Why servant leadership is a bad idea

Aug 16 2010 by Mitch McCrimmon Print This Article

The servant leadership bandwagon is still on track but needs to be derailed. It's a bad idea because it's paternalistic and gets in the way of employee engagement.

Just when we need to empower front line knowledge workers to think for themselves and take more ownership, the last thing they need is to be served by their managers. John F. Kennedy got the direction of service the right way around when he said: "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country."

A novel idea often has two senses. In one sense it is interesting and controversial but false. In the other sense it is true but trivial because it isn't saying anything new or distinctive.

Interesting but False
Servant leadership is most interesting if it means that managers should literally serve, or be a servant to, their subordinates. This seems to be the intention of the originator of the concept, Robert K. Greenleaf. He read a Herman Hesse novel in which a group of travellers fell apart after their servant left them. Because the servant had kept the group together, Greenleaf saw him as the group's leader.

Clearly, therefore, he viewed the servant leader as literally the group's servant. This idea is plausible in politics, clubs or associations where the leader is elected. Without question, this person must serve the electorate to avoid being voted out of office at the next election.

In business, however, managers at all levels must serve the owners if they want to keep their jobs. They also need to serve customers. The harsh reality in business is that employees are a means to an end. Effective managers will, of course, do all they can to engage, motivate, consider and include employees but that does not amount to being their servant.

The truth is that while managers fire employees who aren't performing, no servant can fire his master. Therefore, this sense of servant leadership is interesting but clearly false.

True but Trivial
Larry Spears explains servant leadership very clearly. When he was Executive Director of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, he edited a collection of articles, Insights on Leadership, in which he suggested that "...we are beginning to see that the traditional, autocratic, and hierarchical modes of leadership are yielding to a newer model - one based on teamwork and community, one that seeks to involve others in decision making, one based on ethical and caring behavior..."

Who could possibly argue with the need to be less autocratic and hierarchical, more caring and inclusive? Spears is attacking the proverbial straw man because his opponent is too easy to knock over. There must be dozens of post-heroic models of leadership that would agree wholeheartedly with his statement.

As it is, therefore, this says nothing distinctive about servant leadership per se. It's like telling us that whales are mammals without saying how they differ from other mammals. To make servant leadership distinctive it is not enough to compare it to an outdated industrial age model of leadership.

What is needed is to show how it is preferable to other 21st century concepts of leadership that make similar claims to servant leadership. As it stands servant leadership is simply too vague, hence we must conclude that the idea, in this sense, is true but trivial as it says nothing distinctive, nothing that separates it from every other model of leadership that also attacks autocratic, heroic models of leadership.

Servant Leadership as Paternalistic
Servant leadership has paternalistic overtones. The pop psychology theory transactional analysis compared parent-child to adult-adult relationships. Serving employees smacks of a parent-child relationship, which if employees feel so treated, they will surely be even more demotivated and disengaged than they are already.

From the point of view of transactional analysis, proponents of servant leadership are really just switching from critical parent to nurturing parent. They want to replace autocratic leaders (critical parent) with supportive leaders (nurturing parent). But the result is still paternalistic and thus just as potentially demotivating to employees as the critical parent (autocratic leader) model.

Leadership and Employee Engagement
As the quote from John F. Kennedy suggests, it is not the manager's job to serve the needs of employees anyway. Employees should be encouraged to think of themselves as self-employed suppliers of services. Instead of waiting for managers to tell them what to do or look after them, employees should strive to keep abreast of their boss's changing needs, just as they would if they really were independent contractors and their boss were their customer.

Instead of waiting for the organization to provide them with career development, employees should think entrepreneurially about how to "build their businesses" with their internal customers in their internal market.

Clearly, however, this way of viewing the relationship between manager and employee implies that employees should see themselves as serving the needs of their managers, not the other way around. This approach is more empowering and shows more respect to employees than the paternalistic servant leader stance.

The servant leadership camp states that effective leaders are not ego-centric or selfish. They don't put their needs ahead of higher aims. But it is possible to be selfless without serving the needs of followers. Indeed, it can be argued that true leadership calls for sacrifice on the part of followers. The call from green leaders to get people out of their gas-guzzling cars asks followers to make sacrifices for the sake of the environment.

Martin Luther King called for people to give up their prejudices. Mahatma Gandhi called for the British Government to give up India. Leadership has often been defined as influencing people to do things they would not do otherwise. Leaders who challenge the status quo and demand sacrifices from followers risk rejection which is surely compatible with being selfless.

Conversely, the politician who promises to give voters exactly what they want is serving their needs but, in reality, just buying votes. What kind of leadership is that?

Servant leadership, being a slippery concept, has other meanings, such as the desire to be of service. But many professional people are so motivated. Do we need to talk of servant doctors, nurses or teachers? No one can criticize such a noble attitude but it is best captured by terms like authentic leadership, integrity, selflessness or dedication.

The move from autocrat to the other extreme of servant makes little sense when adult partnership is what we need. Thus regardless of how servant leadership is defined, it has too many negative connotations to be widely persuasive.

