Servant Leadership: truthfulness and usefulness

“…the language used to describe servant leadership and the implied values within the approach make challenging the theory tantamount to heresy.” (Minnis & Callahan, 2010)

Never one to avoid controversy, I find myself mildly irritated once again by the tendency of some to endorse any superficially appealing leadership notion because it sounds worthy. I really don’t want to go into battle with supporters of Servant Leadership. For all I know, it may be a great idea. It is just that I have a niggling feeling that it isn’t. And it reminds me that we all have a responsibility (by ‘we’ I mean people who claim that something is a sound basis upon which those with a serious job to do should make decisions about how we do that serious job) to be cautious about what we advocate.

We will all have different standards of advocacy, by which I mean what burden of proof we require for us to recommend to others a particular contention or basis for action. When it comes to advocating an approach to leadership, we could do worse than to examine the truthfulness and usefulness of a proposition or perspective, by which I mean:

  1. Are we able to clearly define it and recognise it in action?
  2. Does it stand up to rational scrutiny?
  3. Can we find evidence of its utility?

I do not ask for ‘proof’ of an idea’s efficacy – this is social science after all – but if I am to advocate an approach to leadership I need something more than a warm feeling in my stomach.

Like all extremely attractive ideas, Servant Leadership is framed in such a way that it is very hard to argue against. It is similar in many regards to the ‘Paternal’ leadership style in that it is predicated on the idea that caring for others is a ‘good thing’. How can one argue with that? Servant leadership also encapsulates notions of public service, setting aside self-interest, helping and supporting people, being responsive to others’ needs, and other virtuous behaviours. It has quasi-religious overtones; some argue it is little more than a Jesus metaphor. Who wouldn’t want to aspire to be as virtuous as the Messiah?

Given its broad and appealing conceptual wish-list, one might reasonably ask what virtuous qualities are not included? My first question, therefore, is does Servant Leadership fall into the category of being an ‘untestable abstraction’ (see my last post for more on this term)?

The term, and theory, Servant Leadership was coined and developed by Robert K. Greenleaf (1970), who described it thus:

“The natural feeling that one wants to serve first. This conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant—first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely to become servants?” (italics are mine)

We are left feeling warm and fuzzy. But what does all this actually mean? The definition is full of virtuous claims but are these claims testable?

According to Greenleaf, we might only be Servant Leaders if we possess a natural feeling that we desire to put servitude above all else. Presumably, if we do not naturally feel this we are excluded from the club. In the next sentence, he tells us that this it is a conscious choice to feel this way (not so natural then – some kind of conversion perhaps?). There then follows a range of phrases which are sufficiently ambiguous as to point to all manner of possible, and possibly contradictory, behaviours and practices. How might we observe and judge the care taken by the servant? Who decides what other peoples’ highest priority needs might be, and whether they have been met? What aspect of personal growth should we value most highly and how do we know if this growth has taken place? Good luck in judging whether those served have become wiser and freer.

Bizarrely, one advocated measure of success is that those served are themselves more likely to become servants, meaning that the supposedly virtuous cycle continues. For a leadership approach that asks us to consider ourselves last, isn’t it strange that our goal should be to make others as special as us?

If we cannot clearly and unambiguously define a leadership concept, carrying out research into it is made extremely difficult. This might explain the lack of empirical evidence as to the effectiveness of Servant Leadership even after fifty years. Ironically, it is its unwillingness to be pinned down and tested that has ensured the idea’s survival and apparent continued popularity. The religious zeal of its proponents reflects its construct as a philosophy, not a credible theory of action.

So, what of it? What harm if our actions are underpinned by a philosophy? I would fully support each of us taking a considered philosophical position with regards to our interactions with the world. Stating explicitly, and living by, our values is the way to go. However, I would ask why you cannot just hold these beliefs rather than buy wholesale into an off-the-shelf metaphor?

If you choose to become a Servant Leader, what does that mean you should start doing? How does this new title manifest itself in your context and role? It is far from clear. We must begin by asking who we should be serving, and which of these ‘masters’ wishes should we prioritise when they conflict? Next, we must pin down what their ‘best interests’ are, and how these should be met when they are unclear, contested, unknown, or trade off against each other over time.

This all feels like some kind of ‘mystical management’ (Pattison, 1997). This metaphorical approach to conceptualising leadership is critiqued well by Fenwick W. English & Jacky Lumby in their book Leadership as Lunacy:

“the prevalence of certain metaphors in education talk… encouraging, in many cases, fuzziness of thought, simultaneously promote a kind of universal belief system.”

Enough. It is not my intention to prove this notion of leadership is without value. The burden of proof lies with those who choose to advocate it.

The problem is that there are so many notions of leadership out there that are compelling and resonate, but which do not stand up to scrutiny. We are drawn to these. The reality of leadership is, by comparison, frequently mundane, messy and resistant to pithy coinage. I note that one supporter of populist leadership models recently called attempts to challenge the orthodoxy ‘dull’. He could be right, but that doesn’t make these more grounded conceptions wrong.

I am the first to call for compassion, service to the community, moral values, and altruism… but is it helpful to claim these as a ‘style’ of leadership? In doing so, are we moving towards clarity and informed action, or shrouding the task of leadership in naive, cryptic, dubious abstractions?

It is not unreasonable to ask that we all critically engage with a claim before advocating for it. To check it does what it says on the tin. We might achieve a more informed debate about leadership if we did.

Key references
J Lumby & F W English (2010), Leadership as Lunacy
S Minnis & J Callahan (2010), Servant Leadership in Question: A Critical Review of Power within Servant Leadership
R K Greenleaf (1970), The Servant As Leader

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