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Is ‘servant leadership’ too soft for today’s workforce?

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.

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.

A servant leader uses a participative style of management, as opposed to one that is Servant_leadership1autocratic 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?  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.

[Email readers, continue here…]  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?

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.

  • Cesar Ramirez

    Ironically, I offered servant leadership in my previous online marketing business and it fell apart because the leaders were still only as strong as the main leader (me.). When egos kick in that they can do a process better it destroyed my business.

  • My concept of “servant leader” is an initiator and visionary defines and pursues a vision and then is able to clearly communicate that vision to employees in a way that energizes (inspires) employee will do their assigned job in a way that moves toward accomplishing that vision. At the same time, the servant leader is one who respects employees, trusts them to bring their best to the job and does what it takes to help employees improve keeping in mind that a successful employee is a productive employee. If an employee does not perform, then they are on the wrong bus and a servant leader helps them find the right bus. I do not perceive a servant leader in any respect as being soft, indecisive, or someone who abdicates his or her leadership responsibilities.

  • Michael O'Daniel

    I don’t think there has to be a binary choice. I think you can be a servant leader and still communicate to all your stakeholders that urgency, quality and focus upon the customer are your organization’s values. The best way to create customer focus is through focus on employees first because they make or break your focus on the customer, they deliver the quality, they buy into the need for urgency. And it is indeed possible to enroll your employees in living these values without being a jerk.

  • The vast majority of business leaders will never reach the heights of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. The media will never cover our bold moves and shower us with praise. If you are then carry on. Personally for me it’s about those few hundred lives I can affect and to be remembered by my employees for making their lives better, for making their growth the #1 priority is a huge success and management well executed.

  • Dave, I appreciate your analysis. Leadership to me means neither servant nor delegator, it means building a clear vision, motivating and building ownership and alignment throughout the entire organization to realize the objectives and drive results and profits for the shareholders or benefit for the common good- for a purpose driven organization.

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