Servant leadership is a very popular leadership model. It was developed by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970. The servant leader serves the people he/she leads, which implies that employees are an end in themselves rather than a means to an organizational purpose or bottom line. Servant leadership is meant to replace command and control models of leadership, to be more focused on the needs of others.
What do servant leaders do?
Servant devote themselves to serving the needs of organization members, focus on meeting the needs of those they lead, develop employees to bring out the best in them, coach others and encourage their self expression, facilitate personal growth in all who work with them and listen well to build a sense of community and joint ownership
Servant leaders are felt to be effective because the needs of followers are so looked after that they reach their full potential, hence perform at their best. A strength of this way of looking at leadership is that it forces us away from self-serving, domineering leadership and makes those in charge think harder about how to respect, value and motivate people reporting to them.
Where do you want to go from here?
Critical evaluation of servant leadership
Looked at critically, should we not regard employees as partners rather than view leaders as servants? Strictly speaking, servant leadership applies best in politics, associations and community clubs where elected officials are required to serve their members or citizens. But employees in a business are not members of a club or citizens.
Servant leadership also has paternalistic overtones as it suggests doing things for employees rather than helping them to think for themselves. Treating employees as partners is more respectful and valuing. Serving people's needs creates the image of being slavish or subservient, not a very positive image. In addition, leaders need to serve the needs of shareholders ahead of those of employees.
Surely, it makes more sense to say simply that leaders should CONSIDER the needs of employees not be a servant to them. Shifting metaphors from leaders-as-autocrats to leaders-as-servants is going from one extreme to the other. Neither end of the spectrum is very revealing about how organizations function. The principles of servant leadership are admirable. It is the image of SERVANT that is problematic and misleading.
Advocates of servant leadership emphasize two factors, serving employees and being selfless. The latter is a valuable trait, but we don't need to call it servant leadership to advocate selflessness. A good example of being selfless is a political leader who champions an unpopular policy, like eliminating carbon waste by a tight deadline because he or she feels it is in the best interest of the country. The leader who campaigns mainly on the basis of popular policies like cutting taxes serves the needs of the electorate, but is really just buying votes. How can this be leadership? This person is more interested in getting elected than doing what is best for the country. We naturally take a cynical attitude toward such people and question whether they ought to be regarded as leaders at all.
The selfless leader is willing to risk his or her own fate in order to do what is right. This is real leadership, like that of Martin Luther King who risked going to jail and being killed in order to stand up for what he believed in. Of course, many professionals are also selfless without being leaders - many doctors and nurses, for example. Do we need to talk about servant doctors and servant nurses or is the simple term "dedication" not sufficient? So, it is not only leaders who are selfless. In any case, selflessness is possible without being a servant.
What is Leadership?
A general definition of leadership is that it shows the way for others, either by example or by advocacy. (See Leadership as Influence or Leadership Defined.) Crucially, this definition is sufficiently general that it does not entail being in charge of those who follow. The advantage of this definition is that it includes Martin Luther King promoting justice for African Americans, bottom-up leadership such as when the developer of PlayStation convinced Sony to adopt his product, green leadership where someone's advocacy of green initiatives has a leadership impact on communities all around the globe and market leadership, such as Apple shows to its competitors.
All such leadership takes the same form: showing the way for others either by example or by advocacy. Servant leadership is really like green or financial leadership: efforts to lead people in a particular domain or with respect to a particular set of values. Green and financial leadership, for instance, are thus domains in which leadership is shown rather than distinct models of leadership. Is not the same true of servant leadership?
If so, then you can't lead others BY serving them, you can only lead by example or by advocating a new direction. You can APPLY such leadership to the value of serving others or a higher cause. But this is an application of the same model of leadership, not a distinct leadership model in its own right. These criticisms are thus not meant as an attack on the VALUES that servant leadership advocates hold dear. The only point is that we need to be clear what leadership actually means. Another advantage of defining leadership in a way that makes it independent of being in charge of people is that it is very empowering: all employees with a good idea who suceed in convincing others to adopt it either by setting an example or through persuasion can show leadership without taking charge of others, even informally.
Many people would disagree with this way of defining leadership. I admit that it is my own personal opinion, nothing else, but I would love to hear your explanation of why you think servant leadership is a good idea. Please use the comments section below to express your views.
Are you a servant leader?
What personal qualities do you have that might make you a good servant leader? What attracts you to this concept? Why not use the comments section below to share your views on this topic and why you think you might be a servant leader yourself?
Why do we think there are servant leaders?
All sections below added March 4, 2012
It can only make sense to talk about servant leaders if we view leadership as a role in charge of people. The view of leadership developed here rejects this way of thinking about leadership. Instead, we have developed a non-role-based definition of leadership, one that can account for companies leading other companies, green leaders leading people they don't know and leadership shown bottom-up. The person in charge of a group is a manager, who only leads sometimes, by influencing people to change direction.
Managers can "serve" the needs of subordinates, yes, as a way of motivating them, but this is managerial motivation, not leadership, not as defined here anyway. However, even with managers, I think the word "serve" is just too strong. Good managers may put the needs of employees ahead of their own but they can't put them ahead of customers or the organization if they want to keep their jobs. I think it is more accurate to say that managers "consider" the needs of employees, nurture them and treat them with respect. But even if you want to call this "serving" them, it still is just good management, not leadership. In summary, it may be that our feeling that there are servant leaders is due to our inability to separate leadership and management effectively.
Examples of leading that isn't serving
Apple leads its competitors in various markets. These competitors are following Apple's lead, but Apple clearly isn't serving the needs of its competitors. Similarly, when activists like Martin Luther King and Gandhi challenged the status quo, they weren't serving the needs of those whose attitudes they wanted to change. If they were serving anything, it was their own values or principles. Again, when green leaders promote a new source of energy and are followed by a community they have never heard of in a different country, they are serving an ideal, not the community that follows.
Green leaders, just as did Martin Luther King, challenge us to change our attitudes or needs, i.e. by giving up gas-guzzling SUVs. Wanting us to change our attitudes isn't really serving us, not in the sense of giving us what we want anway. When a front line employee succeeds in convincing management to adopt a new product idea, this is leadership shown bottom up. This leadership serves the organization, not the needs of the managers who adopt the product. In fact, such leadership often asks people to set aside their needs for the greater good, as green leadership does.
Certainly, an elected official needs to serve his or her electorate, but that is really just customer service, not leadership unless you regard such a person as a leader by virtue of being in such a role. Fine, but that is not the concept of leadership developed here, which of course you are free to reject.
Leadership as defined here is simply an influence process, not a role. None of the examples cited above entails being in a role in charge of followers. A definition of leadership that is general enough to accommodate all of these diverse examples can't be based on serving those who follow.
You might be thinking: "Isn't leadership about taking charge of a group and getting things done through it?" Not as defined here. Getting things done through others is management, not leadership. (See What is Management? for more on how we define management.)
Leading by example
Suppose you are the best in your team at serving customers and your colleagues try to follow your example. You are showing leadership if you influence them to change their approach to customers. Even if this serves the needs of your colleagues in some way, it is still leading BY example, not by serving. Leadership is shown BY example in this case, as it is in all instances of leading by example. It is an influence process. If the needs of your colleagues are served in this situation, that is an incidental byproduct. It isn't leading BY serving. Companies lead others by example in precisely the same way, only it is more obvious in this context that they are not out to serve the needs of their competitors.