the most handlers, assistants, and caretakers around them must have the most influence, must be the leaders of the group. We see the service given to them, and we perceive that they must be the ones who have inherent worth and value — worth and value that exist purely because they are being served. We look at celebrities and politicians who have dozens of handlers (and often treat them with absolute disregard and disrespect) as being leaders simply because they have people serving them. We applaud them and identify them as “strong leaders” because who would serve someone unless they were powerful, valuable, and intrinsically worthy?

And as for the people who serve them? Well, aren’t they lucky to get to be around such intrinsically high-value people.

There was a time when the people who forfeited their power and used it to serve others were seen as leaders. Now, so often it seems that those people are seen as small, powerless, of lesser value.

That makes me sad.

We should all strive to lead by serving. By putting aside our need for validation, recognition, and care for a while and instead volunteering to validate, recognize, and care for others, we show true leadership. Hopefully, we lead others by example, showing them how to better care for the people in their own orbit. It takes great love to lead that way. And, I’d say it takes quite a bit of strength, too.

Yes, I am lucky to have my friends. And they are lucky to have me. It’s hard to imagine a world in which that “luck” only flows one direction—flowing from the people being served and to the people doing the serving.

That’s not the kind of relationships I want. That’s not the kind of leadership I want. And it’s sad that we have warped the idea of leadership this badly. So, how do we fix it?

Let’s start by acknowledging that everyone has intrinsic worth and value. We need to stop assuming that someone who is being served naturally has more worth. We also need to stop making the leap that the people who have the power to be served are naturally leaders. In my lifetime, I’ve seen plenty of people who had a lot of power but no sign of leadership anywhere to be found.

Then, let’s all try harder to demonstrate our leadership by serving. It starts in our homes, caring for our families selflessly. That selfless leadership then must flow outwards, into our neighborhoods, our places of worship, our schools, and our communities. If we all began to lead by serving—by giving up our power and influence and instead using them to care for others—I think a lot of our societal problems would be resolved. Or, at least they’d be easier to deal with.

Let’s dispense with the idea that leadership is about power, influence, and being accommodated for. Instead, let’s see leadership as a beautiful act of service and self-sacrifice.

Then, we will all count ourselves lucky to have each other.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.


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