Are you an independent coach, mentor, or L&D facilitator?

The pros and cons of servant leadership: digging a little deeper

Most of the articles I’ve read about the pros and cons of servant leadership are pretty superficial (and sometime seriously misjudged!). They list things like: ‘decisions are made in the best interests of the organization’ (a pro) but ‘decisions take longer’ (a con).

In this article we dig a little deeper to bring you some more meaningful pros and cons of servant leadership.

The pros of servant leadership

Here are our 5 pros of servant leadership:

1. Defines the characteristics of success

Unlike other forms of leadership there’s very little ambiguity around servant leadership. There are a clear set characteristics that define the role and behavior expected of servant leaders. This helps to bring clarity. This clarity helps in many ways, including guiding and evaluating the performance of leaders (both what they do and how they do it) as well as setting expectations through-out the organization.

2. Creates a robust and people-focused culture

This clarity also helps as a foundation for a strong people-focused culture. This helps to retain and engage staff, in a way that many other leadership styles do not. The teams within a servant leadership culture have a stronger commitment to the organization, because they are more influential ‘stake holders’ in the organization.

There’s more in our servant leadership examples.

3. Offers the “Here’s how to do it” of leadership

The idea of ‘transformational’ leadership is very popular in our rapidly changing world. Take a look at the definitions of this style of leadership, here’s an example:

A leadership style in which leaders encourage, inspire and motivate employees to innovate and create change that will help grow and shape the future success of the company.

This is exactly what servant leadership does! More importantly, servant leadership provides how to do this. Servant leadership inspires and motivates employees through listening, persuasion, empathy, foresight (showing people a better future) and commitment to their growth. In this way servant leadership provides the “here’s how to do it” of leadership.

4. Ensures meaningful stability during times of rapid change

The original servant leader essay was written by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970 and the essential qualities of servant leadership have remained the same since then.

In many ways, servant leadership is even more relevant today than it was when it was first conceived. This stability and durability provides a powerful basis from which to navigate the changes that we are experiencing.

5. Delivers demonstrable impact on business performance

There is plenty of weighty research that show the business impact of servant leadership. There’s a clear and compelling connection from employee engagement, through employee commitment and growth (and employee retention), to increasing personal contribution and on to improved business metrics.

For one of the more easily digestible articles on this topic, take a look at this Washington Post article on servant leadership.

The misconceptions about servant leadership

First, it’s important to note that there are many misconceptions regarding the cons of servant leadership, these are rooted in misconceptions of servant leadership itself.

Here are a few of the biggest misconceptions about servant leadership:

  • Servant leaders only do what their teams want. NO, that’s just silly. Robert K. Greeleaf’s ‘best test’ is “Do those served grow as persons?”. To help people grow requires much more than just doing what they want!
  • Decisions take longer, because everyone must be consulted. NO, consulting everyone about every decision is not part of servant leadership either. Acting in a way that supports the ‘best test’ is, but that doesn’t require wide consultation.
  • Servant leaders lose sight of goals. NO, the goals may be subtly different though. They’re focused on building a sustainably successful, people-orientated organization. Servant leadership is laser-focused on these goals.
  • Servant leadership is only appropriate for small, no-profit organization. No, servant leadership is proven to be successful in some of the largest businesses in the world.

The real cons of servant leadership

While many people have misconceived ideas about servant leadership, there are some genuine cons:

Servant leadership is difficult to communicate

As you can see from the examples above, servant leadership is a powerful idea that is easily misunderstood.

It’s noticeable that, while there are many examples of servant leadership in business, only a few actually name their approach as ‘servant leadership’. That’s because servant leadership is a difficult sell that often generates these misconceptions. The word ‘servant’ itself is a loaded and emotional word, which for some people has positive connotations but for some people does not.

It requires profound authenticity and alignment with personal values

This could be argued to be a strength of servant leadership, however it’s certainly true that it requires profound authenticity, it’s not possible for leaders to fake it.

As a result, to build an organization based on servant leadership requires not only the development of servant leaders, but more importantly a robust hiring process. And unless you’re building a servant leadership culture from start-up, there is inevitably a large legacy of hires that may not align with the servant leadership ethos.

Servant leadership is impossible to fully realize

Probably more than any other leadership style, building a servant-led organization is impossible to fully realize. It’s a little bit like enlightenment, it’s not going to happen in our lifetime. Our role is to struggle to attain it.

While that can be aspirational to many, it can also raise cynicism and doubt. And this is another reason why many organizations don’t proclaim themselves to be servant-led. It sets too high a bar. And in our constantly judged, social media fueled world, the potential for backlash is too high.

In this world it takes bravery to stand up and say “I am a servant leader, I’m building a servant-led organization”. It’s inviting people to knock you down. And that is probably the biggest con of servant leadership.

The pros and cons of servant leadership in summary

The pros:

  1. Provides the characteristics of success
  2. Creates a robust and people-focused culture
  3. Offers the “Here’s how to do it” of leadership
  4. Ensures meaningful stability during times of rapid change
  5. Delivers demonstrable impact on business performance

The cons:

There are many misconceptions regarding the cons of servant leadership. In our view the real cons of servant leadership are that it is:

  1. Difficult to communicate
  2. Requires profound authenticity and alignment with personal values
  3. Impossible to fully realize

We believe that servant leadership is a powerful force for good and that it can provide the foundation for enduring, successful business.

Colin Bates

Colin Bates

I'm at my best when helping people to learn, grow and succeed. This might be facilitating a training program, coaching a colleague, or sharing advice with my kids. I'm also an introvert by nature, and love to read, reflect and write. Hence this blog!