Coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership (SL) is a hybrid of Strategic Leadership and Operational Leadership (Blanchard, 2018). This leadership style is known for flipping the hierarchy, sharing power, reducing or abandoning ego, and empowering people in the organization via supporting and developing the individuals that comprise the organization (Blanchard, 2018). SL has grown in popularity and has gained quite a following in recent years. However, one must question whether this popularity is created out of wisdom and proper evaluation or because of the buzzword that “Servant Leadership” has become.
What Do Servant Leaders Do?
In theory, Servant Leaders provide both the organization’s vision and “the how” of the organization. However, the Servant Leader is a “servant first” (Greenleaf, 2016). The Servant Leader’s highest priority is that their people’s needs are being served (Blanchard, 2018). Essentially, the focus is on the worker’s well-being and community and building trust. The test is whether the people within the organization are growing by becoming healthier, wise, and freer.
Dr. Ken Blanchard states clearly that Servant Leaders SERVE. In that, he provides an acronym to help illustrate the pillars of SL.
- S – See the future,
- E – Engage and develop people,
- R – Reinvent Continuously,
- V – Value results and relationships,
- E – Embody the values (Blanchard, 2018).
Additionally, Dr. Blanchard’s position is that SL is a higher quality leadership that fosters higher-performing organizations and brings more success and significance to the leader, the people, and the organization (Blanchard, 2018). SL is great in parenting, non-profits, and organizations that thrive in an unorthodox and sometimes experimental hierarchy. According to Berrett-Koehler Publishing, companies that embrace Servant Leadership include Starbucks, Marriott International, and Nordstrom (Sivasubramaniam, 2017).
While the theory of SL is compelling and provides some organizations with a robust model on which to base their operations, it is also essential to understand that Servant Leadership is far from perfect. This is to say that it will not work in all situations or with all leaders. Contrast is necessary when evaluating leadership styles and perspectives. Therefore, we need to explore some of the limitations of Servant Leadership.
The Potential Limitations of Servant Leadership
Strategic Leadership Is Not Simple
As previously stated, Servant Leadership is a mixture of Strategic Leadership and Operational Leadership. A potential problem here is that Strategic Leadership is not quickly learned or practiced, and it will not be picked up over a weekend seminar. While highly effective, leaders should understand that college degrees are dedicated to its study. Therefore, a brief overview will likely not provide the depth necessary to understand its approach fully.
As Dr. Deedee Myers says, “Strategic leadership can be difficult to describe because it is highly complex and complicated (Myers, 2015).” This is to say that the competencies are vast, and implementing those competencies is a challenge. Furthermore, achieving Strategic Leadership as defined requires a great deal of knowledge and practice. The fact is that many advocating SL may not have the background or expertise to pull it off as intended, which might hinder the full implementation of Servant Leadership as defined.
Operational Leadership is Not What It Sounds Like
Any leadership-educated professional can tell you that operational leadership looks more like management than leadership. This is not to say that one is better than the other. However, Operational Leadership is often centered around developing systems, policies, and procedures (Smith, 2019). In this regard, it is pretty similar to Transactional Leadership. Of course, Transactional Leadership is rarely taught by leadership experts because, in practice, it looks too much like management (Ciulla, 2004).
In practice, the Operational elements of SL are sometimes neglected by leaders seeking to adhere to its Strategic Leadership elements and vice versa. Of course, this might also hinder the full implementation of SL in many instances. Keep in mind that, in some ways, strategic and operational leadership are opposites. Accordingly, confusion is not uncommon when trying to implement SL for this reason.
Servant Leadership is Not Always Practical
Aside from Servant Leadership sometimes appearing Laissez-Faire (Singfiel, 2018), SL is simply not the best approach for all organizations. In organizations where structure and protocols are essential, especially where time is essential and power cannot be shared, Servant Leadership is simply not the best choice (CAS5184, 2018). Ultimately, that weeds out many industries. Though, as stated, SL might be a decent option for non-profits.
Servant Leadership Takes Time
Servant Leadership takes a considerable amount of time (Tee, 2018). When one considers development, building relationships, building trust, and attempting to discover the wants, needs, and desires of those who comprise the organization, one quickly gets the sense that time is a factor. Hence, when time is pressed, and leaders cannot afford to be perceived as soft or lazy, Servant Leadership may not be the best option.
The Validity of Servant Leadership Remains in Question
In my experience, many leadership-educated professionals avoid SL due to its known gaps. Aside from the confusion previously discussed, there are some holes that servant leadership has yet to address. For example, Servant Leadership scholars are still trying to hash out the core dimensions of the process and have yet to reach a consensus regarding the framework or universal definition of the approach (Northouse, 2016).
