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Reconsidering servant leadership

A half-century ago, it was a fresh idea. But the phrase has lost its relevance and impact.

Fifty years ago, Robert Greenleaf wrote an essay called “The Servant as LeaderPDF that introduced the phrase servant leadership into the business lexicon. The notion offered an important counterweight to the command-and-control leadership style of that era, and it developed a wide following in the decades that followed, with countless companies and executives embracing servant leadership as a core management philosophy.

Among the hundreds of CEOs I’ve interviewed over the years, dozens have told me that they believe in servant leadership. The concept has had a long and laudable run, worthy of a standing ovation. But I respectfully submit that it is time to retire the phrase.

Before I marshal my argument and offer a more practical way of describing leaders and leadership, let’s do a quick refresher on where the idea came from.

Greenleaf, who started his career at American Telephone and Telegraph (now AT&T) before turning full-time to management writing and consulting, said that he was inspired by reading Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East, a short novel published in 1932. The story is about a band of men on a mythical journey. The central character, Leo, is the servant who does the team’s menial chores, but “who also sustains them with his spirit and song,” Greenleaf wrote. Leo then disappears. The group can’t continue without him, and abandons the journey.

“To me, this story clearly says that the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness,” Greenleaf wrote. “Leo was actually the leader all of the time, but he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down inside. Leadership was bestowed upon a man who was by nature a servant. It was something given, or assumed, that could be taken away. His servant nature was the real man, not bestowed, not assumed, and not to be taken away.”

Later in his essay, Greenleaf explains the relevance of the story for leaders at the time: “A fresh critical look is being taken at the 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.”

When he published those words in 1970, they provided a new direction for leaders who were still following a more hierarchical approach: “You will do what I tell you to do because I outrank you.” That style certainly worked for some legendary leaders throughout the decades, such as cable TV pioneer Ted Turner, the subject of the 1981 biographyLead, Follow or Get Out of the Way. And more recently, domineering leaders such as Steve Jobs were successful despite their well-known impatience with anybody who didn’t share their clarity and urgency of vision for building the business.

But the corporate world has changed dramatically since then, particularly in 2020. Endless disruption has killed off command-and-control as a viable approach, as leaders will quickly lose credibility if they pretend they have all the answers. The primacy of CEOs and shareholder capitalism has been replaced by calls for stakeholder capitalism, with corporations recognizing the need to fulfill a broader role in society on issues such as social justice and environmentalism.

And so why should servant leadership be retired as a useful phrase? The main reason is that it has become redundant. Just as with the terms positive leadership and strategic leadership, pronouncing an adherence today to the notion of servant leadership begs the question, “As opposed to what?” It is the definition of a truism.

To lead now is to serve various constituencies. Yes, there are many skeptics who believe that companies will still put the shareholder first, at the expense of other stakeholders. But there is widespread agreement that this year has been an inflection point for how companies must operate. CEOs who think otherwise are not going to last long in their role, as they will face pressure from their board, employees, investors, and customers.

“Corporate America now has more responsibility than it ever had before,” Mellody Hobson, the co-CEO of Ariel Investments, told me in an interview. “CEOs and boards cannot turn their backs on these issues. And their employees and their customers are holding them accountable.”

Another reason servant leadership should be retired is that it has never been the kind of phrase that enough people used in everyday conversation when describing leaders. A discussion between two colleagues typically does not follow this script: “Hey, what’s your boss like?” “Oh, he’s great. He’s a servant leader.” Jargon and buzzwords grow like weeds in the business world, and it’s good to thin them out.

So, what descriptor should we replace servant leadership with? After all my interviews with leaders, and spending the last 30-plus years of my career working for some truly exceptional and truly horrible bosses, the key differentiator of leaders for me is whether they are selfless or self-centered. Do they see the people who work for them simply as assets to help them achieve their own goals, or do they consider it their responsibility to help their team grow and develop?

It’s a distinction that was captured well by Sue Desmond-Hellmann in my interview with her when she was CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: “My parents are really great, and they always had a sense that everybody has something to contribute, and they always thought about how to bring out the best in people. So when I meet people, I’m always thinking, ‘What am I going to like about you?’ I’m not thinking, ‘How are you going to let me down?’” The perspective shifts the responsibility from the leader to the led.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting business leaders are entirely selfless. They are not volunteers, and many top executives are paid handsomely for the work they do. What I’m referring to is how people are wired as human beings, based on the values and influences that shaped them from an early age.

The phrase servant leadership has a nice aspirational ring to it, but selfless and self-centered are more practical and useful terms for assessing leaders and how their teams perceive them.

I’m betting all the bosses you have worked for can be put instantly in one of the two camps that Desmond-Hellmann references. Maybe the self-centered leader will get faster results in the short run by ordering people around — a command-and-control boss of yore — but long-term leadership tests these days are about influence and attracting and building talent. These only grow when employees feel that their leader is more interested in their development and the broader success of the organization than in advancing his or her own career.

These selfless leaders recognize that their responsibility is to lift the performance of their team, which in turn will likely lead to more promotions if they are successful. Getting the best out of people is simply a matter of where leaders put their focus. Are they more concerned with what they are doing for their team, or with what their team is doing for them?

Yes, the phrase servant leadership has a nice aspirational ring to it, but selfless and self-centered are more practical and useful terms for assessing leaders and how their teams perceive them.

Adam Bryant
Adam Bryant is senior managing director of the ExCo Group, a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. His next book, The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership, will be published in July 2023 by Harvard Business Review Press.

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