As of Nov 8/23
Welcome to the first step of a game-changing journey for you, me, and ideally the world. Together, we are going to explore why being in service may be the fastest and best way to get you closer to your needs and wants. I hear the arrogance there. Stay with me.
First, let’s spend a little time wrestling with a word we all think we know: service. While it seems like a straightforward and easily understood concept of helping, it is a lot more complicated and powerful. The goal of this book is to show we have sold the idea of service short. Really, short. And because of that, we have capped our success and missed out on living more meaningful and richer lives. And by richer, I mean in our heads, hearts and bank accounts.
We have to acknowledge that “service” is a loaded word. We have heard loud and clear from leaders around the globe that we all don’t view the word service with the same lens. For some, it conjures images of selfless saints and tireless volunteers. For others, it may evoke memories of waiters, and customer service agents on the other end of hard-to-hear VOIP calls offering tech support. In fact, many have been told their only worth is to serve others. For these and many other reasons, servitude is a concept that has alienated, oppressed and diminished millions. The goal of this book is to invite us to build a reality that is the exact opposite. Everyone deserves service and everyone can be of service to someone else.
The reality is that these different relationships with the word service come from the unique privilege we each bring to this conversation. Those of us who walk only on (figurative) red carpets have to acknowledge that many others walk on nothing but gravel. We cannot stress this enough: understanding your social location, and the privileges that come with it, is vital to fully embracing the power of service. Personally, it was also the first step to living an authentic, empowered and yes, richer life. To be clear, this is not about guilt or shame for who I am. It is about awareness of how systems impact my life differently than others. Service, when done right, reminds us that life is a two-way street of giving and receiving.
Let’s take that metaphor a step further and think of equity like a traffic cop at a broken stop light making sure that cars, goods and people keep moving. While the traffic light has a definitive and fixed pattern of start, stop and go, the traffic officer has the benefit (and responsibly) of looking all around herself to see the needs. The difference is that the officer is not just directing traffic without intent. She is making sure everyone has a fair shot at getting where they need to go which means those in the left turning lane may need to wait an extra minute. And while our timing may be different we can all get to where we want to go. Service is permission to not think about who is crossing first and getting upset that is is not me. Instead, it allows us to understand that others may need to cross the road now and I am not losing out when that happens. In fact, I am gaining just as much as they are.
Being in service to others (and stepping into the idea of Service Leadership that we will explore later) is not about working in a soup kitchen 24/7 or giving away your life’s savings (unless you want to: who am I to stop philanthropy?). We must remember that good service starts and ends with a self-awareness of where I sit as it relates to the people and systems around me. Only then can I be in true service to others.
So, as we unpack this new and more inclusive definition of service, we must remember it comes with agency. It is like a choose-your-own-adventure book but for grown-ups making a real-world impact. We are saying yes to equitable service, with choice and awareness sprinkled on top. Why? Because serving others shouldn’t come at the cost of your self-worth. On the contrary, it should enrich it and bring you closer to your goals. Service is the original win-win.
Service is both a mindset and a lens through which we view our interactions with the world. It’s not just about doing good things for others, although that’s part of it. It’s about creating a dynamic where the lines between the giver and the receiver are clear and where service becomes the underpinning of genuine, sustainable success. It moves our thinking from “What’s in it for me?” toward “What’s in it for us?”
Yes, I know. Sounds like a utopian dream. This isn’t just feel-good stuff I am making up. It is backed by science, case studies and personal stories we have collected from around the world. In the chapters ahead, we’ll explore the neurology of service, the psychology of ego, and the sociology of community building. Through research and real-world examples, our learning journey is going to help us understand not just the “why” but also the “how.”
Remember, this new definition of service isn’t about abandoning the self; it’s about enlarging the circle of who we consider ‘self.’ It’s an inclusive concept that welcomes everyone—from the child sharing crayons to the CEO redistributing wealth. The positive impact of service is real. No act of service is too small, and no ambition too big, as long as the intention (and partnership) is clear.
The pushback we often hear at the start of this learning journey is, “What about me? Don’t I count?” Of course, you do! That is the beauty of this redefinition. This is not self-neglect: it is self-expansion! By serving others with equity and through intentional and empowering acts, you’re not diminishing your light: you are amplifying it. Let’s be clear: your financial, physical and spiritual success and being in service to others are not mutually exclusive. They are the same.
I have seen the future and it is demanding we embrace service as a tool to heal ourselves, support those around us and solve our 21st-century problems. We have to ditch the outdated, narrow definitions we have used in the past and embrace a modern understanding of service. This will let us embark on an individual and collective transformative adventure, where service isn’t something we add to our agendas. It drives it.