A Model Servant Leader?
Some feel an emotional attachment to the concept of servant leadership because their model servant leader is Jesus Christ. The drive to be god-like or close to God is nothing new. In the middle ages there was the "great chain of being" where everything was classified according to how close it was to God. This may partly explain the appeal of servant leadership to some.

However, a religious group is like a political group or association where it's essential to serve the needs of members. But businesses are very different types of groups. To survive, they need to serve their owners and customers, not their members who are only a means to this end. Thus any religious motivation to apply servant leadership to business may stem from personal values rather than what is best for the business.

The Bottom Line
Managers who position themselves to their teams as their servants one day then discipline or fire them the next invite cynicism and distrust. The old adage "actions speak louder than words" could not be truer for managers. Being on stage, they are closely watched for any disconnect between word and deed. The notion of serving employees sounds good at the keep-it-simple level but it is hard to maintain in leaner times.

Fortunately it is fully possible to develop a collaborative, supportive, empathetic, engaging, empowering and developmental relationship with employees without taking on the extreme servant label.

Actually, the servant leader is just as heroic as the know-it-all leader. The emphasis is still on the person in charge, dependency on whom is potentially just as debilitating if for different reasons. Employee engagement requires an adult-adult relationship between managers and employees, not a paternalistic one.


About The Author

Mitch McCrimmon
Mitch McCrimmon

Mitch McCrimmon has over 30 years experience in executive assessment and coaching split between Canada and the UK. He is also the author of three management books, the latest being Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes,

Older Comments

This post does a good job covering the topic of servant leadership. I would like to suggest an alternative conclusion, however. Servant leadership isn't a bad idea. It's really a good idea that is just implemented poorly sometimes.

I think that there are two reasons for this. 1. The reason for having managers serving employees isn't clearly identified, and 2. The organisational structure isn't changed to support the concept.

One way to support both ideas is to turn the organisational hierarchy upside down when it comes to the day-to-day execution of a company's strategy. While a traditional organisational structure is good for strategic planning, it's important to turn the org chart on its head when it is time for implementation. That is because implementation requires a focus on the customer.

This is where servant leadership begins to make sense. Now the manager's role is to support the people in the organisation who are closest to the customer. Good leaders will keep employees focused on meeting customer needs instead of looking the other way around.

David Witt San Diego, CA

Thanks for the comment David. You say that '...the manager's role is to support the people in the organisation who are closest to the customer.' I agree with this point but 'supporting people' does not entail serving them or being their servant. Your idea, for me, falls under the heading of what I called 'true but trivial' - that is, all kinds of supportive actions that any leadership model would agree with get labeled servant leadership with no argument to show what makes such actions uniquely characteristic of this model while not applying to every other Tom, Dick and Harry leadership model. We need to be more precise when we define anything. It doesn't help much to tell us that whales are mammals if we don't know how they differ from other mammals, like dolphins or sea lions.

Mitch McCrimmon

I think much of this argument is about branding of the idea. The term servant-leader is great for selling the concept but if taken to the extreme literal meaning of servant, there is a problem. I see the issue as being one of semantics and not the actual intent behind the concept of servant leadership.

For instance, let's substiute 'facilitative' leader instead of servant leader. Takes all the wind out of the sails but it isn't nearly as sexy as 'Servant' leader to create an opposite, polarizing position from dictatorial leadership.

I've been in the IT and Management Consulting arena for 25 years and I quickly evloved into a facilitative leader and manager just by observing others, listening to feedback and examining effective systems in nature. The 'serving' aspect of the relationship between a leader or manager and an employee has always been two way, it is just highly disfunctional in a traditional autocratic, command and control environment.

In my opinion, effective leadership is context specific and to have one absolute style / interpretation of Servant Leadership for all contexts is ineffective and demonstrates someone who read a book but has no practical experience leading / managing.

But hey, Servant Leadership is a sexy topic and it probably will get many folks to read your post :-)

Mike DePaoli San Francisco Bay Area

Although I appreciate what the author is reacting to, I think he's set up a bit of a straw man argument about servant leadership. A true servant leader is not paternalistic because that places him or herself at the centre of the equation. That isn't servanthood. Nor is a true servant leader interested solely in the good of his or her staff. That isn't be leadership. As I see it, the servant part of servant leadership extends in two directions, and the first is subordinate to the second. Both aspects are founded on this one premise: the servant leader does not exist for him or herself. He exists in order to enable his people to become all they can be -- to be successful -- but in the context of the second direction of servanthood. And that is that the servant leader exists , not for herself but for the achievement of a particular cause, that some necessary and good thing might be achieved in the right way and at the right time, for a particular group of people (i.e. for business, customers). The more closely the cause correlates with what is good, just and true, the more it constitutes great service, and that is what servants are for.

