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No Servant Leaders

What's the difference between servant and green leaders? Servant leaders claim to have a different model of leadership, but being a green leader just means showing leadership on green issues.

Like green leaders, servant leaders also champion a cause: service to others, but doing so doesn't entail a unique model of leadership.

When we talk about political, military, technical, green, moral or thought leadership are we talking about six different models of leadership or simply different domains in which leadership is shown, all in much the same way?

Why does it matter? Well, servant leadership makes bold claims that the desire to be of service is a necessary condition to lead, for ALL leaders, that it is THE one best way to lead. But business today is a war of ideas and many front-line employees can show leadership with a new idea regardless of whether they have any desire to serve people.

How Leadership Works

Leadership is often described as an influence process. Thus we say that leadership only occurs if people willingly follow, not if someone is holding a gun to their heads.

Leadership influence occurs in either of two ways: by example or by the explicit promotion of a new direction.

When we talk about green leadership, we are referring to people with green values. They show leadership on green issues by example when they use energy efficiently or when they advocate the same values to others. Ethical leadership in business works the same way. Finance Directors, for instance, who adopt unusually transparent practices, lead by example. In addition, they might advocate such practices to their colleagues.

The same could be said of servant leadership. Its champions value service to others or to a higher cause. This is akin to moral leadership generally. Someone who takes the moral high ground on any issue shows moral leadership but not in any unique way. People who value service lead by example when they put the needs of others ahead of their own or when they promote this way of behaving to their colleagues.

The expression “financial leadership” is shorthand for “showing leadership with respect to financial matters.” There is no unique kind of financial leadership as such. Leadership in this domain is shown the same way it is shown in all domains. Surely this is true of servant leadership too. Is it not shorthand for “showing leadership with respect to the value of service?”

On this basis, there are no servant leaders, strictly speaking. There are only people who show leadership with respect to the value of serving. More precisely, you can only SHOW leadership by influencing people to think or act differently, NOT by serving them. Serving people may help them and serving a worthy cause may be admirable but you can only show leadership by promoting a better way, in whatever domain. The mistake that servant leadership advocates make is to think that serving is itself a way of leading.

Thinking that you can show leadership to people by serving them betrays a fundamental confusion about the meaning of leadership and how it is shown.

Advocates of servant leadership also confuse management with leadership. Thus, they think that leadership has something to do with a manager getting the best out of subordinates. But this concept of leadership restricts it to those who are in charge of people, which rules out bottom-up leadership or that shown by outsiders. Bear in mind that green leaders are trying to show leadership to the world at large, to communities for which they are outsiders.

A green leader might relentlessly criticize a corporation that was especially wasteful in its use of energy and have a positive leadership impact if the company changes its ways. But such a leader is an outsider to this organization so can only influence them to buy the need to change, not decide for them or get involved in implementing the change. The company’s needs are not being served by this criticism. On the contrary, they are being asked to make sacrifices for the greater good.

But, you object, is not promoting the greater good of the environment a form of servant leadership? No, that is simply the goal the leader pursues. Leaders might pursue profit, efficiency, growth, market share or 101 other goals, but particular goals don’t call for special models of leadership. Whatever leaders are aiming to achieve, they can only lead by influencing people to act differently. And this can only be done either by example or by advocacy.

In other words, what you want to achieve, the goals you set yourself as a leader, are totally independent of how leadership is shown. Servant leadership advocates are confusing ends and means by thinking that you are a servant leader if you serve a higher cause.

To be perfectly clear, when I say: “Leadership influence occurs in either of two ways: by example or by the explicit promotion of a new direction,” I am assuming my own model of leadership, one that draws a sharp distinction between it and management. In my view, leadership must be nothing more than a form of influence. Otherwise, how can we talk about green leaders? How can we say that Martin Luther King had a leadership impact on the U.S. Supreme Court when his demonstrations led them to outlaw segregation on buses? These people are outsiders relative to the groups on which they had a leadership impact; they are not in charge of those who are led to change.

The advantage of my model of leadership is that it includes such cases as these but also covers market leadership, where one company shows the way for others by example. This is, admittedly, an unconventional view of leadership. Most models of leadership portray it as a person in a role in charge of a group, where to my mind, it is terribly confused with management.