Yours in service,
Chapter 1: The New Definition of Service
There was a time when Servant Leadership was the gold standard in corporate leadership. Born from the noble intent of serving others, it emphasized a leader’s role to steward the organization’s human resources. It was – and for a certain type of leader still is – a badge of honour to be called a Servant Leader.
It is understandable why. Servant Leadership was groundbreaking in its time. It broke the mould of the authoritarian, top-down model that dominated most of the 20th century. At its core, it invited leaders (usually in a business or faith-based context) to put the needs of others ahead of their own. Its goal was to ensure that people in charge were looking after those who were not.
Robert K. Greenleaf planted the seeds of Servant Leadership in the 1970s, a time of significant social upheaval and ethical questioning. His ideas were a breath of fresh air, challenging the command-and-control managerial styles that were popular back then. Greenleaf’s concept put the leader’s focus squarely on serving the needs of others—be it employees, customers, or the community. It was about creating environments where people could grow, gain autonomy and contribute meaningfully to their organizations. I once read that it was a form of leadership for those with a soul.
It was a revolutionary idea. However, it’s crucial to remember that Greenleaf’s perspective was a product of its time with a predominantly white, male-centric worldview. These theories were primarily shaped by and for a demographic that doesn’t reflect the complexity of today’s society. While Servant Leadership has offered many valuable insights into ethical and effective leadership, it is time to reevaluate and expand our understanding of what service is.
Because — and this will offend some — this old-school approach is a noble yet incomplete ideal. Ironically, servant leadership was often criticized for being centred around the leader and building a culture of “I’m doing this for you.” Because of this, it runs the risk of being reactive, responding to needs as they arise rather than proactively building a culture of equity, self-awareness and sustainable service.
Another challenge is that the trap of ‘leading from behind’ can allow servant leaders to over-share their authority or fade into the woodwork. Throughout my consulting career, I have seen it used as an excuse to step away from hard decisions or conflict. It can create environments where ‘if that is what you want’ becomes the default and builds cultures that are nice. While comfortable places to be, nice cultures are rarely grounded in belonging, embrace meaningful strategy or last long. Nice is good and we fully support it as a way to approach others. As a tool to reimagine our future? It’s just not good enough.
And, like so much in our culture, Servant Leadership is heavily biased. It is easy for a white, straight male like me to say he is acting in service to others when just about every system in our society has been set up to serve his needs. From our research and the hundreds of conversations we had about this, it is clear that the word servant is complicated for many and creates an imbalance that is disingenuous or oppressive. This model was especially unapproachable for leaders who identified as female, Black, brown, indigenous or came from other equity-seeking groups. It is not right to be asked to be a servant when the systems you push against daily already perceive you that way.
This is where Servant Leadership really shows its age. By centring leadership solely around servitude, it can perpetuate a kind of self-sacrificing heroism that isn’t sustainable, equitable or quite frankly, helpful. It also tends to overlook the essential elements of self-awareness, long-term thinking, and proactive culture-building, which are crucial for modern leadership. It creates a culture of dependency rather than empowerment.
Simply put, it is time to retire servant leadership because:
- Anyone asked to be a servant is not in an equitable relationship (even if they choose to put themselves in that position)
- It implies others have problems that only we can solve
- It can be driven by a need to lead, rather than an authentic desire to serve
While this will be troubling for many, it is time to acknowledge that servant leadership is broken and no longer an effective tool. While it was an admirable approach to leading and supporting others 50 years ago, it has lost touch with our modern world. The opportunities and challenges facing families, communities and businesses are too urgent and complex to rely on this outdated thinking that only works for a few. To be effective today, leaders need a framework that is flexible, inclusive, and attuned to the nuances of different cultures, genders, and social backgrounds.
We fully agree that leaders need to serve those around them; leadership without service is unrewarding, ineffective and boring. However, the imbalance created by the word servant makes this concept unapproachable for the vast majority.
Thank you for your service Servant Leadership. We will take it from here.
Welcome to Service Leadership
Service Leadership takes the good intentions of this outdated model and strips away the weight and burden of the word servant. It is not just a set of principles; it is a skill grounded in being in service rather than being a servant. This simple 3 letter change is a massive reframing of leadership: how we can lead with others, not on their behalf.
The biggest shift in this conversion is about about sustainability: our own! Being a servant is a one-sided relationship. It asks us to fulfill duties, meet expectations, and make a disproportionate level of sacrifice. There is often an emotional weight that comes with this role, an undercurrent of obligation and ignoring one’s own personal or emotional growth. This model asks us to continually pour from our cup into others without acknowledging that it is both unsustainable and not very appealing. Ironically, by its very definition, this model is take, take, take.
