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 observer; 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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