Servant Leaders Can Be Mean Too

One misconception about Servant Leaders is that they are just "too nice". In reality, Servant Leaders can seem quite mean, depending upon the circumstances. Below are four examples of servant leaders that even Donald Trump could be proud of....

One misconception about Servant Leaders is that they are just “too nice”. Many executives hear the term “Servant Leader” and think, “that person will never make it in our environment” or, “they’ll just go easy on the staff and we’ll never get anything done”. Then there is my favorite: “Servant Leaders just want to be liked by everyone”. In reality, Servant Leaders can seem quite mean, depending upon the circumstances. Below are four examples of servant leaders that even Donald Trump could be proud of….

  1. Accountability
    Servant Leaders accept the blame for failures within the team. However, in serving their organization and their stakeholders, they must ensure accountability. As a result, leaders must follow up on failures, identify the root cause, fix whatever process and circumstances are required, but also hold people accountable. This is never an easy conversation and the person accountable for the failure undoubtedly does not like receiving the message. Yet, this dialogue is necessary if the leader is to meet the needs of all stakeholders. What separates the servant leader from others is their assurance to reprimand in private and set clear expectations with guidelines to avoid a recurrence of that failure. In contrast, power-based leaders may use public humiliation tactics to “make an example” of the individual accountable for the failure.
  2. Military
    One of the top Servant Leader consultants and thought leaders, James D. Hunter, has many clients in the military (mostly the U.S. Army and Air Force). When you think about a drill sergeant barking orders at new cadets in a military film, you don’t think of “nice guys”. However, in preparing these troops for the high demands and significant risks of their future, the sergeant is serving these men and women in some of the most extreme ways. In order to prepare troops to respond in a crisis (see below), they must learn quickly to obey orders, follow a chain of command and countless other concerns in a very short time. What sets the servant leader apart from others is their focus on serving those troops and their community (or country), while other leaders may leverage abusive tactics for their own career advancement.
  3. Crisis
    In times of crisis, the servant leader makes decisive actions that may not always reflect full consensus.Regardless , when quick action is required, especially when that action means risk to the leader, the servant leader steps up to the challenge. Often, in cases of crisis, leaders are slow to step forward – be it for fear of retribution, losing political clout, fear of making the wrong snap judgments or simply the insecurity most feel in such uncertainty. In these times, leaders need to serve by accepting the risks of quick decision making to protect and serve the community. In responding quickly and effectively under crisis, the servant leader may make rushed decisions that are perceived as cruel, unreasonable or simply against the norm. However, to do less in a time of crisis may be detrimental to those they serve. While serving leaders make bold decisions to serve immediate needs of their stakeholders, others may manipulate the circumstances to achieve personal fame and glory for their own benefit.
  4. Managing Out
    In serving their stakeholders, servant leaders often find individuals whose interests and / or skills would be better utilized elsewhere. This may mean on another team or with another company altogether. A servant leader understands the needs of the organization, serves its stakeholders by finding the best people for the job and helps the organization’s people find the best job. This may mean people need to be led out of their role, to new opportunities. What sets the servant leader apart from others is their commitment to helping anyone displaced by the shifting needs of an organization. A servant leader goes above and beyond to help their team find the best fit for their skills, experience and passion, regardless of where that fit may be.

When circumstances call for it, servant leaders can seem mean too. However, therein lies the difference between servant leaders and others – there needs to be the right circumstances. Servant leaders don’t condemn someone for immaterial savings, they will not belittle vendors to achieve higher service levels and they will not reprimand publicly, just to set an example. A servant leader will not be soft because they want everyone to like them, for if they were, they would not be serving their organization. In serving others, great leaders may seem mean, but they never have to be cruel or respond in a manner that reflects anything other than our commitment to serving stakeholders and our community.


  1. Have you known a leader you thought was “mean” but later realized they were serving the organization?
  2. What other ways have you seen great leaders act in a “mean” way?


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

5 thoughts on “Servant Leaders Can Be Mean Too”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Servant Leaders Can Be Mean Too --

  2. Pingback: Servant Leadership Review: Battle Los Angeles Movie

  3. Pingback: Mean too | Abrajanvigil

  4. This is a very good article, and it’s contents need more attention in the leadership community.  “Tough love” is most often displayed by the true Servant Leader, a fact not well known among those unfamiliar with the core concepts of Servant Leadership.  Good job.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Content

Martin Luther King – Celebration of a Servant Leader

Martin Luther King is among the greatest Servant Leaders this world has ever seen. His vision, leadership and ultimate sacrifice blazed a path for millions. There are many great posts, videos and other references that remind us of his vision and social injustices he would fight still today. Below are some of my favorites.

Scroll to Top
We Value Your Privacy

This site uses cookies to enhance your experience. We do not share, sell, or lease your information for any other purpose.