The hidden pitfalls of servant leadership

“One of the signs of someone who was wise is that they disseminate responsibility,” the late actor Chadwick Bosman told Trevor Noah on The Daily Show. “They use everybody’s skills, they don’t try to do everything. You can’t be everywhere at one time.”

He was speaking about his role in Black Panther, playing T’Challa, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda — but he could easily have been giving a lecture on modern-day leadership.

As the world become increasingly complex and volatile, the leaders with the most influence understand something important. 

It’s not about having power and control. 

It’s not about efficiency and using employees as a means to drive performance. 

It’s not about the leader as the hero(ine) at the center of it all.

To build the teams that can solve big, thorny problems, leaders will have to empower their people to learn, grow and innovate.

This approach is often called “servant leadership” because the leader sees themself as serving, rather than commanding, the people around them.

But there’s nothing servile or weak about it. 

In fact, the “servant leader” approach requires a great deal of confidence and courage — you can’t just stick with the conventional style of “command and control” leadership.

It requires a greater range of emotional intelligence skills — curiosity, humility, vulnerability — and the flexibility to know when and how to use them. 

It requires situational awareness and the ability to adapt quickly — it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. 

So no matter how noble your intentions, be prepared for an ongoing journey of trial-and-error.

Here are three pitfalls to watch out for:

Empowered or Abandoned

Steffen Heilmann is a firm believer in empowering and challenging his people. In the early weeks of his new role as CTO at Aroundhome, they were heading into an important negotiation with their data center provider to take over responsibility of a mission-critical database. Steffen had confidence in the abilities of his Head of Ops to take full ownership of the process so he said something to the effect of “You handle it.”  

A few days later, he sensed something was off with his Head of Ops. When they sat down and talked, Steffen realized they had had a complete misunderstanding. Instead of feeling empowered, his Head of Ops felt under siege, as if Steffen was putting all the responsibility and pressure on him. 

This was far from the case. In fact, Steffen had plenty of experience in negotiations, that he was more than willing to share.

The Lesson

Your team can’t read your mind — and most people are conditioned to assume the worst. You think you’re giving them autonomy; they think you don’t care. The key is to give them context; communicate explicitly that you want to empower them but that you’re there if they need support. 

Inclusive or Authoritative

Jakob Schwankhaus, co-founder and managing director at product venture studio TrueNode, is eager to be an inclusive leader. He knows it’s more effective than just telling people what to do.  

So when rolling out a new product venture, for example, he has an open discussion with each individual on the team so he can incorporate their preferences into how responsibilities are allocated. Involving them in this way helps them feel committed to delivering outstanding performance when things get chaotic.

When Jakob can’t follow their preferences, involving them in that thought process has a positive effect on their motivation as they understand a) the rationale of the decision and b) the path for how to get where they want.

There are trade-offs however: 

A leader has to know when to set boundaries. Just because someone is yearning to do a particular activity — develop strategy, for example — doesn’t mean they should if they don’t have the relevant capabilities or experience.  

Also, the inclusive approach requires much more time and patience than simply dictating decisions. 

The Lesson

Being inclusive is not a black and white process: it requires a nuanced approach. Servant leaders must continuously evaluate the trade-offs in navigating the spectrum between authoritative decision-making and creating consensus. 

Hero or Martyr

Sebastian Sujka is CEO at xbird, an AI healthcare startup with a team of 20. Taking to heart the tenets of servant leadership, his initial mantra was: “It’s my job to give people what they need,” and he consistently put everyone else’s needs before his own. 

When an unexpected problem came up, he’d say to the team, “You guys go home, I’ll take care of it.” 

If a client situation blew up, he’d step in and take the heat.

Over the course of several months, the team got used to Sebastian saving the day. There were more and more nights where he found himself sitting alone in the office at 10 pm. Not surprisingly, he started to feel unappreciated, resentful and lose his sense of joy in building the company. 

That’s when he came to the realization: “I could work until 10 every night and it wouldn’t be enough.” So he switched gears. He told the team he was going to stop coming to the rescue and asked them to take more ownership for putting out fires. He started asking them for help.

As it turns out, the team had been feeling left out, and they started a “save Sebastian” initiative to take on more responsibility. 

The Lesson

“Leaders eat last” doesn’t mean always putting your own needs aside, sheltering your team from discomfort. As Sebastian said, “Knowing when to make sacrifices for the company or ask for help, whether to empower my team or step in and take over, it’s a much more subtle balance than I expected.”

Servant leadership is all about that subtle balance. Because we’re entering an era where it’s not about solving problems so they go away, but about managing paradox — ongoing situations where there’s no single “one and done” solution.

Leadership in a fast-moving, complex world will be less like building an engine and more like nurturing a living, breathing organism.

This article first appeared in Forbes magazine.