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Why Criticize Servant Leadership

One of my reasons for criticizing servant leadership is to get away from ALL concepts of leadership that portray it as a role in charge of people. My aim is to develop a model of leadership that includes bottom-up leadership.

When a front-line employee promotes a new product successfully to management, I see this as bottom-up leadership. It may not seem like leadership to some, but it has the same form as what Martin Luther King was doing when he challenged the status quo to promote fairer treatment of African Americans.

Neither of these instances of leadership involves being in a role in charge of people.  In both cases, leadership is shown by outsiders to a particular target group. For example, MLK had a one-off leadership impact on the U.S. Supreme Court when they ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. I think it’s worth adding that, when we think of him as a leader, it is not how he managed the people who joined him on his protest marches.  No, it is the impact he had on the general population and their attitudes. Thus he had a leadership impact on us without being in charge of us in any sense, even informally. If leadership can be shown in this way, then it must simply mean promoting a better way, either by example or by explicitly advocating a new idea.

As I see it, you can stand up for what you believe, challenge existing beliefs and convince others to follow your lead even if you do so for selfish reasons, for personal gain. Leadership is shown whenever people follow.

This means, for me, that being in charge entails being a manager, not necessarily a leader. Thus, I could just about accept the idea of servant management, but not servant leadership.

I want a concept of leadership that accounts for small-scale, front-line leadership, such as when technical employees convince their colleagues to adopt a new, easier way of doing some task. Now, there is not necessarily anything to do with serving anybody in such leadership. The person who shows leadership in this way may in fact simply be lazy and good at finding short cuts, which others then emulate.

I think we are drawn to the idea of servant leadership because we over-romanticize leadership. This is why we are always looking to glamorous CEOs and heads of states as paradigm cases of leadership rather than front-line team leaders. In my article, The Ideal Leader, I argued that this preoccupation with the glamorous end of the spectrum says more about us and our needs than it does about leadership.

I think we do a disservice to small scale technical leadership by saying that you must be motivated to serve if you want to be a leader. This must be wrong. A lot of front-line employees are simply absorbed in technology and lead by being good at it with no desire to serve any great cause or people. This is like artists who are totally absorbed in their art. They enjoy it for its own sake. Doing it well provides them with intrinsic satisfaction. They may completely ignore people and have poor interpersonal skills. They may have no interest in being of service to mankind. Yet, if other artists copy their style, then such artists have shown leadership by example: they have shown the way for others, nothing more.

It is a different story if you want to be a great public leader, like the head of a community, city or state. Here, you do have to serve others, of course. What I object to is the extrapolation from this context to all situations in which leadership can be shown. I am trying to develop a completely general concept of leadership. My model, which says that leadership means showing the way for others, either by example or by explicitly promoting a better way, covers not only people in charge of groups, front-line employees showing leadership bottom-up and outsiders like Martin Luther King, it also includes one company leading another as in market leadership. When Apple develops new products, it has a leadership impact on its competitors. Now, Apple may be interested in serving people, but that is not essential. More importantly, it is not how they SHOW leadership. They show it by being better than their competitors or by going somewhere new first.

In my view, there are no leaders at all, only acts of leadership. On the other hand, there are managers because management is a role. A CEO is a manager first and foremost who occasionally shows leadership. For example, if you are a Plant Manager, you are responsible for that plant even in your sleep, but you can only show leadership when you are actively promoting a better way, a new vision.

SHOWING Leadership vs BEING a Leader

The original concept of servant leadership as developed by Robert K. Greenleaf was about a group whose servant left them and the group fell apart, leading Greenleaf to see this person as the group’s leader. Now, in this case, the servant SHOWED leadership by serving his followers.

Later adherents of Servant Leadership changed the goalposts. They said that it was enough to want to be of service to be a servant leader. But notice that this move switches the focus from how leadership is SHOWN to what it takes to BE a leader.  But surely, a person’s motivation for leading is independent of how leadership is shown. The leader of a street gang may have totally selfish motives but he still shows leadership by arguing for his way of doing things and by example.

I don’t think that the servant leadership camp can have their cake and eat it too. Keep in mind that leadership is, by definition, shown to followers. Thus if leadership doesn’t literally serve followers then how can there be servant leadership? Alternatively, to say that leaders serve a higher cause is not servant leadership either. Strictly speaking, we are now talking about leaders who are motivated to serve a higher cause. This version is compatible with any model of leadership.

Take Hitler as an example. He surely didn’t serve his followers. On the contrary, he used them callously to meet his own diabolical ends. However, we might say that he was motivated by a higher cause, even if it isn’t one that most people today would sign up to. So, must we call him a servant leader because he wanted to serve a higher cause – to create a pure Aryan race and a world dominated by Germany?

The truth is that leadership cannot be shown by serving followers because leadership is often about persuading people to sacrifice their needs for the good of the group as a whole. This means asking them to set aside their own needs. Such leaders challenge the needs of others, not serve them.

Conversely, managers do have to consider the needs of employees, so their actions can be servant-like, though I would still say that the word “servant” is too strong even for them because, ultimately, they need to serve customers and their employers. Any manager who puts employee needs ahead of those of his or her employers risks being out of a job.

One of the biggest problems with servant leadership for me is that it fosters a dependency mindset. Unfortunately, we want leaders we can look up to, admire, or worship, someone to lead us to some promised land. I prefer to find, or create, my own promised land rather than depend on someone to take me there.

Over dependency on role-based leaders is unfortunate in an age of knowledge work when we should be standing on our own two feet to a greater extent and doing more of our own thinking. Having role models is a good way to learn, but admiring people too much is disempowering.

Now, if the servant leadership camp is simply advocating a certain way of leading as preferable to other models that is a different story. But, it seems to me, many of them go too far and claim that if you want to lead at all in any sense then you first must be motivated to serve. This attempt to dominate our thinking about leadership is what I object to the most. Still, I would disagree that servant leadership is even a preferable model because of its paternalistic overtones if for no other reason. See my article: Servant Leadership: A Bad Idea for more on this theme.

The bottom line, however, is that ALL role-based models of leadership exclude too many kinds of leadership, in my opinion, especially bottom-up leadership which I think business needs to foster for better employee engagement and innovation.

For a new concept to replace servant leadership, see: The Post-heroic Manager. Also, my latest thoughts on servant leadership: No Servant Leaders.

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