Wednesday, July 25

Servant Leadership and Setting Boundaries

When I teach my classes on servant leadership, the most frequently asked question is as a servant leader being taken advantage of, being thought of as weak or becoming a doormat. This is a very valid question and one that needs special attention. But because this is a multi-layered issue, I will touch on the layers briefly.

In our society, leadership typically comes from a power structure, not a principle of service. Servant Leadership turns this notion on its head. It comes from a place of serving those we lead. The first action is the need to set boundaries and limitations.

We live in a world where standards must be set and people are held accountable. To be a doormat says that those two things are not in place. It says that there are no standards, no boundaries, that no one is held accountable for anything, and that there are no consequences for actions or behaviors, be it positive or negative.

We tend not to hold people accountable for unacceptable behavior because we want to avoid conflict -- especially in the workplace. I am here to shake up your notion of conflict. Conflict is not just about keeping the peace when there is an issue on the table. Conflict is usually that great, big elephant in the middle of the room that everyone walks around trying to avoid, or ignore.

The mentality of doormat behavior will always be an issue if we continue to avoid the elephant. When there is an elephant in the room, someone at the party is uncomfortable. Someone wants it to go away. In order for it to go away, it needs to be discussed.

True conflict is discussing the elephant. When relationships have been formed, then trust has been formed. We tend to equate conflict with heated, angry words and outbursts. Real conflict is about discussing the issues, not about judgments and character assassinations. Conflict resolution is bringing to light the actions that are unacceptable.

We are called to judge people's behavior, especially when it is unacceptable. When we allow others to get away with bad behavior, it makes for a resentful and hostile environment. When there is a conflict, it is either because someone's boundaries have been crossed or someone took an action or an inaction and was not held accountable for it.

Set boundaries in all your relationships -- personal as well as professional. When someone says something that is unacceptable, tell them so. But not in an accusatory way, because they may not be aware of the offense. But say it as you would want someone to say it to you -- with love.

To lead is to serve,

Coach Carolyn


Tom Jablonski said...


I enjoyed your thoughts on this. I think that the difficulty in practicing servant leadership is that it is completely opposite of being a "doormat", and that can be a difficult thing to be. I hope you don't mind but I posted some followups to your blog at The Servant Leadership Blog. Thanks for the topic.

Tom Jablonski

Coach Carolyn said...

Thanks, Tom for your comment. And you are right. Servant leadership is opposite of being a doormat; this is the "secret" to being servant leader. Can't wait to read your followup on your blog. Thanks again.