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The Problem with Servant Leadership

Robert Greenleaf’s (1977) definition of servant leadership had good intentions back in the 70’s when he began writing various books about it. His work fared well for decades, among leadership circles and within discussions and still today. I mean, who could possibly argue with the ideals of helping and assisting others? No one seems to really embrace authoritarian leaders (for obvious reasons) and very few leaders tend to believe that their successes are really just steeped in trait theory (where people are born with leadership abilities). Yet, many leaders still embrace Greenleaf’s “servant leader” terminology without identifying the problems.

First, servant-hood is self-giving without driving self-glory or ego-driven results; yet, there are problems with this analysis of servant leadership. Sometimes, leaders talk about servitude and there really is ill-intent behind their desire to sound like they are assisting or pleasing others when they really could care less about a particular request or task. The result, then, becomes a state of dissatisfaction by those seeking assistance (in the first place), only to find empty promises--seeing uncompleted tasks or realizing faulty tasks which never even needed to be completed because they lead to nowhere and have no direct impact on the organization, at large. Servant leadership struggles to distinguish which tasks are important and which tasks are useless.

We’ve probably seen leaders refer to themselves as “servant leaders,” but they may have been nothing more than disingenuous in nature—sometimes by design and other times by being unaware or oblivious to what was asked of them in order to meet the needs of others. One might even argue that “servant leadership,” in this case, is really a concoction of “coercive leadership” where tasks do not lead an organization to any new point of growth.

Second, according to Vygostskian (1978) theory, the zone of proximal development brings forth the understanding that inexperience needs the expertise of "a more capable other" until they can master a particular skill on their own. Those who wish to take advantage of what a servant leader has to offer might not always receive high quality assistance. The servant leader is not an expert in everything. And, if you are thinking that true servant leadership seeks the help of others in order to help fulfill the original request or need that someone has, that is not the servant leadership that Greenleaf defined. In this case, shared leadership approaches are more distinguishable than servant leadership.

Third, many interviewees while looking for a leadership position and when asked about their preferred leadership style, often say, “I’m a servant leader,” without understanding or critically analyzing various leadership theories including Greenleaf’s work and how they work together. I've seen people place the words "servant leader" in their titles, social media profile titles and on job applications without the deeper knowledge of leadership theory. Using the terminology of servant leadership just because it sounds good to others or seems right in comparison to other leadership theories is problematic.

The bigger issue still exists: will helping others, exclusively, lead an organization or educational institution to greatness? Of course not. Sometimes, organizations need directive leadership (i.e. “Block off that hallway due to a water leak in the lavatory!”), democratic or shared leadership (i.e. “Let’s have a committee or team look at the research about block scheduling before we decide what our school needs.”), or even laissez-faire leadership (i.e. “Let’s just wait to see what they want to negotiate before showing them our salary budget.”). This is why “situational leadership” has grown in popularity because it acknowledges the need for different styles and practices at different moments which intentionally vary based on a certain predicament or series of events or contexts that demand an intentional analysis of the practice of leadership and the desired results needed to lead others or an organization.

Perceptually, one might view a servant leader as weak, wishy-washy, or as a utility to just help others with anything that they are asked to do—whether quality guidance exists from the leader or not. The tendency to help is a good thing, but when offering very little ability to distinguish the true differences between leadership styles, the need to balance such styles or embrace situational leadership for when the time is right (or not right) in order to carry out true leadership abilities, we are left to wonder if leadership is carried out by fluke or intentionally planned by the servant leader.

Finally, in its most basic, literal sense, the name, “servant leader" is demeaning. No one is anyone’s “servant.” We are all in this together and the talents and deficits of your organization need to be figured out through a solid understanding of what needs to get done, who is going to do it and what needs to be done next in order to leverage the entire organization for future success. The servant leader cannot solely do everything on their own, nor should they. More so, why would anyone strive to be a servant to everyone's beck and call, need or desire? The terminology of servant leader is overused, outdated and problematic. Blending leadership theories and understanding real contexts is noble.

The core attribute of any successful organization is to have a powerful discussion about leadership styles so that everyone, together, knows that intentionality and an understanding of the purpose of the organization is being built across all hallways or departments with a foundational knowledge-base of leadership theory that is built to last, not just serve. As leadership styles need to have a purpose, contextually, and not simply be distilled into a “servant leadership” mentality, then and only then, can we arrive at a further understanding of thoughtful leadership practices that go far beyond something that merely sounds wonderful to us. Servant leadership appears to be "helpful," but it is sometimes extremely deceptive when we think that we have found the right leadership style during an interview where we are being judged by others who may or may not want you to wait on them, hand and foot.


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