An Innovative Tradition: Servant-Leadership as a Gateway to Diversity in the Workplace


An Innovative Tradition: Servant-Leadership as a Gateway to Diversity in the Workplace

(Carolina Chambel and Jamina Vesta Jugo)


What does it mean to be a “servant-leader”?  This term, particularly popular in Jesuit institutions, has been gaining ground in value conscious business circles as well.  Traceable at least as far back as the New Testament, it has always been a fascinating concept because it combines two seemingly opposite ideas.  In this article we will explore another dimension that this term may take, particularly as a way to promote diversity and inclusion at work.

Servant-leadership as an idea contains more profound implications for diversity because certain groups are more likely to be seen as good servants, while others have a higher chance of being perceived as good leaders.  In broad strokes, women and BIPOC persons are assumed to have service-oriented qualities like empathy; intuition/naïve wisdom; and communalism. All the while, traits such as innovativeness; assertiveness; extraversion; and individualism are more easily attributed to white, Western men.

People brave and skilled enough to claim the traits of the “other” group risk all kinds of negative reactions.  Women and minorities who assert themselves “too much” may be accused of arrogance or otherwise failing to “know their place”. On the other hand, men of all ethnic groups who offer—or, possibly worse, ask for—care may be dismissed as weak or unreliable.  Of course, we must not draw false equivalences between groups.  People who are trapped in low-ranking or underappreciated positions have a considerable disadvantage compared to those bearing the constant burden of strength.  Women and minorities can also get stuck in a double bind: criticized for lacking leadership qualities and criticized again if they dare to display them.  Western men who display traditional leadership qualities like confidence and determination are less likely to be penalized for fulfilling expectations.  However, the larger point here is that stereotypes and beliefs about who leads and who serves are negative for society as a whole.

Seemingly “objective” measures like talents and attributes can carry many kinds of historical baggage and prejudice, and their uncritical application can easily turn into racism, sexism, and other kinds of discrimination by proxy.  Recruiters can advocate that they look for “leadership qualities”, but could it be that they are really looking for traditional masculinity, which of course should come in a manly package?

Fortunately, more critical perspectives on gender and ethnicity are helping us to transcend such biases.  Cultural critique has become vogue as well, with dissections of shallow feminist concepts like the “girlboss,” which is essentially macho capitalism dressed up in heels and a skirt suit. In Europe, countries with gendered languages are experimenting with more neutral terminology in order to dismantle old expectations.

We are in an age of evaluating what gender, racial, and other identity categories really mean.  Many of us are trying to use identity categories more constructively.  This means striking a difficult balance between using labels for clarity and advocacy, while not being rigid or judgmental at all with them.  Boxes are useful containers–but they can be prisons too.

Thinking more deeply about servant-leadership helps us to navigate this balance.  We do not have to choose between being a good servant or a good leader.  Rather, we can lead well because we aim to serve, and serve well because we are ready to lead.  At the same time, the term is specific enough to allow us to evaluate ourselves and each other according to the quality of our servant-leadership.  We are pushed to think beyond binary categories of leader vs. servant/follower—and all the other biases that overlap with these concepts.

We can apply a similar logic to our handling of diverse identities. Identity is enhanced when people are brave enough to learn from others with different backgrounds.  For example, a good man expresses the fullness of his humanity also by showing care, and in any case, to care is also a form of bravery and leadership that is just as admirable as traditional martial courage.  Doing this makes him no less of a man—indeed, he is more fully a man, or more precisely, more fully human.  A woman, for her part, can be an even stronger leader if she shows her vulnerability—thus showing others that they can be authentic as well.  And as for that old question about career versus family, a working mother can be more motherly when she models independence and self-care for her children through her career.  Really, how big are the differences in the skills required to care for a family versus leading a team?  The leadership skills applied are the same and are cross-cutting when it comes to taking care of a family, a community, or a team! For too long, we have believed that people can be truly good at only one or the other, based on accidents of birth.  Servant-leadership helps us to understand that these skills are not so different from each other.  They can be blended to their best advantage once we start thinking past hard labels.  We should apply the same mindset when we hire or work with people of various genders, ethnic backgrounds, identities, etc.

As such, servant-leadership is a useful concept on multiple levels.  It helps to unmask the hidden biases in our “objective” measures of competence.  It also provides a positive model for using categories without being trapped by them.  No wonder.  Religious in origin, but with huge potential for secular application, old-new and traditionally innovative, it deserves to be explored in all workplaces with a genuine drive towards diversity and inclusion.

Photo Copyrights: Carolina Chambel
Photo Copyrights: Carolina Chambel

Note: This post results from a partnership between Carolina Chambel and Jamina Vesta Jugo, both fellows during the ELP Spring cohort 2022.

Jamina is running an interesting project called Brussels beyond the Bubble. It is worth taking a look at it here.