Servant Leadership or Burnout Martydom?

The idea of “servant leadership” is quite popular, but in my design leadership coaching I often see this ending up as martyrdom and burnout.

In this week’s design leadership coaching reflections I offer a different metaphor, ending with fill your cup first rather than leaders eating last.



[00:00:00] Andy Polaine: The idea of servant leadership is quite popular, but it can often lead to a kind of toxic martyrdom and burnout. How can you avoid this?

My name is Andy Polaine and every week I spend my days coaching design leaders and in these videos, I reflect upon the common themes and questions that come up in the week.

The downsides of servant leadership

[00:00:16] Andy Polaine: And this week, I want to talk about the downsides of servant leadership and offer a different metaphor instead. Now, originally comes from Robert K Greenleaf who wrote a book called "The Servant as Leader".

I think a lot of people probably know it from Simon Sinek’s "Leaders Eat Last" book. And I’ve always had a bit of a problem with it because the way I’ve seen it present in coaching. I’ve often seen that become a kind of martyred in leadership, taking all the blows and being a punchbag for both the stakeholders above and then from the team below.

I don’t know if this is particular to design leaders, because they spend a lot of their early career building up their empathy skills and then are applying it in that position. I think it could also be to do with where design sits in the organization. I have executive design leaders, but a lot of them are that junior executive VP level design leaders. And there’s usually some people more senior to them and then they’re also running a capability beneath them. I think it quite often happens at a slightly more junior leadership level, like a design lead or a team lead or something like that as well.

In my coaching. It also has a bit more of a bias towards female coachees. And by that, I mean, people socialized from birth or as children as female, because as Emily Nagoski says, women are socialized as givers.

What I do see in my coaching is people who have been that punchbag for awhile, they’re just burning out they’re stretched very thin, because they’re trying to take all of this stress from above and absorb it. And they’re also usually getting some kind of stress from their team below and they’re trying to absorb that and that’s just very, very hard to take.

I think there’s an ability you can develop over time where it’s not that you don’t care. It just doesn’t get absorbed into as much.

A different metaphor

[00:01:52] Andy Polaine: I prefer a different metaphor for this, which is a compressor or noise gate or some kind of stabilizer. So for those of you not familiar with audio processing there’s a thing called a compressor, I’ve got one down here, and what it does is it takes the high level audio and it compresses that down. And it takes the quiet sections and it brings them up a bit. And so you get a much more even audio. You’ll hear it on people’s podcasts all the time, and you’ll be hearing it on this.

There’s another thing called a noise gate and we use it in audio processing, I use it my podcast too, so that when I’m really quiet and there’s silence, then there might be some very quiet background noise, the noise gate just cuts the audio. So only lets through a certain amount of noise above a certain threshold. When I’m speaking and I’m going to quiet, it goes to zero again.

If you think about this in terms of what’s your role as a middle leader in the organization, you’ll often get stakeholders who get kind of jittery and our link to another video where I talk about that and skydiving.

And what happens there as they start to get jittery, they’re going to start talking to you and micro-managing, and they may even start to talk to the team directly. And often that can be really problematic, because the team are trying to get on with their work. And they’ve got someone who’s very senior to them who’s making them nervous.

But it also happens from the other way as well. So the team can often complain about what’s going on - a difficult stakeholder, difficult project owner or manager and if you let all of those comments through, if you always pass them on, what happens, you get this really high frequency interaction and they can build on each other and end up in this kind of feedback loop and that can really start to become problematic.

The job of that middle leadership is not to be a punching bag from each side and just try and suck it up and hold it in, but actually to stabilize things in the middle and, and to do that, you need to have some kind of discernment of whether this complaint or this issue, the team having warrants being passed upwards. And it might be slightly modified in the way you say it. You know, the team might be swearing about someone, but you probably going to pass it on in a slightly gentler way, but you still need to be authentic and clear about what the problem is.

And the same in the other direction, if you’ve got senior stakeholder who is constantly complaining about the team, or has issues, or is worried and all those things. You have to decide which one of those things are really genuine that you need to bring to the team because they need to do something about, which ones you’re just going to leave the other side of the noise gate.

Fill your cup first

[00:04:13] Andy Polaine: So what inspired this video actually, apart from my coachees was a video from John Amaechi, who’s got really great content on LinkedIn, and he talked about this idea of filling your cup first. So rather than leaders eat last. Fill your cup first. If you are burnt out, you’re not going to help anyone, right.

Eventually you’ll end up taking time off or leaving. Then the team lose their leadership and they won’t have set up their own boundaries because you were acting as their shield already. And so all of a sudden they’re really exposed. So just as you might put on your own oxygen mask before you help others. Fill your cup first.

I hope that’s useful for you. If you’d like to check out my coaching practice, it is at and I’ll put the link below. If you’ve got any of your own tips about how you go about managing that tension between those two sides please post a comment below. I’d love to hear them.

Thanks very much and I’ll see you again soon.

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