Servant Leadership Is a Great Idea That Doesn’t Really Work
With some notable workplace exceptions, servant leadership works better in theory than in practice. The idea of selflessly leading others by putting their needs first sounds like a masterful approach to creating a positive workplace replete with motivated team members and collaborative processes. Until reality gets in the way.
The vast majority of enterprises, profit, and non-profit would implode under the guidance of a servant leader. This seems a harsh statement for those who believe strongly that serving as a resource to others is the pathway to mutual respect, trust, and understanding. After all, servant leaders listen with empathy, encourage, and support people. They work hard to build consensus with those who are affected by a decision. By putting people above their own needs and self-interests, servant leaders foster a climate of collaboration, dignity, and goodwill.
What could possibly be wrong with that? Plenty. If you care about results.
Servant leadership presumes others will operate in good faith and find the structure and support they need in this singular approach. Unfortunately, people usually need more than a servant leader offers to be successful.
Without the continual review of goals and responsibilities, team members don’t feel accountable and quickly learn to do their own thing. Because servant leaders value consensus more than urgency and decisive action, opportunities are often lost while decision-making becomes painfully slow or avoided altogether.
Examine an organization with a servant leader and you will likely see a lack of strategic alignment. We often call it Mission Creep. When strategic clarity is weak, team members shirk responsibilities, avoid candid feedback, and delegate their problems to other servant leaders who are more than willing to accept them.
The idea of servant leadership is a critical step forward in understanding how best to create trustful workplaces. But by itself, servant leadership doesn’t deliver many of the things necessary for teams and organizations to succeed, especially in a competitive marketplace.
Think of it this way. The best leaders are ALSO servant leaders. They support people while keeping their own ambitions and interests in check. They hold others accountable and develop people through candid feedback, but do so with respect, while also acknowledging their unique needs.
Servant leadership is a model to follow with how to treat others, but falls short of how to produce the results necessary to sustain an organization. We should all aspire to be more humble, vulnerable, and resourceful for others. Good leaders work much harder for those they lead than team members work for them. By putting the organization and the individual on equal footing, the best leaders are subservient in the right way.
Thanks for putting this concept out there and critically examining it. Platitudes and theories-- even well accepted ones such as the once-embraced US Military theory of Effects Based Operations sometimes fall apart on examination or turn out not to be doable in a particular bureaucracy.
Sometimes a competing theory that is not as good works better in the environment, e.g., early attempts at Electric cars before Lithium ion batteries, and cryptocurrency before wide scale adoption of blockchain technology.
I never understood my Navy buddies dining protocols when I was in the Army. In the Army leaders always ate last when in the field, and we had to regularly sample food in the mess hall to be sure it was acceptable. In the Navy the Captain has his own private meals apart from others on the ship. And his subordinates generally eat better than their subordinates and better than the skipper. One of these exhibits servant leadership and the others something else that is apparently more suitable to that environment.
What an excellent post! It’s an AND, not an OR.