That the first factor is shaped by the second, is, in part, where leadership kicks in. A servant leader has to manage personal and interpersonal needs and dynamics in light of the value of the cause. She has to exercise authority, but in service of the cause and in service of the success of her people. She represents the cause to the team. She enables the team to pursue the cause, remain true to the cause, and achieve the cause with excellence. In the course of this process, her servant mentality will cause her to draw on the team, listen to the team, invest in the team ... but this does not make her a doormat or a milkmaid -- for her servant relationship to her team is shaped by a larger reality: the team also does not exist for itself, but to to serve a cause.

What McCrimmon is reacting to, I sense, is a diluted, clichéd version of servant leadership. In our culture of scalability and short-term success, we have a tendency to co-opt ideas that clearly carry power but then, perhaps in recognition that living them fully goes against the grain of said culture, suck them dry of their potency. The shell that is left is the straw man that McCrimmon critiques, and rightly so.

Jonathan Wilson (www.soulsystems.ca)

Jonathan, I think I covered your objections in my article. You say that servant leaders are dedicated to a higher cause beyond their self-interest. But people can be dedicated to causes without being a servant to them. Moving from selfish to servant is going from one extreme to another. We don't need to go this extreme to account for dedication. To claim that being dedicated makes one a servant you would have to offer some other argument beyond simply saying that being dedicated to a cause is better than being selfish. No one would argue this point, but that is not enough to make the case for servant leadership.

Secondly, all your points about fostering the success of one's team would equally be made by ALL modern leadership models so that any such idea says nothing distinctive about servant leadership which is what I meant when I said that this meaning of servant leadership is true but trivial.

Mitch McCrimmon Toronto, Canada

Well ... an article written by someone who has no understanding of the topic being covered. Not even worth doing a point by point counter to this article; it has little to no merit. They have a saying in the Navy, 'you can't be a captain unless you've been on a ship.' Might want to gain some experience in the space before espousing its supposedly deficits. By the way, some claim Jesus Christ was a servant leader; I believe he pre-dates your reference by a bit.


Very poor explanation of the concept and not as well written as it should be when you examine the author's education and obvious talent. Servant leaders are not 'beholden to serve' their employees in the extreme that the author states nor do they become parental with their leadership. There is plenty of power and authority wielded in the pursuit of the all mighty profit margin with this theory to satisfy even the most dedicated of managers. :) I would certainly lose a war of words and wit with the author, but I would direct people to Jim Hunter's book 'The World's Most Powerful Leadership Principle' for a decent introduction to the theory.

I do much appreciate the author bringing up the only salient point in the article is the idea that if we don't hold much regard for the extreme autocratic style of leadership, why would we on the other side of the equation in regards to servant leadership? Great point to discuss and hopefully, with articles such as these, the theory itself can be more defined in the mainstream (as much as any leadership theory, or leadership itself, is clearly defined.)

JJ Musgrove Columbus, GA

Very shallow interpretation of what is servant leadership.

dave guerra Houston

Hosea 4:6 was written in 715 B.C. and reminds us that people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge. Wordkeeper, Inc. does not take pride in refuting the uninformed arrogance that is typified in your response, but it is necessary to share a bit of history that apparently was not covered in your education. The philosophical foundation of servant leadership existed thousands of years ago (Brewer, 2010). The concept is the oldest model of change leadership in history and can be traced through passages dating back to the 4th century B.C. from the Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu, who lived in China 570 B.C. This model was exemplified by Jesus Christ in the New Testament Book of Mark; in the Arabian Bedouin traditions and values that existed before the birth of Islam (Kennedy, 1989), and through Greenleaf's popularization of the model in the 1960s (Brewer, 2010). As a social science research and business development organization, Wordkeeper, Inc. is careful to avoid unfounded speculations.

Abdul EL-Amin Lauderdale Lakes, FL.

Mitch, I like your post and your thought process because I am a bit contrarian and I do not like it when something is just a little too ooshy-gooshy and sounds better than it actually is thereby catching new followers like flies to fly paper.

I find much merit in your post although I am not prepared to completely throw out the idea of servant leadership nor do I think you are suggesting that. It has its place yet I do think membership and political groups are indeed a better fit for servant leadership and that is well stated.

I am also more inclined to be more conservative and I find that the idea of corporate servant leadership forgets who we are all there to serve is which is, of course, the customer of the corporation or business and not its employees.

As a Christian, I see the merit of servant leadership and in the example of Christ, He referred to how his followers should serve and love one another, be on each others side, and care for one another as he would show them he cared for them. That is a far reach from going to the office and behaving as a servant to your employees rather than the customers you are all there to serve. As you say, the focus is on the wrong party!

I like the provocative tone of your post and it certainly raised a few hackles. Still, I see the merit in pointing out when and where servant leadership is most effective as a teaching and modeling tool. It is a mindset skill we most certainly all need to take ownership of yet it has its proper place and the office may not be exactly what Jesus had in mind when he washed the feet of his apostles.

Greenleaf had a good point but perhaps some have gone just a little overboard with the whole concept. Your post certainly got me thinking because as a current student returning to further education it reminds me that we must remember that we are constantly relearning how to think not what to think. Making our own choices is far more effective than parroting others choices for us.

Thank you,


Alex Barrett Virginia