I’ll confess that I was a somewhat of a heretic at the height of the “servant leadership” era.
Not because I disputed Robert Greenleaf’s view that the greatest value to an organization comes from a servant leader who “shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
In fact, given the prevailing high-voltage political climate, we unquestionably could do well with a bit more servant leadership and a bit less traditional leadership, which involves “accumulation and exercise of power at the top of a pyramid.”
Instead, I’d say my skeptic radar activated when a servant leadership workshop consultant (quite a few years ago, of course) discussed the concept of flipping the organization chart upside-down, with the CEO at the bottom.
In theory, it all sounds great. But in practical terms, I question whether rank-and-file employees in any organization would really even want to see it that way. My view, based on many years in a chief communications role, is that employees expect leaders to do just that – lead. And part of their expectation is for the leader to set the agenda for the organization and, hopefully, cascade vision, mission and strategies effectively.
A top down approach in communication is not a bad thing; it’s an essential thing. And effectiveness is a matter of how authentic and thorough the leader is in cascading the information. (By the way, the accountability gap at the top ranks is the biggest detriment to effective cascading – but that’s a subject for another day.)
While employees value empowerment and autonomy, they also are realistic in their understanding that those attributes are bestowed upon them through a hierarchical power structure. To put it another way, they’re not naïve. They know the “law of the jungle.”
Another aspect of Greenleaf’s teaching seems to reinforce the “softness” of so-called soft skills. He describes a servant leader as “sharply different from one who is leader-first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”
Sure, we all know, or know of, powerful leaders who seem to fit this description. But it’s not true of all successful leaders. Adam Grant’s Give and Take shares lots of examples of how “nice guys” can and do finish first.
More to the point, however, is the impression that seemingly benign servant leaders are kinder, gentler leaders who are motivated by moral good, and that may be true. I would suggest that servant leaders also understand the leverage that comes from empowering employees.
Servant leaders may be kind and caring, but we can catch them winking on the side as their healthier, happier employees deliver positive results to the organization’s bottom line, thus enhancing their positions of power.
Mike Kohler is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.