5 Common Pitfalls of Servant Leaders

August 4, 2015
 min read

Many of us find fulfillment in serving those we lead and love. Whether it’s being a CEO or a parent, some of our most significant moments come when we are giving our lives away to others. However, we can find ourselves in a lot of trouble if we lose awareness and fall into some common pitfalls. Having worked to help restore impaired servant leaders for more than 26 years, I’ve seen many good people make messes of their lives.

Here are five common pitfalls in which servant leaders find themselves getting caught:

1. They confuse their work with their worth.

Servant leaders can draw crowds, get things done, or set themselves apart from others through accomplishments or talents. This can be good and true, but like many forms of value in society, we will often confuse the crowds, the feedback, and accomplishments with our worth as a person. Suddenly, the word, Dad/Mom or husband/wife don’t have the “pop” of work. This can be true for professionals as well as little league coaches, church volunteers, and PTA presidents. We can easily forget our worth comes from being human. The crowd looks for what you can give. God and your loved ones look for who you really are inside—your passion, your intimacy, your integrity.

2. They confuse performance for presence.

To be valued for performance, we have to become someone we are not—human doings. To be present, means to be able to present the truth of our own inner-beings: the feelings, needs, desire, longings and hope of your heart. Present people can be “in need” and be led. Performers develop contempt for their own needs and contempt for the needs of others.

3. They are isolate when they think they are being an example.

Servant leaders often put pressure on themselves to always be of service, to look a certain way, to always be an example—as expected by others. This expectation of perfection attracts people who are looking for someone to teach them some escape from life’s troubles that are inescapable. Servant leaders begin to set themselves up to be more than human. This leads us to denying our needs and feelings to ourselves and others. Denial does not stop needs, but arouses shame when a person has one. Isolation from relationship leaves a leader hungry to get needs met, but unable to need people to meet them. An inanimate source of fulfillment becomes the “getaway” for the leader. What they often call getting away is actually isolation. They are trying to get away form their insides.

4. They collect secrets which make them sick.

A secret is anything I withhold from appropriate people because I fear rejection, censuring, being stopped, or condemned. But secrets require that I also withhold my emotional and spiritual life from the people who hunger to know me. Secrets block intimacy or “into-me-see,” an essential part of fulfillment, which fuels the leader to continue to serve in gratitude. Secrets make us sick because we are not connected to relationship. Instead, we are connected to control through work, performance, isolation, and secrets. The servant leader at this point begins to experience different forms of burnout, breakdown, or feedback from those they lead about thoughtlessness and insensitivity, lack of attention to task, or depression.

5. People become things.

So many servant leaders enter the world of doing good because they wish the pain of the world to be treated, bettered, or healed. As the pitfalls develop, people they wish to serve become objects to deal with and people they work with in service become objects to manipulate, and family becomes objects of needs to be met. The servant leader who dreamed of doing good has to decide to grow or fade. Neediness will be the doorway to growth. Shame and self-will will be the trapdoor to descent into unnecessary tragedy.

It’s important for servant leaders to continue to develop the internal resources they need to avoid the pitfalls of becoming impaired.

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