Being “in service” on the other hand, is more like a dance—a give-and-take. We are not diminished in this process; rather, are part of a reciprocal relationship where both parties benefit (more on this later). Being in service means you can bring your full self to what you’re doing, enriching not just those you are in service to but you as well. To point to the overused metaphor, it is like lighting another’s candle with your flame. The room gets brighter for everyone, and your light doesn’t diminish. In this sense, being in service can be emotionally rewarding, uplifting, and fundamentally different from the role of a servant.
This mindset is exciting. It recognizes that everyone, not just those in formal leadership positions, can serve and contribute to the betterment of their community, business, or family. Service Leadership focuses on creating equitable environments where everyone has what they need to thrive, not just survive. It’s about understanding and acknowledging power dynamics and using that understanding to build stronger, more authentic connections. It’s about helping people and not losing yourself in the process.
Truth be told, in much of my own professional journey, I proudly wore the badge of ‘Servant Leader.’ I believed wholeheartedly in Greenleaf’s philosophy and did my best to be a servant to the needs of my teams at home, work and in the community. It felt right. It felt noble. And for the longest time, I thought it was the epitome of ethical leadership. Now I really hear the arrogance in my voice.
The cracks began to form however as I stepped into my journey about belonging. Through lots of reading, learning and listening it was clear that it is easy for a white, straight male to say he is acting in service to others when just about every system in our society has been set up to serve his needs. While this book is not a full exploration of privilege, it is grounded in the premise that doors that opened for me because of the way I look, closed for others for the exact same reason. The really embarrassing part? I didn’t even know there was a door there.
And no, that is not my fault. Now that I know this imbalance is everywhere, however, it is my responsibility to try to change it. Thus began my passionate exploration of service and its magical power.
From our research and hundreds of conversations we had about service, it is clear that the word servant is very complicated for many and creates an imbalance that is disingenuous or oppressive. This model was especially unapproachable for leaders who identified as female, Black, brown, indigenous or came from other equity-seeking groups. It is not right to be asked to be a servant when the systems you push against daily already perceive you that way.
As my journey in understanding what real belonging looks like grew it also became clearer the role I needed to play in making that happen. After years of practicing and developing skills around servant leadership, there was a sudden and hard reality that what I thought was a tool to build better teams, create better work and secure my financial success wasn’t working. In fact, it was perpetuating the very systems I was trying to break down! Shit.
So what is a wannabe leader who is service-curious to do when they begin to understand that for all their good intentions they were part of the problem? I went back to my childhood and began to reflect on a relationship that had a profound impact on me as a kid, and as it turned out, my entire life. Allo me to introduce my grandmother Elise McBride. Well, actually Elise Curtis but that can be a little confusing.
My grandmother was a force of nature. Born in 1903 in small town Ontario Canada, she led a life that defied the norms of her time. Her father was the town’s only dentist which afforded her family a more than comfortable lifestyle. From an early age, it was clear that Elsie had something special. In addition to helping raise her three younger siblings, by the time she was 16 Elise was running the Sunday School. She also was getting paid to teach tennis to adults in her community, something that was almost unheard of for a woman of her age at that time.
At the age of 18, Elsie took a train to the big city of Toronto to get her underground degree. Today that journey isn’t a big deal. Then? It was likey the same as stepping onto another plant. Elsie went to the University of Toronto and earned her undergraduate degree. She stayed another year and by the time she was 21 was back in Smith Falls with her degree and teachers certificate, leading a one-room school house.
She and my grandfather Clifford Curtis (see the confusion there?) met after both returned to Smith Falls from their travels. The last stop on Clifford’s educational journey was getting his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. After getting married, they moved to Kingston where they built a life of their own together. Both served their community through volunteering, work and raising three children. Grandpa served as Mayor for xx years and Elise was involved in many organizations, the YWCA being the recipient of most of her volunteer time.
I loved my grandmother. She was lovingly referred to as ‘The Colonel’ by our family for her get-things-done attitude and the high expectations she had of herself and those around her. She did not suffer fools easily, taught me how to make homemade apple sauce and kept a diary for 50 years. She was a rebel in many ways pushing the boundaries of what women of her time could do. She even let me drive her blue Olds Toronado before I got a license! I was very lucky to spend many summers as a kid with her and through the time I spent with Elise and Clifford and then just Elsie, she grew to become one of the most influential people in my life.
