I’m just going to say it. I don’t like the concept of Servant Leadership. It gives me the willies.
Servant Leadership suggests that a leader is willing to undertake the lowliest of positions to serve others, over the desire to be in a formal leadership position. One leads others in accordance with moral principles. The focus in Servant Leadership is on the needs of the followers, not on achieving organizational objectives. The underlying assumption is that if one can effectively enable followers, the organization will achieve its’ objectives organically.
According to a recent study by Sen Sendjaya, James Sarros and Joseph Santora, there are six behaviours in Servant Leadership. Voluntary subordination is the first, where the leader is a servant and expresses acts of service. Second, the leader shows her authentic self. That is, she demonstrates humility, accountability, security and vulnerability. Next the leader demonstrates “covenental relationships”, where he accepts his followers, is available to them, treats them with equality and is collaborative in his approach. Next is moral responsibility, that is moral reasoning and action. Fifth is transcendental spirituality, including religiousness, interconnectedness, a sense of mission and wholeness. Finally, the leader shows transforming influence, that is vision, modeling, mentoring, trust and empowerment.
Let me say that there is a lot to like in this model. I’ve got no beefs with the authentic self, covenental relationships and transforming influence. In fact, I rather admire these facets of leadership.
Where this model comes off the rails for me is in three areas: voluntary subordination, moral responsibility and transcendent spirituality. For thousands of years women and various minority groups were the “servants” of others. They sacrificed much and never had a voice in their own lives, never mind the life of their community. The idea of sacrificial leadership makes me a bit anxious, because often the ones making the sacrifices are the ones who benefit the least from these sacrifices. And there is a social and cultural expectation that some people are expected to sacrifice more than others.
I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of moral reasoning. It’s not that I don’t want people to be ethical, to do right by others. And having strong organizational values is critical to organizational success. However, often “moral values” have been used by one group or another to judge, subjugate or dominate a particular minority group. If I was born in Afghanistan 40 years ago, it might be considered “immoral” for me to get an education.
Finally, I’m uncomfortable with transcendental spirituality. Specifically the idea of religiousness. When we imbue religiousness in an organization, we immediately limit who can participate, or be employed at that organization. While this approach can strengthen the culture of an organization, it can also weaken it, by making it less open to diverse opinions, and less aware of changes in values or culture external to the organization. It also makes the organization exclusionary to people who don’t fit. This can sometimes translate into intolerance.
Perhaps my small l liberal, secular, westernized approach to both community organizations and business is the driving force behind my profound discomfort with the introduction of religious and moral factors in the workplace. I personally prefer to keep my faith as a private matter.
That said, I like that the leader as hero model is inconsistent with Servant Leadership. Perhaps true leadership is about placing your followers ahead of yourself, your needs and your objectives. It is about equality, acceptance and collaboration.
Source: Sendjay, Sen, Sarros, James, and Santora, Joeseph. “Defining and Measuring Servant Leadership Behaviour in Organizations”. Journal of Management Studies. 45:2 March 2008.