Servant Leaders – It’s Not the Words or Actions, It’s the Intent

“The intent to serve unconditionally does not require love, it produces it.” – Etsko Schuitema

On paradoxes

The above quote is a bit of a paradox isn’t it? You don’t necessarily need to start from a place of love but you can get there with the right intentions. Hmm time to ponder because there is insight to be had here for servant leaders.

I recently ran a workshop at the Australian Asian Change Days mega event. My topic was “What does living in service to others look like?”. Sitting behind this was of course the concept of Servant Leadership. My position was and is that we are born with a motivation to serve. Be it ourselves, others or an ideology or cause. I know the Freudian pain-pleasure principle, that we run away from pain and r

un towards pleasure, is widely acknowledged as the driver for our actions. Even in doing that, we’re serving ourselves right? So I drew a venn diagram with the three categories.

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How do you fill up your tank?

It’s about where you get your energy from. Meaning in our lives comes from balancing these three. For example I’m strongly in the serving myself category. I get my energy from being by myself, reading, meditating, pondering. But I can take it too far. Anyone can. If my self-serving ways fall into hedonistic selfishness then I start looking out for just myself. If I take it any further I start looking out for myself at the expense of others. This applies to serving an ideology or cause as well. Do it in balance with the other categories, you’re cruising. Take it too far, you become a fanatic wanting to push an agenda at the expense of others.

What about serving others? Surely there’s nothing wrong with that? That’s what we should all aspire to right? Well again, take it too far, lose the balance and you start serving others at the expense of yourself. You start serving someone else’s meaning of life; their goals, motivations and purpose, not your own. If we agree that one searches for meaning in life to feel fulfilled, then one needs to find harmony amongst these three categories of servitude.

On leadership

I’ve been lucky enough to attend Etsko Schuitema’s courses on Personal Excellence and Leadership Excellence. In fact I’ve been so influenced by his research and teachings that I’m now collaborating with him. The biggest learning for me has been that it’s not about mastering words or even actions. The most important thing to master is our own intent and that is the harder challenge. Intent surpasses actions or words. This is equally true in leadership or non-leadership interactions with others (leadership interactions being those where we are seen to be in the role of the leader, in a work or private life context).

The degree of correctness of intent is based on the degree of wanting to “give” as opposed to wanting to “get”. Going through life and shifting our intent from “getting” to “giving” is how we mature and it’s also how we get to be Servant Leaders; those who serve first, lead second. I think Etsko purposely uses the word intent rather than intention. Intention indicates something you want to do as a once-off. Intent is something you want to continue doing after formalising your motives.

What do Servant Leaders care about?

Servant Leaders are primarily concerned with the care and growth of those they are responsible for. So in my venn diagram above, I can serve myself all I want but when I shift the narrative to; I’m serving myself so that I can go and serve others, that’s when I start getting breakthroughs. Same goes for serving an ideology or a cause. Doing it for yourself versus doing it so that you can help others will have remarkably different outcomes.

Serving others is a bit trickier. Are you serving others without keeping anything in the bank? If you’re not taking time out to fill yourself up, how’re you going to continue serving people tomorrow. Giving unconditionally does not mean giving irresponsibly. There’s also another layer to this. Are you serving others to generate goodwill or to build a reputation? Then that’s not serving others unconditionally you’re still serving yourself. Why is making this shift in intent important? Think of it this way, if you want to get to the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, you need to think less in terms of your own needs and more in terms of fulfilling others needs. That’s the trick to get you to the top.

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Why the world needs more Servant Leaders

So what does this look like in the context of Servant Leadership? It’s about truly coming from a place where you intend to serve others by providing them care and growth. This intent actually trumps your need to achieve results. Paradoxically the results are then achieved anyway. If the opposite of Service Leadership is Autocratic Leadership or in other words, Dictatorship, then a Democratic Leader would fall somewhere in the middle. It’s the purity of the intent of the Democratic Leader that will carry them into Service Leadership territory. If you’re wondering whether Servant Leadership is useful just consider this; had Jacinta Ardern, presently the Prime Minister of New Zealand, been the President of the United States of America, would the Black Lives Matter protests have played out differently?


What does serving others through care and growth look like? Just ask a parent. They know what it’s like and how challenging it is and also ultimately how rewarding it is.

If you want to read more on the topic, please read Leadership: The Care & Growth Model

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