In Search of Servant Leadership

People Pleasing

I’ve always been taught to be service-oriented.  A life well-lived is one where you are looking out for the welfare of those around you just as surely as you look out for yourself.  I believe this approach extends itself into the realm of leadership.  I try to consciously practice principles of servant leadership in my work.  To me, that means in all of my interactions with colleagues and coworkers, I try to constantly ask myself the question – “what can I do to support you in being successful in your work?”

Being too authoritarian is rarely a label I’m given.  My challenge is often quite the opposite.  My challenge is not to give in to the constant temptation to be a people pleaser.

It’s absolutely true that my natural inclination is not to disappoint people.  But that is an attribute that cuts both ways.  Yes, I’m going to follow through on my commitments.  Yes, I’m going to bring my full energy and thinking to the problem at hand.  But for me, the fine line between serving those you lead and pleasing those you lead comes down to the quality and honesty of your feedback.  Some ideas aren’t as good as others.  Some behaviors – especially when it comes to issues of equity, negligence, or outright wrongdoing – simply have to be confronted directly.  Those are the leadership moves that aren’t always as intuitive for me.

As one of my graduate school professors once told me, in front of our entire cohort of aspiring administrators – “You know, Daniel, I hear what you are saying, and I think you are trying to be critical, but it just doesn’t land with me.  Your feedback doesn’t have enough of an edge to get my attention.”

Sometimes my need to be helpful, and I mean genuinely helpful, leads to my taking on tasks that don’t necessarily align to my most important priorities.  I allow the priorities of others to dictate my focus.  In a school district with dozens of schools, thousands of employees, and tens of thousands of students, you can’t afford to take on too many other people’s monkeys before your back can’t lift the weight.

I’ve been feeling the strain of that balance recently.  We’re navigating some uncertainty as a district in terms of budget cuts, announced layoffs, and shifts in organizational priorities.  In the transition, I feel a real urgency around some of the projects and initiatives that I lead.  I really feel like if I take my eye off of those priorities, they’ll lose their potency and potentially even lose their organizational support.  Yet it is precisely in this context that the other requests for support and intervention intensify.

One of the most difficult lessons I had to learn when I started as a high school principal was that my school consistently needed more service than I could give.  I imagine all schools do.  So I have to weigh every interaction carefully – making sure that I don’t give away my finite capacity chasing things that won’t ultimately register an impact for kids.

Sometimes that means disappointing people.  Sometimes that means saying no to people you care about or who have supported you in the past.  If we are guided by a true sense of servant leadership, we’ll be willing to make the hard decisions and give the feedback that clarify our deepest commitments.



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