How To Be A Servant Leader Without Burning Yourself Out

by | May 17, 2021 | Forbes Article

First published on

Over the past year, I’ve heard from countless leaders who are exhausted and struggling. They aren’t using their vacation time, they’re working longer hours and they can’t see an end to this cycle.

When you’re a leader, it’s your job to be there for your team and do whatever it takes to guide and support them. This leadership style is called servant leadership, where the leader’s focus is primarily on other people’s well-being and growth. Here are some of the benefits of servant leadership:

• It fosters better collaboration and stronger team unity.

• It leads to a positive work environment.

• It builds trust, commitment and loyalty.

• It creates a culture of belonging.

• It can lead to better innovation and new ideas.

In some cases, however, leaders have taken the concept too far. Embracing servant leadership with no boundaries puts leaders at risk.

Research (download required) shows that employees and leaders are both on the verge of burnout. In fact, 60% of leaders say they feel “used up at the end of the day,” which is a strong indicator of burnout. According to the Mayo Clinic, other indicators include:

• Becoming irritable or impatient with coworkers or clients

• Lacking the energy to be productive

• Becoming cynical or overly critical of others

• Having difficulty concentrating

• Lacking satisfaction from your job

• Noticing trouble sleeping, headaches and/or indigestion

In the context of servant leadership, here’s what the cycle looks like: Employees are burning out, so leaders step in to support them and burn themselves out in the process. It’s a dangerous cycle for everyone involved and creates a dilemma for leaders. If leaders keep serving their team, they are at risk of burning themselves out; if they stop helping their team, things could worsen for their employees. What is the leader to do? Go back to the traditional approach of command and control leadership and risk not leveraging talent?

There is a better way.

If you’ve ever traveled on an airplane, you’ve heard the pre-flight speech that tells you to put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others. Children are often given as the example. It feels counterintuitive but makes perfect sense: If your children survive but you don’t, who will look after them when you’re gone? Leaders need to learn a similar skill: If you don’t look after yourself first, the people who rely on you will become lost.

As a leader, you need to figure out what the equivalent is of your oxygen mask. What support systems do you need to serve others and not feel depleted at the end of the day? Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to this. Here are some steps you can take to figure out what works for you:

Get clear on your big picture.

Imagine the future of your company and your role. Take some time to get out of the weeds and get clear on the big picture. Having clarity around your big picture can help you get joy and fulfillment from your daily tasks. When you start your day with your big picture in mind, you’ll have clarity on what’s important and what isn’t. You get to decide what’s worth spending extra energy on and what isn’t.

Set boundaries.

Your instinct is probably to set a hard line in the sand, but, as I’ve written previously, this often doesn’t work. Instead, you need to get clear on what’s essential and what isn’t. Of all the projects on your plate and your team’s plate, what is crucial? What aligns with your big picture?

Figure out what motivates your team. 

Give your team projects that encourage and inspire them, and it will help mitigate symptoms of burnout. To do this, you must identify internal motivation and then align projects accordingly.

Take action.

Small changes can have a big impact. Here are a few examples of how servant leaders have reworked their approach to avoid burnout:

A client of mine, a director of operations, had her laptop with her almost all the time; she constantly checked Microsoft teams to make sure she didn’t miss anything. The result? She was feeling exhausted and unable to connect with her family at the dinner table.

I asked her, “What other ways could you let people know that you’re there for them in case of an emergency?” Her answer was, “Everyone already has my cell phone number, and they know they can call me at any time in a crisis. If it’s not an emergency, it can probably wait until the following day.” She then took action. She reminded her team she was reachable via phone but set her status on Microsoft teams to “away” during dinner time. The simple fact of permitting her team to call at all hours (if necessary) allowed her to unplug from work and spend time with her family.

Another client, a vice president of finance, was struggling with having too much on his plate. I asked him the question, “What if you didn’t have to do it all?” A junior person on his team was eager to take on more; they were only working on more minor elements of projects and were feeling burned out because it felt like all they were doing was grunt work. This leader gave them more responsibility and, in effect, took projects off their own plate. To support this person, the leader let them know that this project was theirs to own and that if they needed help, they could ask. The result? The leader had more time, and the employee got to work on a challenging project that fueled their ambition.

If you’re feeling burned out, your instinct may be to keep your head down and keep grinding, but I want to encourage you to take a step back and put on your oxygen mask first. This way, you’ll be able to better support your team.

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