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Servant Leadership: A Bad Idea

The servant leadership bandwagon is still on track but needs to be derailed. It's a bad idea because it's paternalistic and gets in the way of employee engagement.

Just when we need to empower front line knowledge workers to think for themselves and take more ownership, the last thing they need is to be served by their managers. John F. Kennedy got the direction of service the right way around when he said: "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country."

An apparently interesting idea often has two senses. In one sense it is interesting, novel and controversial but demonstrably false. In the other sense it is true but trivial because it isn't saying anything new or distinctive.

Interesting but False

Servant leadership is most interesting if it means that managers should literally serve, or be a servant to, their subordinates. This seems to be the intention of the originator of the concept, Robert K. Greenleaf. He read a Herman Hesse novel in which a group of travellers fell apart after their servant left them. Because the servant had kept the group together, Greenleaf saw him as the group's leader.

Clearly, therefore, he viewed the servant leader as literally the group's servant. This idea is plausible in politics, clubs or associations where the leader is elected. Without question, this person must serve the electorate to avoid being voted out of office at the next election.

In business, however,  managers at all levels must serve the owners if they want to keep their jobs. They also need to serve customers. The harsh reality in business is that employees are a means to an end. Effective managers will, of course, do all they can to engage, motivate, consider and include employees but that does not amount to being their servant. The truth is that managers fire employees who aren't performing but no servant can fire his master. Therefore, this sense of servant leadership is interesting but clearly false.

True but Trivial

Larry Spears explains servant leadership very clearly. When he was Executive Director of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, he edited a collection of articles, Insights on Leadership, saying that "...we are beginning to see that the traditional, autocratic, and hierarchical modes of leadership are yielding to a newer model—one based on teamwork and community, one that seeks to involve others in decision making, one based on ethical and caring behavior..."

Who could possibly argue with the need to be less autocratic and hierarchical, more caring and inclusive? Spears is attacking the proverbial straw man because his opponent is too easy to knock over. There must be dozens of post-heroic models of leadership that would agree wholeheartedly with his statement. As it is, therefore, it says nothing distinctive about servant leadership per se. It's like telling us that whales are mammals without saying how they differ from other mammals. To make servant leadership distinctive it is not enough to compare it to an outdated industrial model of leadership.

What is needed is to show how it is preferable to other 21st century conceptions of leadership that make similar claims to servant leadership. As it stands it is simply too vague, hence we must conclude that the idea, in this sense, is true but trivial as it says nothing distinctive or controversial, nothing that separates it from every other model of leadership that also attacks autocratic, heroic leadership.

Servant Leadership as Paternalistic

Servant leadership has paternalistic overtones. The pop psychology theory transactional analysis compared parent-child to adult-adult relationships. Serving employees smacks of a parent-child relationship, which if employees feel so treated, they will surely be even more demotivated and disengaged than they are already.

From the point of view of transactional analysis, proponents of servant leadership are really just switching from critical parent to nurturing parent. They want to replace autocratic leaders (critical parent) with supportive leaders (nurturing parent). But the result is still paternalistic and thus just as potentially demotivating to employees as the critical parent (autocratic leader) model.

Leadership and Employee Engagement

As the quote from John F. Kennedy suggests, it is not the manager’s job to serve the needs of employees anyway. To fully engage employees, they should be encouraged to think of themselves as self-employed suppliers of services and to regard their bosses as their customers.  Instead of waiting for managers to tell them what to do, employees should be proactive in striving to keep abreast of their boss's changing needs, just as they would if they really were independent contractors and their boss were their customer.

Instead of waiting for the organization to provide them with career development, employees should think creatively and entrepreneurially about how to “build their businesses” with their internal customers in their internal market.

Clearly, however, this way of viewing the relationship between manager and employee implies that employees should see themselves as serving the needs of their managers, not the other way around. This approach is more empowering and shows more respect to employees than the paternalistic servant leader stance.


The servant leadership camp states that effective leaders are not ego-centric or selfish. They don’t put their needs ahead of higher aims. But it is possible to be selfless without serving the needs of followers. Indeed, it can be argued that true leadership calls for sacrifice on the part of followers rather than serving their needs. The call from green leaders to get people out of their gas-guzzling cars asks followers to makesacrifices for the sake of the environment.

Martin Luther King called for people to give up their prejudices. Mahatma Gandhi called for the British Government to give up their hold on India. Leadership has often been defined as influencing people to do things they would not do otherwise. Thus there is an element of sacrifice in leadership. Leaders who challenge the status quo and demand sacrifices from followers risk rejection which is surely compatible with being selfless.

Conversely, the politician who promises to give voters exactly what they want is serving their needs but, in reality, actually buying votes. What kind of leadership is that?

Servant leadership, being a slippery concept, has other meanings, such as the desire to be of service. But many professional people are so motivated. Do we need to talk of servant doctors,  nurses or teachers? No one can criticize such a noble attitude but it is best captured by terms like authentic leadership, integrity, selflessness or dedication. The move from autocrat to the other extreme of servant makes little sense when adult partnership is what we need. Thus regardless of how servant leadership is defined, it has too many negative connotations to be widely persuasive.

A Model Servant Leader?

Some feel a strong emotional attachment to the concept of servant leadership because their model servant leader is Jesus Christ. The hunger to be god-like or close to God is nothing new. In the middle ages there was the "great chain of being" where everything was classified according to how close it was to God. Men were ranked higher than women because reason was perceived to be more god-like than emotion which was seen as more animal or earth-like.

However, the head of a religious group is like the head of a political group, association or community club in being appointed by its members. This is the only context where serving the needs of members has any credibility. The reality is that businesses are very different types of groups. To survive, they need to serve their owners and customers, not their members who are only a means to this end. The motivation to apply servant leadership to business is thus questionable. It may stem from personal values rather than what is best for the business.

The Bottom Line

Managers who position themselves to their teams as their servants one day then discipline or fire them the next invite cynicism and distrust. The old adage "actions speak louder than words" could not be truer for managers. Being on stage, they are closely watched for any disconnect between word and deed. The notion of serving employees sounds good if you stick to the keep-it-simple level but it is a hard act to maintain during an economic downturn or when the business is losing out to fierce competition.

Fortunately it is fully possible to develop a collaborative, supportive, empathetic, engaging, empowering and developmental relationship with employees without taking on the extreme servant label.

Actually, the servant leader is just as heroic as the know-it-all leader. The emphasis is still on the person in charge, dependency on whom is potentially just as debilitating if for different reasons. Employee engagement requires an adult-adult relationship between managers and employees not a paternalistic one.

This article was published in Management Issues on August 16, 2010.

See alsoThe Post-heroic Manager. A closely related artlcle to No Servant Leaders! is No Leaders. No Managers where 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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