Servant leadership: connecting the spiritual to design leadership

Sometimes you just need a label to take you to a next level of insight. A label can seem arbitrary but it can also be mind-opening. In the past I had this with the label Design Thinking. That label connected design and business consultancy in me. Two things that had lived in me. Two things that I sensed had something to do with each other but did not click. Once I found the label, or the label found me, a new door opened in my head. Two separate things in me merged into one. A defragmentation of sorts. The label also connected me to other people that were doing things the same way I did them. And because I had a term to search online, I could find knowledge about the subject.

Design Thinking

I had the same experience today with the label Servant Leadership. The term found me through Katrijn van Oudheusden. The term connected two things in me that I suspected to have a connection but had not really found each other to merge into one. But once the two things met in this new label, they immediately connected and became one.

One of the two things is leadership. That one is obvious because it is in the label Servant Leadership. Just like the term design is in the label Design Thinking. The other part of the label is interesting. A lot has been said and written about leadership. We need something new in this new era. We need something more humble than the arrogant leadership ideas of the past. We need something more feminine than the masculine concepts we have had up until now. But Humble Leadership or Feminine Leadership doesn’t really cut it. The new type of leadership we need is more spiritual, more mindful. But Spiritual Leadership or Mindful Leadership feels too much like new age spiritual ideas of the past. It needs something that is present in leadership but hasn’t really been getting enough attention. Just like designers have been thinking for ever but that is not what they have been hired to do in the past. Thinking to solve problems was left to business consultants. By emphasizing the thinking that designers do, which is different from business consultants, designers could move into the business consulting world. The label Servant Leadership emphasizes a part of leadership that hasn’t been getting enough attention: serving. Not authority or power but service. Not fixing things and telling people what to do but empowering people. And to be a servant leader, you need to go inside, you need to go on a journey which we could call spiritual. What you need to be a servant leader is presence.

Servant Leadership

Presence is at the core of the spiritual journey. To be present means to exist. Everybody exists. So that is easy. But it’s not. It’s one of the most difficult things there is. It’s more about unlearning than learning. It’s a journey to the inside. It’s about ridding yourself of the programming you have received by our culture. It requires seeing yourself like you see another person. It’s about letting go of conventions and rules. It’s about letting go of the past and the future and just being in the now. It’s about letting go of expectations and judgements. It’s about surrendering to what unfolds and believing in unlimited potential. It’s about letting go of ego, identity and personal goals.

This may sound like a lot so let’s just call it the spiritual journey. It’s a never ending journey. What I find interesting in the context of leadership is that progressing on this spiritual journey enables you to be a servant leader. According to Katrijn, true service comes from presence. Authority and power comes from ego. The way I understand it, there are two parts to being a servant leader that come from the spiritual journey:

  • One part is the service. If you can let go of ego, identity and personal goals, nothing stands in the way of true service.
  • The other part is ability. This also has to do with getting things out of the way. It’s not about learning new skills but getting rid of things that block the things that you can already do. If you can rid yourself of limiting beliefs, thoughts about past and future, judgements and conventions, you can notice more, understand more and connect better. The better your ability, the better you can serve.

I don’t know if this journey should be called difficult. I find it challenging because this is not something we get taught in schools. It’s quite the opposite of what we get taught in schools. I also find it challenging because it is uncomfortable to journey inward and find dark sides in yourself. You have to find answers to some difficult questions. I love that people like Katrijn help people on this journey. The goal to be a better leader can be the trigger that puts you on this path.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button so I know I connected with you. Let me know what you think in the comments. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at :) You can also find me on Instagram. When I am not blogging about Design Leadership, I work as a design strategist and project manager at Zuiderlicht.



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Dennis Hambeukers

Dennis Hambeukers


Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner