service is an act of leadership: 7 reasons why ‘serving’ is different from ‘pleasing’



If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.
–John Quincy Adams


Pleasing is something you do to get your own needs met: for approval, validation, control.

Serving is when you get outside of yourself and address the needs of someone else (even if they themselves are not aware of them).

Carol Pearson makes an interesting distinction between martyrdom and sacrifice. Martyrdom is a bargain you make in order to save yourself. Genuine sacrifice is higher and more evolved: it is intended to save others.


Pleasing is obligatory. Pleasers often feel they have to be everything to everybody. Pleasing can be its own kind of addiction: people will do it even when they’re resentful, or tired, or on the verge of burnout. They’re looking outside themselves to fill a hollowness within, which is always a losing battle.

Service is freely chosen. Servers know you can’t serve everybody, and don’t try. They know who their people are and trust that others can find service elsewhere (from more capable and appropriate individuals). They also know their own value, and where the needs of the world intersect with what they offer.


Pleasing diminishes the self. Pleasers give away pieces of their soul until it is almost gone. They don’t have a strong sense of where they end and others begin; they don’t know where to draw the bright line of No, or feel like they have the right. The world rushes in and invades them.

Service expands the self. It is done in harmony with your identity: it develops and strengthens your sense of who you are. Servers nurture strong, healthy boundaries that enable acts of compassion: they can open up to the pain and darkness of others without being overwhelmed by it.


Pleasing comes at cost. On a deep level it feels hurtful to the pleasers. It leads to accumulated resentment, frustration, bottled anger. It creates a victim mentality (if sometimes cloaked with a sense of moral superiority).

Service is done in a spirit of joy, engagement and connection.


Pleasers – whether they admit this or not – expect something in return. They keep score. They operate from a sense of scarcity (since there is a finite amount of self for them to offer up, a cake with only so many slices). They expect an even transaction: they trade their time, emotion and energy for love, attention, or some other form of reciprocity.

Servers live from a sense of enough. They have enough for themselves and enough for you. Their self-worth is not at stake. The service, in and of itself, carries its own reward. It comes with no chains attached, no hidden price tags. Servers practice self-care and self-respect; they know how to replenish themselves and prevent burnout.


Pleasing ends up isolating you from others and from yourself. Because pleasers discount their own needs and suppress the wants, emotions and behaviors that might displease people, they get cut off from their own authenticity. Since they can’t present their true selves to people, they can’t connect from a genuine place. They feel unseen and unknown.

Service connects you to people. It plugs you in to something much bigger than yourself: the sacred circuit. The value that you create doesn’t disappear into a tidy transaction, but feeds into a stream of energy that influences others and circles back to nourish and sustain you (and allow you to create more value).

“The power,” as Seth Godin puts it in LINCHPIN, “lies in the creation of abundance. A trade leaves things as they were, with no external surplus. A gift always creates a surplus as it spreads.”

When a person receives that “creation of abundance”, it strengthens the bond between the giver and the receiver, and the receiver is obligated to pass it on.

And what is service – true service – if not a gift?


Pleasing gives away your power. When you look to someone else for approval and validation, you are voluntarily placing yourself in a one-down position. The other person will then make you feel good or bad about yourself — depending, quite possibly, on little more than his or her mood at that moment.

In emotionally abusive relationships, the abuser manages to convince the partner that if only he/she can change the offending behavior – and become more pleasing – the relationship will return to the sunny days and swept-off-your-feet romance of the beginning. Yet somehow the partner never pleases enough, and the abuser remains in control of the relationship.

True service generates power because it is an act of leadership (there’s a phrase for this: servant leadership). It signals that the server has the wisdom and strength from which others may benefit. It also signals that the server is benevolent and caring. When an individual is both warm and powerful, we trust them enough to put our faith in them, and look to them to show the way.

Jan 13, 2014

6 comments · Add Yours

Servant-leadership from you this morning, Justine! Thank you.


Wow. I needed this. I am a pleaser who has been struggling with healthy boundaries. Everything you say about what a pleaser loses or seeks to gain is so true. I just never realized how costly it really is. My authenticity has been traded away for momentary validation and a brush with sense of self.

Thank you so much for this. I’m printing it out to hang on my wall.


The best server, though, …is one that’s never noticed.


I have also always been a people pleaser and didn’t realize what it has taken from me until recently. I realized I was not doing myself any favors being this way, but this post opened my eyes about some of the reasons I was always trying so hard to please everyone! I feel so much better when I am being a server, rather than a pleaser. Thanks for such a thought provoking article.


As one of my favourite writers, Kahlil Gibran said, “Work is love made visible”.
If only all work was of such a nature. To simply love what we do unconditionally, not to please or for validation or money, but because we love doing it and for reasons other than just for ourselves.
I love this article Justine. It is very empowering!
Thank You


Trying to please! We all have done it.
Trying to serve! No better.

Service is great but it happens…best not planned.
The greatest service you can do to the world and yourself is by being ‘you’.


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