The paradox of servant leadership

The paradox of servant leadership

My high school student leadership days have been very instrumental in shaping my beliefs about leadership in general.

As a former student-athlete (my dad bod says hello to my former self! Haha!), I felt that effective leadership meant outworking (not necessarily outperforming) teammates who are more talented than me. I learned then that discipline and hard work are the basic currencies of earning respect. Looking back, maybe I didn’t need to be the best player in the team, but I intuitively craved to be the most respected.

Simultaneously, as a former high school student government vice-president, I intimately knew what it meant to sacrifice. Sig served as my president, and back then, our student government was called the Student Advisory Board (SAB). Sig and I would often tell each other that SAB could mean “Sacrifice At its Best” especially in moments when we were too busy organizing that we are unable to actually enjoy. I remember proms, dance nights, and concerts when we are unable to have dates or just normally participate because we had to do so many preparations behind the scenes. Admittedly, during those times, everything felt absurd – why is it that the student leaders who organized events are the people who were unable to enjoy the very event they organized?

Many years later, I’ve come to realize how formative those moments really were. Those moments helped me appreciate servant leadership in a simple yet pure way – the service is both the process and reward in itself. A rational person would not stay in those moments because there were no material rewards. There are even more risks – I recall moments when our event mishaps led to some students and even some of our teachers getting frustrated at us. Rationally, there seemed no upside.

But from an authentic and integrative perspective, those moments made me realize how it’s possible to be selfless, or at least be “self-with-others”. The sense of fulfillment or wholeness after pulling off a hard project made it all worthwhile. And, to this day, I consider Sig a brother for life. How could I not when we endured so many battles together?

To end my reminiscing, I’d like to write about how my wife has teased me about my views on public recognition. When I achieve certain career milestones, she’s the one who spreads the word (to my slight discomfort). And maybe that discomfort stems from my high school experiences where it’s about discipline, hard work, and sacrifice even if the supposed “rewards” are not guaranteed. Maybe I wanted to preserve the “purity” of being able to say that I did good work because doing good work is a reward in itself. Maybe I don’t want to be seen as narcissistic. And I don’t want to also be falsely humble. So maybe my coping mechanism is to just treasure the purity of doing something for the sake of it. Good work for the sake of good work. Service for the sake of service.

The title of this reflection is “the paradox of servant leadership”, and I feel that the moment I brand myself as a “servant leader” is also the moment when it feels my leadership is most inauthentic. So, maybe, a not-discomforting way to articulate my thoughts right now is that “servant leadership” is what we’ve been trained on way back our high school days. The paradox is if we view servant leadership as a means to a reward, it becomes absurd. Or the reward becomes more elusive.

But if the conditions and context allow for a person to just focus on doing good work and doing service for their own sake, then “servant leadership” may not seem like an elusive ideal or a cheesy leadership term anymore.

John 13:16-20. The servant is not greater than his lord; neither is the apostle greater than he that sent him. If you know these things, you shall be blessed if you do them.


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