We talked a lot and she pushed me to think harder and differently about many things including art, literature and faith. Hearing this wisdom and hearing her stories was a gift that I know many don’t have. It was during one of our regular summer conversations when she dropped a simple yet profound truth on me: ‘It’s Not About Me.’
While I didn’t realize it at the time, those four simple words opened up a world of possibility and profoundly changed how I led my life. It was a new and (quite frankly) clear lens that both aligned with and shaped my personal values, faith and professional career. They influenced how I tried to live as a partner, parent, community member and boss. (You can check in with each of those parties to see its actual benefit on them.)
In watching my grandmother live her life, it was clear these Four Simple Words were the permission I needed to lead with the intent to serve without losing myself in the process. They equipped me with a tool that allows me to focus on the needs of others, sidestepping the emotional and mental toll that often comes with getting involved. Those four words have grown to become the cornerstone of my personal and professional life and stand as a guiding principle in the evolution of Service Leadership. From an almost throwaway comment, Elsie distilled the essence and intention around Service Leadership.
So, as we delve deeper into what it means to be in service, we need to keep Elsie’s simple mantra in mind. Service Leadership isn’t just a fresh coat of paint on an old idea; it is a reimagining of how we relate to power, privilege, and responsibility. While the word ‘service’ may evoke imagery of passive submission for some, we want to shatter that notion. Service Leadership is active, intentional, and deeply transformative—for you, your goals and everyone around you.
Here’s the exciting part: Service Leadership (unlike Greenberg’s model which seems to have gotten stuck in a very specific corner of the world) is not confined to boardrooms and strategy meetings. It is a competency you can bring into every interaction, relationship, and challenge. You don’t need a title to be a Service Leader. All you need is a commitment to understand yourself, the courage to look for places to be in service and welcome the joys and challenges of being in relationship.
One Last Thing
Our last step before jumping in is to make sure we have a clear definition of what we mean by the word service, and what it means to be in service to someone or something.
Let’s begin with what it isn’t: Service isn’t just a word with ‘customer’ in front of it.
In fact, service isn’t a one-way street where only one person benefits while the other merely gives. Service is not a superficial exchange transaction lacking personal engagement (like too many customer service experiences!). Unlike kindness which can be shared from a distance with little personal risk, service demands partnership and proactive engagement. Service does not help from a pedestal of superiority or pity, but instead forges a genuine connection that honors the dignity and worth of the other person. And you.
That doesn’t mean we step into service for the glory or fame. When we publicly showcase our service we begin to step back into the dangerous patterns of Servant Leadership, making it about me. Service isn’t an avenue for self-promotion or a stage to showcase benevolence. It steers clear from putting the spotlight on our ego and instead focuses on the outcomes it creates with others. Service thrives in the quiet, rewarding moments of making a difference knowing that in return we are a little bit wiser and a little bit kinder. Real service does not expect material rewards or direct benefits because it is grateful for the personal growth that naturally occurs.
So what is service? Let’s try this on: Service is a personal connection rooted in respect and action. It is an evolving and time-bound partnership that allows everyone to walk away with more than they had at the start. Service isn’t a monologue but a dynamic dance of giving and receiving.
We have come to think of service (especially when used with the word customer) as being transactional and cold. The truth is that service is the exact opposite. Service is a conduit for learning, evolving, and building a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. Unlike a retail purchase or tech support conversation where the focus is on ending the engagement quickly, service offers us a journey of self-discovery, resilience, and quiet strength.
Let’s explore that more. Traditional customer service often boils down to a transactional interaction. It’s usually about resolving issues, answering queries, or closing a sale. The engagement is often scripted, and measured by metrics like Net Promoter Score, live time efficiency, or customer retention rates. The human connection can easily get lost amidst targets and scripted responses. It is primarily driven by a corporate motive to satisfy customers just enough to ensure they return or recommend the business. We are giving you exactly what we think you want and no more.
On the other hand, our new definition of service isn’t limited to these transactional boundaries. It emphasizes a personal connection rooted in respect and action. Our new lens on service allows us to think about a partnership where the engagement is a shared journey, where the giver and receiver grow. The focus shifts from merely resolving a problem to building a respectful, meaningful connection. And, the most important metric is how the person we are in service to wants to measure success.
Service isn’t about emptying oneself but about filling up—filling up on experiences, insights, and the quiet joy that comes from making a positive impact. Through service, we don’t just extend a helping hand; we stretch and strengthen our own understanding, compassion, and sense of connection
It is key to note that while servitude is not a choice, being in service is. Why does that matter? Because service is conditional on a few things: interest, capacity and constant evaluation. Lets break that down a little.
