Is the Term "Servant Leadership" an Oxymoron?
Servant leadership (SL) is a concept that triggers a great deal of interest, judging by my e-mail inbox and the number of responses to this month's column. Many comments suggested that: (1) servant leadership is practiced by many respondents, (2) it works, and (3) there are a number of reasons why others don't or can't practice it. Timothy Lynn Burchfield provided an eloquent endorsement of the concept this way: "Those who serve (vs. power or buy) their way to influence leave a huge legacy to those around them."
Servant leadership is experienced so rarely because of trends in the leadership environment, the scarcity of human qualities required, demands that the practice places on the practitioner, and the very nature of the practice itself.
As Tahir Quzi put it, "A majority of leaders as agents of principals see themselves as maniacally focused on getting short term results …" Napoleon Elortegui commented that "… the organizational model is not geared to move the 'servant' person to the top." It can produce a "culture where leadership is associated with codes like power, selfishness & control," according to Ranji Cherian. As a result, SL was characterized as "… a risky proposition … within organizations…" (John Servant) and … a long and hard road for someone" (Karan Yaramada). Dan Wallace asked, "Where do you go to learn how to lead this way?"
Several commented that SL requires qualities that are all too rare, such as "cardinal virtues" (Katherina Lange), a "paradoxical combination of courage AND humility," (Lisa Slayton), "(a) high degree of self control… " (Ashok Jain), and "validation needs (that) have largely been met … (making it) very challenging for younger people to be servant leaders" (Mike Gatliff). Personal characteristics that get in the way of SL include "Ego (that) makes it difficult to 'want to serve'" (Randy Hoekstra), "greed" (Madeleine York), and "An unhealthy desire to control" (Judesther Marc).
The very nature of servant leadership may influence its spread, according to David Livesley, who said, "Even if it is more prevalent than we think, we will never hear about it; what we never hear about, we never copy." Steve Hickman added, "… it is a recessive organizational gene… You don't get promoted if you don't get noticed." Christy commented that "SL is not prevalent because it is a Utopian approach that requires a complete paradigm shift for most modern day employees at any level." Tom Leahy said "… it is exhausting but also fulfilling," while Myrielle Lemoine attributed its rarity to "everyone from all levels being stretched too thin…" Several (including John Keck, Michael Darmody, and Mona Bagot) subscribed to the idea that SL can be perceived as a weakness. Anna Caraveli had an interesting take on this notion: "… there is a great deal of ambiguity in defining what strong leadership means … interestingly, the 'servant' concept is not considered 'weakness' when applied to a company's relationship with clients…"
As it has evolved in use, the term itself may pose an obstacle for the concept. That's the view of Mark Stanley, who commented that "These terms do not fit together-Servant & Leader … It's just another way poor leaders attempt to elevate themselves above those they 'serve'… an entirely unhealthy approach for a leader to take… Our need to be led well is far more important than our need to be served. The more correct notion is that of a 'Serving Leader' … (with) many 'masters'… when Richard Greenleaf coined this phrase … he was talking entirely about how leaders serve, not about leaders being servants." Do you agree? Is servant leadership an oxymoron? What do you think?
Servant leadership is an age-old concept, a term loosely used to suggest that a leader's primary role is to serve others, especially employees. I witnessed a practical example of it at a ServiceMaster board meeting in the 1990s when CEO William Pollard spilled a cup of coffee prior to the board meeting.
Instead of summoning someone to clean it up, he asked a colleague to get him cleaning compound and a cloth, things easily found in a company that provided cleaning services. Whereupon he proceeded to get down on his hands and knees to clean up the spill himself. The remarkable thing was that board members and employees alike hardly noticed as he did it. It was as if it was expected in a company with self-proclaimed servant leadership.
Lao-Tzu wrote about servant leadership in the fifth-century BC: "The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware…. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, 'We ourselves have achieved it!'"
It is natural, rightly or wrongly, to relate servant leadership to the concept of an inverted pyramid organization in which top management "reports" upward to lower levels of management. At other times it has been associated with organizations that have near-theological values (for example, Max De Pree's leadership at Herman Miller, as expressed in his book, Leadership is an Art, that emphasizes the importance of love, elegance, caring, and inclusivity as central elements of management). In that regard, it is also akin to the pope's annual washing and kissing of the feet as part of the Holy Thursday rite.
The modern era of servant leadership began with a paper, The Servant as Leader, written by Robert Greenleaf in 1970. In it, he said: "The servant leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead … (vs. one who is leader first…) … The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons … (and become) more likely themselves to become servants?"
Now it appears that a group of organizational psychologists, led by Adam Grant, are attempting to measure the impact of servant leadership on leaders, not just those being led. Grant describes research in his recent book, Give and Take, that suggests that servant leaders are not only more highly regarded than others by their employees and not only feel better about themselves at the end of the day but are more productive as well. His thesis is that servant leaders are the beneficiaries of important contacts, information, and insights that make them more effective and productive in what they do even though they spend a great deal of their time sharing what they learn and helping others through such things as career counseling, suggesting contacts, and recommending new ways of doing things.
Further, servant leaders don't waste much time deciding to whom to give and in what order. They give to everyone in their organizations. Grant concludes that giving can be exhausting but also self-replenishing. So in his seemingly tireless efforts to give, described in the book, Grant makes it a practice to give to everyone until he detects a habitual "taker" that can be eliminated from his "gift list."
Servant leadership is only one approach to leading, and it isn't for everyone. But if servant leadership is as effective as portrayed in recent research, why isn't it more prevalent? What do you think?
To Read More:
Max De Pree, Leadership is an Art (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1987)
Adam Grant, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (New York: Viking Press, 2013)
Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader (Westfield, IN: The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 2008)
C. William Pollard, The Soul of the Firm (New York: HarperBusiness and Grand Rapids, MI: ZondermanPublishingHouse, 1996)