Adding to this confusion is that many practitioners and advocates of Servant Leadership are not really leadership researchers or leadership professionals concerned with its validity (Northouse, 2016). Perhaps that is why so many management professionals have begun to advocate the approach. Regardless, until leadership researchers and professionals can help Servant Leadership clear up some of its known gaps, it may not be the best approach for those seeking specific leadership results.
Emotions Usually Don’t Fix Problems
When writing on Servant Leadership, Dr. Ken Blanchard stated, “The antidote for fear is love (Blanchard, 2018).” While this sounds nice, that is a scary proposition regarding organizational effectiveness and change. To be clear, the Servant Leader stresses the importance of feelings and inclusion over organizational performance. However, when it comes to organizational change and fear of what that change might ultimately bring, I’m afraid I have to disagree with his position.
Instead, I tend to agree with Dr. Debasish Mridha when he said, “Fear comes from the lack of knowledge and a state of ignorance. The best remedy for fear is to gain knowledge (Mridha, n.d.).” In context, and in my experience, I have found that workers want truthful answers and information that empowers their abilities over being told that you care about them. Mindset can make all the difference when faced with organizational challenges, and some of the worst leaders I have ever worked under were highly caring and ineffective.
More Potential Pitfalls of Servant Leadership
Servant Leadership raises numerous potential drawbacks and challenges. For example, it can result in the neglect of larger organizational goals and hinder decision-making efficiency due to a focus on consensus and individual opinions. Accountability might be compromised, and power dynamics can become imbalanced, with leaders potentially becoming subservient to subordinates. Emotional decision-making and subjective ethics can introduce bias and inconsistency. Inconsistent leadership and complacency may arise from an exclusive focus on certain traits, which can ultimately stifle innovation. With this approach, self-care for leaders is often overlooked, risking burnout and authority erosion. Confusion can prevail as priorities shift between individual needs and organizational goals, potentially leading to manipulation and ineffectiveness in certain situations. Moreover, when applied without balance, it can result in dysfunctional organizations. Finally, individuals lacking a deep understanding of leadership principles (those not leadership-educated) who follow this approach tend to make misguided decisions based on emotions and individual preferences rather than strategic and outcome-oriented decisions.
Many outside the leadership industry are unaware of what Leadership truly is. However, for this reason alone, those seeking leadership information should know that many management approaches have “leadership” attached to them and that many management professionals believe the two are the same. These misconceptions likely derive from a lack of leadership theorem or education exposure. Management is not the same as leadership (Kotter, 2012). These words describe two different disciplines.
Therefore, one must pause when management professionals without the necessary and appropriate leadership background attempt to teach leadership principles. One cannot teach what they do not know. Be aware of the source of the leadership information provided, ensure that it is not laced with pseudo-leadership principles that could undermine leadership efforts, and always validate the information being considered before attempting to implement it.
There Is Another Option
There are plenty of options out there. Servant Leadership may be right for you and your organization. If it is, that is great! I am not writing this to push you away from it. SL has a place and can surely be effective in some situations. Of this, there is no doubt. However, if it is not suitable for you or your organization, but you like the general idea of Servant Leadership, then you might need a genuine leadership alternative.
From an organizational perspective, I believe Transformational Leadership would likely be a fantastic alternative. Similar to SL, Transformational Leadership seeks to develop the team and organization. However, rather than emphasizing the emotional, it emphasizes the teams and the organizational vision. Also, I believe Transformational Leadership tends to generate more cohesive teams. Simply stated, Transformational Leadership focuses on developing teams and inspiring followers to achieve a common goal (Allen et al., 2016).
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Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice. Los Angeles: Sage.
Singfiel, J. (2018). When Servant Leaders Appear Laissez-Faire: The Effect of Social Identity Prototypes on Christian Leaders. The Journal of Applied Christian Leadership, 12(1), 64–77.
Sivasubramaniam, J. (2017, August 22). 5 Companies That Embrace Servant Leadership. Retrieved July 12, 2020, from https://ideas.bkconnection.com/five-surprising-companies-that-embrace-servant-leadership
Smith, C. (2019, October 15). What Is Operational Leadership? Retrieved July 13, 2020, from https://change.walkme.com/operational-leadership/
Tee, E. (2018, March 30). The Pitfalls Of Servant Leadership. Retrieved July 13, 2020, from https://leaderonomics.com/leadership/the-pitfalls-of-servant-leadership