Something To Hang Your Hat On: The Limits of Servant Leadership

 Something To Hang Your Hat On: The Limits of Servant Leadership

I’ve always had a rub with the concept of servant leadership.

Coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader,” servant leadership is popular with executive types. They typically use the term to soften the top-down, authoritarian idea of the CEO that lives in lots of people’s heads. 

Sure, it does sound nice that a CEO would primarily serve others. My caution to CEOs is that being a “servant first,” as Greenleaf phrases it, puts the cart ahead of the horse.

In my estimation, leadership begins with, well, leading. You have to first define a vision, a destination, a goal. Unless you meet this requirement, efforts to serve your employees will be fruitless. You can enable people, but to do what? You can help the team along, but in order to get where?

This does happen in the real world, a lot. 

A certain type of CEO places inordinate emphasis on supporting and empowering their people while neglecting their duty to own the vision of the organization. Good leadership has a sequence to it, and if you begin with serving, you’re probably not going to be very effective. It’s like a field officer who goes around supplying his troops with the best rifles and ammunition—without telling them where they’re supposed to shoot.

At the end of the day, servant leadership is one mode that well-rounded CEOs operate in, but it’s not the first or the primary. Unlike so many other professionals, the CEO cannot lean fully into one or two strengths and become great. Because the CEO leads such a broad group and balances so many stakeholders, he or she has to balance many different strengths and leadership styles.

In DiSC personality assessment terms, you cannot succeed as a 99 percent
(D)ominance leader (this type would lack any inclination to servanthood) or a 99 percent (S)teadiness leader (this type would be the pure servant-only type). Instead, you have to know what your natural tendencies are and make sure you’re using a little bit of the (D)ominance, (i)nfluence, (S)teadiness, and (C)onscientiousness approach. You can’t place the emphasis in just one place without risking teetering off the tightrope.

So, yes, serve your people. But make sure you’ve first provided them with the vision, direction, and structure they need. That’s the only way the whole team will get anywhere worthwhile. 

Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell is the cofounder and architect of CEO-S, an operating system for the chief executive. Joel is a previous CEO of private and public companies and the owner of Texas CEO Magazine. He is the author of The CEO Tightrope and, most recently, The Chief Executive Operating System (with Sherif Sakr).

Related post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign-Up For Our NewsletterIt is free and can be opted out of at any time.

Like what you are reading? Don't miss out and sign up for our eNewsletter and get more leadership resources right to your inbox.

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Click on the below buttons to download archived newsletters from the corresponding year: