Who serves whom?

I can't say I'm a big fan of Servant Leadership. The idea, in principle, sounds great: a leader or manager is a servant inasmuch as s/he "serves" the "followers." The leader or manager works for the team, the organization, etc.

I saw a lot of this in my rock & roll days as mentioned in a previous post. A band’s management works for the band not the other way around. That management is usually hired (and often fired) by the band, and needs to produce results on behalf of the band. A revolutionary governance model if practiced in mainstream business. Of course most businesses are started by owner/managers who hire others as subordinates not managers. But if those managers at least acted as if they could be fired by their subordinates, that might be useful.

So if Servant Leadership is designed to turn the organizational chart upside down, what’s not to like? SL in practice, however, is often used in subtle ways to reinforce hierarchy, with paternalistic overtones. (Some have argued, including Deborah Eicher-Catt, that the very language of Servant Leadership reinforces a model of hierarchy and patriarchy.) The notion of "Father Knows Best"—that management (usually men) knows SO much more than lowly subordinates (and deserves privileged status and ginormous benefits)—is still firmly embedded in our thinking and is largely unquestioned. This is then made palatable by asking these managers to act as if they’re actually servants of their employees (wink, wink). How noblesse oblige.

Of course there are organizational leaders, change agents, and thought leaders who embrace Servant Leadership in order to disrupt, not entrench, the old order. The architect of Servant Leadership himself, Robert Greenleaf, was instrumental in his time in distinguishing leadership from coercion and control. But the term seems to have outlived its usefulness. It's clearly been co-opted in recent years by those who don’t have a clue about the radical message SL was intended to deliver.

For instance, Servant Leadership has even been used to justify a primitive view of women. Reverend Mike Huckabee, an actual candidate for US President for 2016 (not 1916) once remarked, "A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband." (I’m not making this up.) Androcentrism at its worst.

No wonder feminists have been teeing off on Servant Leadership for a while.

To many of us, SL is better known by its other name: Neo-patriarchy.

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  1. Our mutual friend Trevor Gay had it right: a front-line manager's job is to smooth the path so the employees facing the customer or client can do their job unhindered.

    The idea of hierarchy in business is fundamentally flawed, but becomes a necessary evil when companies hire the wrong people, or treat the right people so badly they have to be watched closely to ensure they're not loafing or stealing.

    My favorite business lesson from rock: everyone gets a turn to lead when they're the best person to be leading. Whoever's best with money should manage that, and whoever's best at schmoozing with the crowd should do that.

    And nobody is the boss of anybody.

    Idealistic, I'm sure. I love the smell if idealism in the morning.

    1. Yup, situational leadership was the name of the game in most bands I was in — as well as in most of the top bands we opened for (like the Dead).

  2. Huckabee didn't make that up, either. It's a Biblical principal which actually describes a far more complicated relationship than you have outlined here; more of a partnership than a hierarchy. Companies seem to do well when employees at least FEEL like they are partners in a going concern, and the boss becomes more approachable and involved, as well.

    Modern society encourages people to just "tee-off" a concept, rather than take the time to understand its nuances.

    1. Interesting point: the fact that a car only has one steering wheel and set of brake pedals does not imply that the driver is superior to the other front seat passenger. It's just that two steering wheels is a recipe for disaster.

    2. Yes, Huckabee was paraphrasing Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians. But many of us who don’t agree with that sentiment (namely: “Wives submit to your husbands as you do the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife…”) will cut Paul some slack given the zeitgeist of the times two thousand years ago. (We should never forget that bibles—and constitutions—reflect the assumptions and prejudices of the times.) Huckabee doesn’t have that excuse.

      Yes, a kind of partnership between husband and wife was certainly encouraged in the Bible but in the context of patriarchy and adrocentrism. Beyond all the nuances, it was a man’s world. Christianity—and especially Catholicism—is struggling mightily with that as we speak. Pope Francis has his work cut out for him.

  3. I think one of the big principles of servant leadership is: Are your people growing as people? In other words, is the attention you're giving to your accounting, logistics or sales colleague turning him or her into a better person, not just an accountant, logistician or salesperson with better accounting, logistics or sales skills? That requires an interest and care for staff as people, not just that they do a better job for you between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday.

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