Why Isn’t ‘Servant Leadership’ More Prevalent?

This was the question posed recently on the Wisdom Research Network of the University of Chicago by James L. Heskett, Baker Foundation Professor, Emeritus at the Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University. He continued:

“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?”

My Response

Robert Greenleaf was a Quaker and the concept and practice of servant-leadership resonates with the values and practices of the Quakers. They were the least dogmatic and most egalitarian of the Nonconformist sects that played such a prominent role in the First Industrial Revolution. They relied upon what they called the “authority of the spirit”, in contrast with the Catholic Church’s “authority of the priest” and the mainline Protestant’s “authority of the text”. The Quakers believed in learning-by-doing and founded the English apprenticeship system, shunning conceptual or “head knowledge”.

Their preferred mode of organization was the partnership and they were astonishingly successful as commercial and social entrepreneurs. They founded the iron and steel and chocolate industries and were pioneers in many others. They were also great brewers, believing that beer was a healthy substitute for hard liquor. They also reformed prisons, asylums hospitals and schools. As the saying goes, “By doing good they did very well.”

Unfortunately they were undone by their huge success. As their firms grew they could no longer ensure that those they hired shared their values and they were forced to go to the corporate, joint-stock company form to finance the expansion. Many Quakers found that they could no longer live ‘plain’ and they married out into the social establishment and switched to Anglicanism.

Here, in the history of the Quakers, are the clues to why servant-leadership, while highly effective, has not proved popular:

  1. First, it is not a set of tools and techniques or principles that can be a adopted and implemented; it is a set of practices that have to be learned through doing. That takes commitment.
  2. Second, it is difficult to scale as firms become successful and are compelled to organize hierarchically and hire people for their technical skills.
  3. Third, the philosophy underpinning the Quaker view of the world runs contrary to the technical, instrumental rationality on which current management thought and much practice is founded. The latter privileges “head knowledge” and the view of the objective, detached observe; it prizes tool, techniques, principles and precepts that can be implemented.
  4. Which brings us to the fourth problem; power. Servant leadership requires the surrender of what Mary Parker Follett called “power over” and getting it back, multiplied many times, in the form of “power with”. You have to have experienced that exchange before you can believe in it and commit to it. Which brings us back to the first factor. Current “power over” styles are sustained by a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle that will take a crisis to break and perhaps a cognitive revolution/religious revival (which may effectively be the same thing) to recover from…
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5 Responses to Why Isn’t ‘Servant Leadership’ More Prevalent?

  1. warren says:

    Hi David,

    You ‘knew’ that I would be posting on this topic 😉

    My humble opinion, the ServiceMaster Leadership, from
    Marion Wade, founder in 1947, up to and ending with
    Pollard around(mid 90’s if my recollection is right),
    was structured towards serving the franchises, and
    allowing the franchises to set their direction for
    growth. Pollard’s example here, emulates some of the
    original investors and leadership behaviour: Some of
    the original investors who knew Marion Wade(the founder)
    became multi millionaires, and even as such, when
    required, would pitch in, and help the staff mop floors
    on various contracts. Some (after retirement) when on
    to help people in Africa..by physically helping on
    projects for water irrigation and supply…

    Incredible people with much concern, shown by not only
    their financial investments into the company, but by
    their actions inside and outside the company.

    After Pollard (mid 90’s), things changed. Leadership,
    values, and actions, along with the actual goals and
    mission statement of the company changed. By 2007,
    ServiceMaster was bought out by a Private Equity
    company, CSR,and to this day, is still owned by them.

    What happened? In my opinion, the original community
    values…of allowing each franchise to be semi structured
    but allowing each to make decisions and operate on a local
    level…was replaced by corporate ‘interference’, with
    franchise fees, and profits being of utmost concern.
    (which may be directly drawn on the ‘Hurst Loop 2012’,if
    one wishes to do so)

    Leadership of ServiceMaster turned form “as one who serves”
    to “you serve the leadership”.

    Sadly, for me personally, if things had NOT changed, (in this
    way), we would have never sold our Franchise, at least not as
    early as we did, in 2010. “Taking away”, what a person believes
    and has built for 25 years, is sad indeed.


    • David says:

      Many thanks Warren – it’s good to have your firsthand experience. Unfortunately it’s a very common story when the founders retire and are replaced by professional managers who do not share their values. It is a systemic problem and why I don’t think that the “conscious capitalism” movement can be regarded as a “new paradigm”, when it is based on examples like Whole Foods, which are still being run by their original founders.

  2. warren says:

    Re: above post, ServiceMaster was bought out in 2007,
    by CDR (Clayton Dubilier & Rice)


    • David says:

      Thanks Warren, The acquisition by a buyout firm often accelerates the process of value extraction at the expense of wealth creation. It is then followed by a flip or an IPO and the problem of how to a manage the resulting wreck is passed on to someone else. Harold Geneen at ITT was a master of the process and I can remember being a customer of one of the ITT subs and being puzzled at how to square ITT’s brilliant reputation with the operating ineptitude of its components. I am puzzled no longer…

  3. warren says:

    Thanks David
    I sensed things were ‘wrong’, when I attended the ServiceMaster National
    Convention in Denver in 2006. New CEO Spainhour was hired, and he gave a
    speech regarding everything from values to funding to potential private
    equity…in short, I did not feel comfortable with what I was hearing. From
    then, and specifically from 2010 (when private equity CDR bought out
    ServiceMaster, till present), it appears things have gotten worse and worse.

    Apparently, between 2010 and now, they brought in the CEO or President or
    someone from the Subway Franchises to start selling more franchises in the
    same or similar fashion as the Subway model. (If my understanding is correct
    Subway had problems selling multiple franchises with territorial rights being
    infringed upon by existing franchises, or something to this effect. While Subway has been successful, the point is, I could not and cannot see this model working for ServiceMaster as territorial rights are quite important in
    the cleaning industry. (without prejudice)

    Numerous other changes have taken place, and you may read about some of them
    in the link below if you are interested.


    The point is, as you say, sell to private equity, increase sales and profits,
    and flip for higher share value at some point. But this strategy does not appear to be working for ServiceMaster or CDR private equity. In fact, the new CEO just sold off TrueGreen, a division of ServiceMaster which does lawn care and such due to customer loss and the like.

    To me, it seems the ServiceMaster elevator is going down, and what floor it
    stops on is yet to be determined. That is, there have been and are some
    exceptional franchises across North America and the world that have and will
    continue to be very successful. But overall, as a multi billion dollar
    company, the writing is on the wall.