Servant Leadership

By | June 29, 2014
servant leadership RSM Insight article Sept 2011

On yet another of the seemingly endless LinkedIn discussion boards1, a question has been posed about the idea of “servant leadership” and its co-optation by Wal-Mart. As both its supporters and critics agree, the value of idea of “servant leadership” depends critically on how one defines “servant”, which in turn depends a great deal on how one defines the corresponding concept, “master”. A master/servant relationship stands in stark contrast to a relationship of equals, where both the costs and benefits of participation are shared out on an equitable basis freely acceptable to all parties. The servant leadership model is inherently paternalistic – the leader is supposed to do things that are good for the employees (implicitly whether or not they agree). And the leader is due substantial rewards for his success in making things work.

Like any management system or model, servant leadership is riven with internal contradictions, starting with, as I noted, basic definitions. And it can also logically lead to conclusions that would hardly be acceptable to its proponents. I’m hardly a proponent of this model; I tend to a more Machiavellian approach that balances my own needs with those of the organization. But I always reserve my option to define those needs for myself. As a result, I have found myself not infrequently in a position where the organization thought one way about its needs and I thought otherwise. On my website, I’ve described myself as “…particularly adept at saving organizations from themselves, despite their best efforts to avoid being saved.” On numerous occasions, I have acted in ways that implicitly or occasionally explicitly contradicted official policies and procedures, to the end of bringing the organization to a better place that for various reasons it was incapable of seeing or moving toward on its own. Acting as a “servant”, I have enabled my master to become better than he would have been otherwise; it could be said that I “led” him to improvement.

In the normal language of management, this behavior is generally called “insubordination” if it fails or “admirable initiative” if it succeeds. Any charges of insubordination against me have either been dropped as over time the benefits of my initiative become evident or harbored in the hearts of various managers who have thus been shown up. I always regret the latter; I’ve almost never tried to embarrass any particular individual. No self-initiated action I’ve taken has ever damaged my organization; the worst that has happened is that no benefits accrued because the improvement process was interrupted or thwarted.

I have at times spent considerable time and effort on improvement projects that never found an appropriate organizational home, although if they had they would have provided considerable benefits. For example, in my last full-time university, I advocated from the beginning for effective online support for faculty, for the improvement of resources made available particularly to online PhD students, and for the development of information systems that could provide real-time specific information to faculty about their students. I spent some months personally developing such a faculty resource, only to realize that allowing me to pursue this was actually a way of diverting me from interfering with some other plots. I succeeded in developing a considerable body of online resources toward a student portal, only to have it summarily taken down because it embarrassed the other side of the house that had failed to develop a comparable resource for their own students. And when our new owners realized that such internal information systems did not exist2, I spent many months working with several consultants to solve the problem, only to have the effort collapse in the wake of the accreditation crisis. I have on occasion compared myself to an organizational Cassandra. When I started working for other online universities, it was apparent was that both of them had in fact implemented my ideas long before, and had evolved them well beyond. I was proved right, but too late.

Sometimes my subversive efforts have been more successful. I have yet to relate here the full details of how the National Science Foundation was persuaded to sponsor the first empirical research into the impacts of information technology on white-collar work, despite the insistence of senior officials that there would be no such impacts. Such details will be forthcoming, and they do involve subversive activities. There was also the conversion (from below) of NSF from MultiMate, the official choice, to WordPerfect, the choice of the workers. There are other anecdotes, but you get the idea. I’m not claiming to have a perfect record of success, nor is the purpose here to proclaim my own virtues. But on balance, I’m satisfied that the overall impact of my career to date has been highly positive, for individuals, organizations, and to whatever degree possible, society generally. Had I been content to “…do it the company way“, my impact would have been much less positive.

So – am I an admirable “servant leader”, or just an insubordinate and arrogant son of a b***h? It depends on the context, the definitions, the time frame over which assessment is made, and who’s doing the assessing. Top management has generally leaned toward the former evaluation, my individual supervisors probably toward the latter. It’s certainly been great fun at times; the source of considerable pain on others. And on balance, I’ve been a Good Corporate Citizen far more than I have been a gadfly; compliance when it doesn’t cost much is a lot easier than gadflying. So my employers have generally found me interesting to keep around, particularly since I have been able to pull rabbits from hats of fairly regular occasions.

Back to the initial issue, there’s no question that the servant leadership model is widely preached by Wal-Mart, and echoed by its executives. There’s also no question that they have their own quite specific set of definitions and interpretations. Which is fine – they certainly have the right to their own interpretation. What they don’t have the right to – and this is the overall burden of my comments here – is to exclusively define the model in their terms and preclude alternative interpretations. It’s a lively and provocative idea, and deserves consideration and debate. Don’t fear the idea; fear only its preachers and those who would close off discussion!

  1. Someday someone is going to figure out just how much social energy is being spent in these collective discussions, and the productivity lost thereby.
  2. In a meeting, one of the consultants referred to what he called our “data warehouse”. I observed that what we had was not so much a data warehouse as a data dungeon. The phrase stuck.