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Being the Servant Leader While Avoiding the Compassion Trap

It’s common to hear leaders talk about empowering their people--as in “I’m trying to empower my people, but I just can’t get them to take ownership.”

Imagine. I’m your manager, and I walk over to you carrying a pen and tell you to take it.  You grab it, but I won’t let go.

I look back at you, frustrated, asking, “what is wrong with you?”  “Why can’t I get you to take my pen?”

How’s that going to work out for me and you?

When Empowering Others Gets Misplaced

Empowerment means delegating power to others.  It's interesting to think that people need permission to take ownership.

Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix and author Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, tells us that people already have power and to not take it away.

“A company’s job isn’t to empower people,” she says. “It’s to remind people that they walk in the door with power and to create the conditions for them to exercise it.”

For all of us, the question isn’t whether or not we are leaders, it’s how well are we leading?

Are you creating the conditions for people to exercise the power they already possess or are you taking it away, creating more victims of the workplace?

This is often the core difference between traditional leadership practices and true servant leadership.

Back in 1970, Robert K. Greenleaf was the first to develop this idea of Servants as Leaders.

“Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” asks Greenleaf.

The Servant Leader sees the power within everyone they serve--they see them as already powerful and treat them as such.  They believe in the power of others.

What would be different about how you lead if you held the fundamental belief that people are powerful, that they are greater and wiser than they appear to be?

The Compassion Trap

Imagine for a moment if the opposite were true.  What if you didn’t see people as powerful?

You might see people as needing your help.

This is a trap for so many compassionate, well-meaning leaders.

These leaders care deeply for their people and aren’t afraid to roll-up their sleeves, help, and drive things forward.  They are the selfless problem-solvers and fixers. 

For them, it feels great to help other people solve problems, and thus a continuous flow of new problems come to the leader to be solved.

This is normal and it’s very admirable to help others so they don’t have to suffer as much.  Besides the leader is strong and can handle it.

Until they can’t. 

Maybe you’ve gotten to a point where you felt burnt out and tired.  At some point you might even secretly think to yourself, “what about me?” and “how much longer can I do this?”.

While playing the hero might feel like Servant Leadership, it’s not.  It doesn’t serve those you’re leading because it turns them into victims who need your leadership. 

It doesn’t serve you either, because you also become a victim of the perpetual burden this common leadership approach places on you.

How sustainable is this approach? 

It’s the compassion of the leader that when overused hinders a culture of growth, ownership, and high-performance.


Again, what would be different if you were to see the individuals on your team as already powerful?  What if, instead of trying to empower them, you created the conditions for them to exercise the power they already possess

It takes compassion to be the Servant Leader and the opportunity is to leverage your compassion where “those served grow as persons; while being served, they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants.”

Robert Greenleaf’s version of Servant as Leader isn’t easy but as you begin to lead in this way the journey becomes a lot more fulfilling--and fun!

Where many leaders see people as needing their help and often create victims in the process, you, being the servant leader, help them see the power they already possess and create the opportunities for them to access it, to learn, and to grow.

…That’s Servant Leadership.

What do you think?


Your Coach,


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