Why ‘Servant Leadership’ Isn’t an Oxymoron

There’s a growing belief that wielding influence from a service role makes teams stronger and more effective. Read an expert’s tips for putting this nontraditional approach to leadership to work.


Growing up in a Puerto Rican family of strong women who operated within a patriarchal system and practiced Catholic traditions, my understanding of gender roles was shaped by beliefs that are traditionally associated with Latin American cultures: machismo (male) and marianismo (female).

Marianismo, a concept unfamiliar to many, is rooted in the example of the Virgin Mary, traditionally the feminine “ideal” — passive, pious and vulnerable, existing as a complement to men, who are supposed to be bold and driven. But Latina scholars around the world, myself included, are beginning to reclaim the concept of marianismo, reframing our understanding of Mary’s character to include traits like selflessness alongside diplomacy, strength and integrity.

For me, marianismo is not about a limiting set of behaviors that places my value only in relation to men. Instead, I think of it as a leadership style that puts service first and allows me to foster collaboration, goodwill and a democratic atmosphere on my teams and in my partnerships.

The type of leadership I’m referring to is known as community servanthood. It’s a style that feels natural to me and to many others, especially those who have grown up with the marianismo ideal.

Everyone can benefit from community servanthood, and everyone can practice servant leadership — men and women, young and old, Latinx or not. By applying a few basic principles to your work and life, you can empower the people around you to more effectively achieve mutually beneficial goals.

Everyone can benefit from community servanthood, and everyone can practice servant leadership — men and women, young and old, Latinx or not.

Lourdes J. Rodríguez, DrPH
Director, Community-Driven Initiatives
Associate Professor, Department of Population Health

Aspire to Be a “Servant Leader”

Identify the goal and serve the group so that you can all win in the end. When you focus on the well-being and growth, both professional and personal, of those around you — your team members, colleagues beyond your team and external partners — you enhance mission buy-in. I have found that people are more likely to invest in your team’s mission if you invest in theirs.

Walk Into a Room to Learn, Not to Brandish Your Expertise

Nobody can take away your expertise; you earned it and you own it. So use it fiercely. However, beware of flaunting: Bullies come into a room prepared to use their expertise as a tool to push people around, whereas servant leaders recognize that their expertise should be adapted to the situation they’re in and to complement the people they’re around. That becomes clearer when you walk in with a learning heart and mind.

At Dell Med, Community-Driven Initiatives’ annual Call for Ideas is centered around this philosophy: ideas to improve health in a community are proposed by the very people who live and work in those spaces. By recognizing that we can’t know what we don’t know, those of us on the team can direct our focus to lifting up ideas that will most uniquely benefit people living in our communities.

Understand the Expertise of Others & Adjust Team Dynamics Accordingly

Coquis (tiny frog-like amphibians native to Puerto Rico) adapt their nightly songs whenever a member of their collective enters or leaves the tree where they congregate, ensuring each has equal opportunity at finding a mate. Similarly, team dynamics should shift based on who enters or exits a project. This fosters innovation, creativity and shared leadership. It multiplies your team’s potential.

Lift Up Those Who Contribute

In real life, there are no lone rangers (even if stories with a leading “shero” or hero are easier to tell than stories with an ensemble cast). When recognizing successes, ensure you lift up everyone who contributed in ways big and small. Trying to parcel out success is hard to do — and it is not as productive as when you take the opportunity to celebrate your entire team, recognizing that you are often so much greater than the sum of your parts.

Lourdes J. Rodríguez, DrPH, is the director of the Community-Driven Initiatives at Dell Med. She works on community-engaged research and practice projects that build on ideas elicited from community colleagues.