Service is about forming a personal connection based on respect and action. When we talk about respect in service, it’s about seeing and valuing others, and recognizing their needs and experiences. And action? It’s the practical steps we take to make a positive impact on others’ lives. It’s not just about good intentions but about listening to needs and doing something meaningful for others. Together, respect and action are the twin engines that power service.
This idea of an “evolving partnership” is equally important. It’s a two-way street. In serving others, we often find that we too learn, grow, and gain from the experience. This partnership is not fixed but continually changing, growing with every interaction. Each act of service is like a thread that, when woven together, creates a rich tapestry of shared experiences and mutual growth.
And the beautiful part? Everyone walks away with something valuable. It’s not just about solving a problem or meeting a need, although that’s a big part of it. It’s about the exchange of ideas, experiences, and the fulfillment that comes from making a positive difference..
The first step to good service is an acknowledgement that I can only offer it. Without someone accepting my service (for a minute, 10 hours or 10 years), my efforts will be shown through kindness.
SIDE BAR | The Sandwich Paradox: Kindness vs Service
True and meaningful service is a partnership of giving and receiving. Kindness on the other hand is a different human experience driven by connection, pity or a need to feel good. Nothing wrong with any of those motivations. And it’s important to know that kindness isn’t the same as good service.
It is kindness that drives me to give a homeless person a sandwich unprompted by anything other than my seeing (and assuming) their need for something to eat. It was an easy ask for me to order a sandwich when I was buying myself a coffee and then walk back around the corner to give it to this person. That is a thoughtful and kind act that the world needs more of. But, it is not being in service.
What is missing from this example is intentionality and partnership that kindness on its own does not have. True service can be instigated by kindness (in this case seeing a need) but is not service until I willingly enter into a partnership with someone who agrees that they want to receive something from me. Is this overcomplicating an act of generosity? Perhaps it is a good reminder that our motivations can be driven by kindness or service. Both of which are good. Just different.
For our sandwich story to be about service, I would have had an entirely different approach. As I walked past this individual I would have stopped to ask if they wanted something to eat and drink and learn about their specific food needs or likes. With that information, I would have gone to a specific store to get the food they wanted and would best meet their needs. I would have then brought back the meal that they asked for.
Kindness is easy. It is on my terms, based on my bias and view of the world. It is likely low threat and I will walk away feeling good about myself. In this example where we give away an unrequested meal, I didn’t really connect with this human being other than to hand them a sandwich, offer my thoughts and wish them well. The entire interaction with them took less than 15 seconds. This feels like the outdated Servant Leadership model where I was thinking about the other person but did so in a way that asked very little of me and was driven by me. Yes, this person had a sandwich but I walked away feeling slightly smug (or grateful) without really knowing if the sandwich was what that individual wanted.
xx Many stop me there and say but isn’t that enough? I gave my time and resources to get that individual a sandwich and the world is better for it. Surely to ask for anything more is too unrealistic as there is no benefit back to me. Isn’t kindness enough for me and this individual? The answer is simply no.
Unlike kindness, service is both harder and more impactful. To be in service to the needs of this person means I would have had to stop when I first saw them and build a relationship. That is more risky, and should my offer have been rejected or met skepticism would have been very uncomfortable. It definitely would have taken longer and been far more involved and interrupted my plans. After stopping to have a conversation, I needed to ask if they wanted food, and then find a store that served what they wanted, rather than making a last-minute call to buy a sandwich when I was already in line. Going back to deliver the food and likely engage in a conversation that would have taken more time and energy to confirm they had everything they needed. The scary part of that conversation would have been an ask that would have taken more time, money or energy than I was willing to commit at the time.
Kindness is good. Kindness matters. Kindness can change the world. And kindness is easy. It is a way we can connect with others, make an impact on their world and feel good about ourselves. But kindness is not being in service.
Kindness is also a gateway to service. Because it can often be a low threat and full of good personal return, kindness is a way to push our comfort with the uncomfortable. In our sandwich example, the only really uncomfortable part of that transaction was walking back to the individual with the sandwich in my hand. The risk was they would reject my offer or others around them would look at me wondering who I was to think that individual needed or wanted a sandwich was real, but fairly low. Any nerves I felt about making the assumption that I had something to offer disappeared in the 15 seconds I engaged with the individual. Their gratitude was authentic, their surprise was rewarding and I had to give away very little position or personal power to make it happen. If anything my personal stature and self-perception of I’m a good guy was reinforced.
The problem with staying in the kindness zone is that it eventually gets boring and can be all about me. The hit of adrenaline and positive reinforcement that I get from being kind might be enough to keep me going and feeling good about myself. Because I am not building authentic or real relationships, however, it can in fact build distance between me and others.