Servant-leadership revisited

Afresh, critical look is being taken at issues of power and authority, and people are beginning to learn, however, haltingly, to relate to one another in less coercive and more creatively supporting ways.

A new moral principle is emerging, which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.

Those who choose to follow this principle, according to Robert Greenleaf, will not casually accept the authority of existing institutions.

“Rather, they freely respond only to individuals who are chosen as leaders because they are proven and trusted as servants. To the extent that this principle prevails in the future, the only truly viable institutions will be those that are predominantly servant-led.”


Who Is the Servant-Leader?

Greenleaf classically believes that the servant-leader is servant first. Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or acquire material possession.

For such people, it will be a  later choice to serve – after leadership is established.

The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them are the shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.

The aim of Dr Ken Blanchard, of Blanchard Training & Development to philosophically embrace the servant-leadership dogma has always been to encourage managers to move from the traditional direct, control, and supervise approach to the roles of cheerleader, encourager, listener, and facilitator.

In the past, managers have emphasised judgment, criticism, and evaluation rather than providing the support and encouragement that people need to be their best.


A Misconception about Servant-Leadership

This is a misconception about servant-leadership that Dr Blanchard attempts to clear up. He believes that when managers hear the term, their assumption is that managers should be working for their people, who would be deciding what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.

If that is what servant-leadership is all about, then it doesn’t sound like leadership to most managers. “It sounds like the inmates running the prison.”


In correcting the misconception, he posits that leadership has two aspects: a visionary part and an implementation part.

Some people say that leadership is really the visionary role (doing the right thing), and management is the implementation role (doing things right).

Rather than getting caught in the leadership versus management debate, perhaps it is better to think of these both as leadership roles.

Leadership is an influence process in which you try to help people accomplish goals. Al good leadership starts with a visionary role.

This involves not only goal setting but also establishing a clear picture of perfection – what the operation would look like when it was running effectively. In other words, leadership starts with a sense of direction.

“A river without banks is a large puddle.” The banks permit the river to flow; they give direction to the river. Leadership is all about going somewhere; it is not about wandering around aimlessly.

The Hierarchical Paradox

Most organisations are typically pyramidal in nature. The CEO, the Chairman, and the Board are at the top whilst all the employees – the people who doing all the work are at the bottom.

There is nothing wrong with having a traditional pyramid for certain tasks and roles. The paradox is that the pyramid needs to be right up or upside down depending on the task or role.

It is absolutely essential that the pyramid stay upright when it comes to vision, mission, values, and setting major goals. “Moses did not go up on the mountain with a committee.”

People look to leaders for direction, so the traditional hierarchy is not bad for this aspect of leadership.

While the vision and direction might start with the leader, if you are dealing with experienced people, you want to get them involved in shaping and refining that direction.

Therefore, leadership should emerge rather than be appointed. But no matter how the leadership is determined, providing direction is an important aspect of servant-leadership.

The Problem Occurs with Implementation

Most organisations and managers get in trouble in the implementation phase of the leadership process.

The traditional pyramid is kept alive and well. When that happens, who do people work for?

The person above them. The minute you think you work for the person above you for implementation, you are assuming that person – your boss – is responsible, and your job is being responsive to that boss and to his or her whims and wishes.

As a result, all the energy in the organisation is moving up the hierarchy, away from customers and the frontline people who are closest to the action.

Organisation people often believe that the worst thing that can happen to them is to lose a boss, particularly one that they have sized and figured out.

Because now they have to figure out a new boss and they likes and wants. People think their career depends soles on the quality of their relationship with their boss.

As a result, the most important people in your organization – those individuals who have contact with your customers – spend al their time looking over their shoulder trying to figure out what their boss wants rather than focusing on the needs of the customer.


There is nothing wrong with having a traditional pyramid for certain tasks and roles. The paradox is that the pyramid needs to be right up or upside down depending on the task or role.


The Solution: Invert the Pyramid

Dr Blanchard believes that one way to correct this situation is by turning the pyramid upside down when it comes to implementation and giving your customer-contact people responsibility. Remember, the word responsible means “able to respond.”

When you turn a pyramid upside down philosophically, who works for whom when it comes to implementation?

You work for your people. This one change, although it seems minor, makes a major difference. The difference is between who is responsible and who is responsive. With the traditional pyramid,, the boss is always responsible, and the staff are supposed to be responsive to the boss.

When you turn the pyramid upside down those roles get reversed. Your people become responsible and the job of management is to be responsive to their people. That creates a different environment for implementation.

If you work for your people, what is the purpose of being a manager?

To help them accomplish their goals. Your job is to help them win.

Every manager works for his or her people. It is in relation to this responsive, serving role that the effective manager now encourages, supports, coaches, facilitates, and does everything possible to help his or her people be successful. This is where servant-leadership really takes over.

Capt. Sam Addaih (Rtd.)

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