In my framework, managers do need to be servant-like but serving employees has nothing to do with leadership. But, even with regard to managing people effectively, I think that being servant-like is too strong. You can support, nurture, develop, coach and empower people without being their servant. Yes, you may occasionally need to put their needs ahead of yours, but you can’t serve employees ahead of the needs of the organization if you hope to keep your job.

My definition of management is: getting the best out of all resources in the pursuit of a given goal. Now, some managers may have, as a goal, to serve the community. But the goal of other managers is to generate a profit. In either case, an effective manager makes the best use of all pertinent resources in pursuing that goal. Thus we can’t define management by tying it down to any specific goals. It is really a PROCESS for achieving (whatever goals) in a way that makes best use of all resources. Managers must always aim to achieve their goals. Employees, like it or not, are one of the manager’s means of achieving those goals, never an end in themselves. 

Just as management is a process for achieving ends in an efficient manner, so is leadership a process for influencing people to think or act differently. Both of these processes can be applied to different goals or in line with different values. Otherwise, how can we account for leaders like Hitler or the leadership and/or management of criminal or terrorist organizations?  

Thus, the definition of leadership and management must be both value and goal neutral.

What is called servant leadership is therefore merely a preference for a particular set of values or goals, not a distinct model of leadership in itself.

CEOs who value service to all stakeholders including employees wear two hats, like all executives: one is leadership, one is managerial. Their serving activities are managerial; they lead by promoting a vision. Strictly speaking we can't follow people just because they serve us because they aren't going anywhere. Leaders lead by example when they go somewhere ahead of us or when they advocate going somewhere. Serving employees may help to motivate them to work harder but this is what management is all about, not leadership, in my opinion.

Conclusion

It is vitally important to define leadership as an influence process in order to foster better employee engagement and faster innovation. To do so, we need to recognize that front-line employees are leaders when they successfully promote new products or better ways of working to their bosses. We need to realize that having a better idea does not entail any intention to serve. Great artists, for example, are so immersed in their work that they don’t care about the world around them. Yet, if they innovate and other artists follow their example, they are showing leadership. The bottom-line is that we need to break the stranglehold that the notion of being in charge of others has over all our thinking about leadership.

A General Model of Leadership

I am trying to define leadership in a way that covers ALL possible cases, even odd ones, including:

  • leading by example: when employees set an example and are followed by others who don't report to them.
  • market leadership: following the example of market leading companies.
  • outsider leadership: green leaders promoting a better way to communities or groups where they are outsiders.
  • Jack Welch's mantra of being number one or two in a market having a leadership impact on other companies.
  • bottom-up leadership: when a front-line employee convinces management to develop a new product.
  • a CEO promoting a new vision.

Leadership shown in ALL such instances can be defined as: showing the way for others, either by example or by promoting a new direction.  

Descriptive or Normative?

We can either DESCRIBE how leadership works or we can say how we think leaders SHOULD behave. A purely descriptive approach must be general enough to account for all kinds of leadership, including that shown by criminals and terrorists. Green leadership is normative. It says that we want, or admire, leaders who value and promote green policies. Servant leadership is also normative. Its advocates want leaders who are selfless and nurturing, who exemplify the value of serving others. Now, any normative account is always relative to a set of values that some may feel stronger about than others. But the key point here is that my account is purely descriptive, thus totally VALUE NEUTRAL

In conclusion, my critique of servant leadership is not an attack on the VALUES or aims of those who subscribe to the idea of servant leadership. My criticism is that servant leadership is not a model of leadership any more than is green leadership. My claim, rightly or wrongly, is that there is only one definition of leadership: showing the way for others, either by example or by advocating a new direction.

Revised January 13, 2012. Please note: This is my most recent thinking on servant leadership, hence supercedes my earlier attempts to clarify my views on this subject.

For a new concept to replace servant leadership, see: The Post-heroic Manager. A closely related artlcle to No Servant Leaders! is No Leaders. No Managerswhere it is clear that I am attacking ALL models of leadership that focus on one person at the head of affairs. See also The Ideal Leader and Beyond Folk Leadership.

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