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Is ‘servant leadership’ too soft for you?

First, what is “servant leadership?”

It’s a term rooted in ancient philosophy.  Robert Greenleaf may have been the first to resurrect the concept in his book published in 1970.  Not quite as bold as inverting the management triangle, the concept of servant leadership requires that a business manager focus upon his or her people’s highest priority needs first.  

So, what’s the question?

The question begged by the headline above is whether this form of leadership is perceived as soft, indecisive, and inappropriate for the fast–moving world of today’s business.

How do you classify this style of leadership?

A servant leader uses a participative style of management, as opposed to one that is autocratic or (at the opposite end of the spectrum) laissez–faire.  More important, a servant leader involves employees in the process of decision–making, focusing upon the performance and satisfaction of employees.

Doesn’t sound tough or forceful enough for you? 

[Email readers, continue here…]    You are not alone.  It is a very thin line between abdication of responsibility and participative leadership.  The world loves bold leadership.  Steve Jobs, who was known to be in charge of each detail in design.  Elon Musk, who obsesses with metrics and constantly asks for employees to feed him their concerns but makes bold moves on his own.

How about tech businesses or remote workforces?

In technology–based enterprises, the question of leadership vision becomes mixed with leadership style.  Can a visionary leader abdicate the execution of that vision by subordinating to those who carry out the execution of that vision?  Or must he or she be more like Jobs or Musk and stand in the center of the storm, constantly testing the execution efforts of those around?  And how about the leader working with his or her remote workforce?

There is a place for a leader as servant. 

But the perception of that leader being soft and lacking in strong leadership traits is the sure result of using this method as the leading style for a CEO.   It is fine as a secondary style used in tactical decision–making, when strategic issues are not the focus, and where threats to corporate health or resources are not evident.

But those leaders who will be remembered as having changed the world, even if the world is defined as within the walls of one enterprise, are those who were clear in their ability to communicate urgency, quality and focus upon the customer – not necessarily those who delegated the best or allowed decisions to flow from management concurrence.

  • Harley Kaufman

    Hi Dave….Harley here

    I’ve been practicing a lot of these concepts for years – and very successfully, too. Let throw another out for your consideration: too many employees confuse their ‘work’ with their ‘job’. Drop me an email to discuss further. It would make a great message for you to share with others.

    All my best,


  • Cricket Lee

    I believe that in the new paradigm helping your employees create their own businesses is the end goal. When people can be encouraged in their own vision they realize the best way to get there is to support yours. Having said that, the balance of strong requirements, quality, integrity and work ethic are key. Egoists have no place in my future. Collaboration breeds good healthy capitalism.

  • Gregory Wood

    Servant leadership is leadership focused on others rather than on self. “Others” extends to balanced focus on customers, employees, shareholders, and the reputation of the corporate entity. Ideally, the CEO is a servant leader when he/she keeps 100% of the focus on balancing the interest of those “others” and zero focus on self-interest.

  • Clarence Treat

    This pretty much describes how I related to my crew as a Fire Captain. They respected the position, and I respected them.

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