by Wayne Turmel

Servant Leader

One of the hottest buzz-words in leadership these days is “servant leadership.” We are big proponents of the concept and try ( I swear) to practice its tenets daily. For remote leaders, however, there are some pitfalls that, if you’re not  careful, can seriously impact the quality of your work and your team’s dynamic.

What is servant leadership?

While the concept is thousands of years old and rooted in many religious traditions, it was Robert Greenleaf’s essay in 1970 that launched the idea into the secular business world. Greenleaf defines servant leadership this way: 

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first…”

We put ourselves at the service of the organization, the team, and the desired outcomes, rather than think of our egos first. We come to the job with humility and a sense of mission. What could be wrong with that idea?

There are two common traps that servant leaders fall prey to, and both are made stickier when we aren’t in physical contact with our teams.

We lack feedback and the chance to bounce ideas off people.

When are we doing something out of a sense of our own ego, and when are we truly serving others? That’s the big question that servant leaders constantly ask. The challenge when we work remotely is that we are often alone when we come up with ideas. We noodle and doodle and plan until something looks and feels right, then we seek feedback from those we trust.

This is the right idea, AND it often doesn’t work the way it should. When we are in close proximity with people we can get feedback in small doses along the way, checking assumptions and killing bad ideas before they become things we feel the need to defend. We ask, “hey, what do you think of this?” and even if the answer is non-committal, the look of sheer terror in people’s eyes tells us maybe it’s not as great a plan as it seemed at the time. People feel more empowered to ask questions and challenge you when they can see your body language and the tone of your voice indicates you are open to that feedback.

Now think about  working remotely. You come up with a plan or an idea, take the time to write it out, and then distribute it to the team or present it on a call as a “plan.” Most likely you can’t see their faces and body language. You are relying on them to give you honest feedback. The problem is you may not get it.

First, we must remember that even if we consider ourselves their “servants,” to them, you’re the boss. The inherent power disparity filters the feedback we get. The more passionately we believe in something, and the more work we’ve put into it, the less likely people are to call “BS” on our faulty thinking or bad assumptions.

Second, the more time and effort we’ve invested, the more committed we are to it. We may not accept their feedback as readily as we would otherwise. It’s not that you can’t get trusted, wise, candid advice from your team, it’s just harder when you don’t have constant, incremental communication.

We become martyrs to the cause.

In doing our research for The Long-Distance Leader, Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership, the most surprising result of our survey was the sense that people who manage dispersed teams (especially across multiple time zones and countries) are working much, much harder and longer hours than they did before…for the same money, mind you, and often in order to spare their team members from doing the same. We’re “taking one for the team.” Unfortunately, this often makes us feel (and appear) like martyrs.

The good thing about servant leadership is that people who excel at it are very aware of how the work impacts their people. We look for signs of burn-out, or the little clues that insufficient work-life balance is impacting the quality of their work. Who’s doing that for you?

More and more, we are hearing from managers who are sacrificing quality family time to accommodate conference calls in Asia, or starting their days early to help the team in Budapest, while still being available after hours in the US. Yes, our electronic umbilical cords (cell phones mostly) allow our people to reach out whenever they need us, as you’d expect of good servant leaders. But at what cost?

An effective Long-Distance Leader must set priorities and boundaries. Self-care is not selfish, it is necessary. Without an awareness of how the increased workload and “always-on” mindset impacts us, we can swiftly move from servant to slave. The result is frustration, burnout and ultimately, a lack of effectiveness.

Your team is also watching you to model the desired skills. It’s one thing to say, “I wouldn’t ask my people to do anything I’m not willing to do,” but is what you’re asking of yourself something you’d ask of anyone else? Super-human efforts are great, if in fact you are super-human. No offense, but you’re probably not.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t have a servant leadership mindset. Not at all, it is a core tenet of what we do at The Kevin Eikenberry Group and Remote Leadership Institute. But, as our “3-O Model” of remote leadership indicates, we must strike the right balance between Outcomes, Others and Ourselves. We aren’t the most important piece of that, but we also aren’t insignificant.

How well are you balancing your desire to be a good leader and a “servant” with your ability to take care of yourself and be the best possible example for your people?



Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.

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