Servant leadership is a confused idea that is preventing us from reaping the full potential of leadership. We need to stop romanticizing leadership so it can blossom in mundane contexts and be shown by employees with no desire to serve anything or anybody.
The servant leadership camp confuses the following two statements:
- Leadership means to serve a higher cause.
- Leadership can be applied to higher causes.
1. Leadership Means to Serve a Higher Cause
If the meaning of leadership is to serve a higher cause, then nothing in the service of anything else can be called leadership. Similarly, if you want to be a leader and you can only do so if you first have a desire to be of service, then you cannot be a leader otherwise.
This definition puts a Berlin Wall around leadership, overly romanticizes it and limits it to noble causes or visions. This is easily shown to be nonsense. All kinds of leaders have had ignoble, illegal or immoral causes. Is the head of a suicide mission or other terrorist cell not a leader for only wanting revenge? Are we to deny that such people are leaders by definition?
Can leadership not be shown by people in cigarette or alcohol production? Is there no leadership among the cocaine traffickers in Columbia? What about those making harmless products such as cosmetics or jewellery but which serve no exalted purpose?
What about everyday contexts? Suppose a software programmer in a video game company comes up with a new game and champions it successfully to a sceptical management? Don't we want to say that this person has shown leadership bottom-up despite being only a technical geek with no desire to serve anything?
2. Leadership can be Applied to Higher Causes
The truth is that leadership can be applied in multiple domains ranging from criminal organizations, terrorist groups and mundane factories to enterprises pursuing noble causes. One CEO might have aims in several domains, some relating to profit, some to market domination and still others to improving the community or preserving the environment.
A CEO might thus serve a higher cause in some domains but not others. Most CEOs could not succeed if they could not first make the business profitable. Only then would they have the luxury of taking on higher causes or being of service. But if they can pursue mundane goals at all then they are either not leaders or leadership cannot be restricted to serving higher causes.
The bottom line is that leadership simply means showing the way for others. All else is situational. Both the context in which leadership is shown and the motivations of the leader can range across the entire spectrum of human activity and ambition.
Is Servant leadership Confused?
The problem is that we romanticize leadership. Why? Because we have a deep need for leaders to be heroic. We desperately want them to help us achieve our dreams, find purpose in our lives and calm our anxiety caused by rapid change and extreme demands. Many people believe that human life is only meaningful if it has a higher purpose of some sort.
People driven by a need for a grand purpose in their lives want leaders they can idealize, who they believe will lead them to some promised land.
This is not to disparage those who campaign for noble causes. Martin Luther King Jr., an admirable leader if there ever was one, promoted justice and fairness for all. Many today strive to show leadership for the environment and long term sustainable life on this planet. But we can celebrate such noble leadership without ruling out less heroic instances by definition.
We romanticize leadership in two ways. First, we focus on larger-than-life characters like Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Lincoln or Nelson Mandela. Second, we use CEOs and heads of state as our paradigm cases of what leadership is all about. The fact that we don't consider lowly front-line supervisors in our efforts to define leadership proves the point.
Leading by example illustrates perfectly how leadership can be very unheroic and not based on any drive to serve. We tend to think of leadership as a conscious choice, like someone choosing to be a dentist or plumber. We also regard the showing of leadership as an intentional activity, that someone must choose to show leadership in a specific situation.
But suppose a hard working employee joins a new company where there is a poor work ethic. Without realizing it, the newcomer carries on as usual and is gradually emulated by colleagues. Leadership has thus been shown by example without any conscious intention or even awareness on the part of the hard working employee.
You might object that the other employees could have ignored the hard worker. This is beside the point because if they did follow suit, then leadership has occurred. Leadership is an influence process and, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. Wherever anyone follows an example, intended as leadership or not, leadership has occurred.
The truism "actions speak louder than words" demonstrates that a great deal of leadership is shown by example unintentionally because we follow what others do more than what they say. Thus leadership can very often be shown without any desire to serve anything.
There are two points here: (1) that leadership can be unheroic and not even intentional and (2) all talk of the leader's intentions, to serve or otherwise, focuses on the input side. But leadership is really an outcome. What counts as leadership in a specific context is just whatever people choose to follow. Thus the intentions of leaders might affect their choice of domains in which to show leadership or how they attempt to influence people but these factors are totally situational, not essential irrespective of context.
The Real Meaning of Leadership
If what it takes to show leadership is totally situational then the servant leadership camp's choice to exalt service says a lot about them and their values but nothing about the meaning of leadership. A good non-situational definition of leadership is that it shows the way for others. This covers unintentional example as well as explicit attempts to lead people. Crucially, it also highlights the output side of the equation: the outcome that people do in fact follow.
This is critically important because, when we switch the focus to output, it is easier to see that the input side is totally relative to whatever works with particular followers. This may sound strange, but this is actually true of all forms of influence. Again, compare leading to selling. A sale is an output - it is what happens when someone buys. What will work with one customer might be totally ineffective with another. Thus there is no universal input formula that applies across all contexts in either leading or selling.
Servant leadership is a problem not only because it glorifies leadership and the loftier end of the human spectrum but also because it reinforces the image of leaders as the central figures in groups, in line with the notion that leadership is a role and a certain type of person.
To capitalize on the full potential of leadership, we need an account that explains how front-line knowledge workers can show leadership bottom-up. This is vital in any business (an admittedly specific context) where it is critical to foster employee engagement and innovation.
We can either take the condescending stance of regarding their proposals for new products as "suggestion box" material for the "real leaders" to decide upon or we can be more respectful and empowering by reframing their actions as attempts to show leadership bottom-up.
However, such leadership acts are only discrete influence attempts, not an ongoing role. A product developer, like the inventor of PlayStation, convinces top management to adopt the new idea without being regarded as an informal leader within the senior team. Remember that the concept of informal leadership is just as much an ongoing role as that of the formal leader.
It may sound odd to call the upward promotion of new products leadership. But this is what Martin Luther King Jr was doing. He challenged the status quo from the sidelines when he promoted change to the U.S. government. This is a discrete act of leadership, not a role.
We need to bury servant leadership along with all of its role-based, heroic cousins because they make it impossible to see how there can be non-role-based, discrete acts of leadership that don't serve a noble purpose and which can be very small scale, local and unheroic.