"I disagree, servant leadership is not weak management"

MT ran a recent opinion piece from the Oliver Wight EAME CEO Kirsty Braines explaining why CEOs must reject servant leadership. Here's why Ben Lichtenwalner disagrees.

by Ben Lichtenwalner
Last Updated: 30 Oct 2023

No, servant leadership is not weak management. Unfortunately, a recent opinion piece on Management Today, entitled "CEOs must reject servant leadership - and learn to delegate instead" proliferated this common misconception. Let's set the record straight: servant leadership is behind many of the greatest successes in business.

What is servant leadership?

There are many definitions and interpretations of servant leadership. The most universal, The acronym model defines servant leadership by 7 principles. Servant leaders practice:

- Selflessness
- Empathy
- Resolve
- Virtuousness
- Authenticity
- Nonpartisanship
- Thoroughness

It’s easy to see why some misinterpret servant leadership as weak management. When working with clients, I’m often asked, “is servant leadership like letting the inmates run the prison?” To which I respond, “Servant leadership is not subservient leadership. And, if you think of employees as inmates, you have bigger problems.”

Servant leadership requires being resolute and thorough. As Napoleon Hill said, “There is no substitute for persistence”. Servant leaders must persevere through challenges. This means taking people not necessarily where they want to go, but where they need to be. Successful business leaders who demonstrate great resolve include Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Group) and Anita Roddick (The Body Shop).

Business failures often stem from lack of focus on details. Yes, executives must focus on strategy. However, that cannot become an excuse for avoiding details. Servant leaders emphasize long-term results over quarterly wins. They also understand unique business aspects. Successful business leaders known for being thorough include James Dyson (Dyson) and Angela Ahrendts (Burberry / Apple).

Of course, servant leadership is not only practiced in business. When delivering servant leadership keynotes, I’m often asked, “are servant leaders pushovers?” That’s when I bring up the military example.

Every branch of the UK and US military (among others) advocate and teach servant leadership principles. You probably would not describe military personnel and leadership as “pushovers”. Military instructors serve their troops by driving extremely hard for results. This is true in times of peace as much as times of war, to ensure readiness when needed.

Servant leaders do delegate
In “CEOs must reject servant leadership - and learn to delegate instead”, the author suggests servant leaders do not delegate, leaving them “dealing with too many operational decisions” and “becoming the servants of their employees, taking on all sorts of jobs that other people should do.” Executives engaged in operational decisions best left to the team are bad bosses, not servant leaders. The necessity of delegation is highlighted in the principles of selflessness and nonpartisanship.

Attributes of selflessness include developing others. Delegating effectively is one way leaders develop others. Successful business leaders known for being particularly Selfless include Sir Thomas Hunter and Sir Mo Ibrahim.

While the principle of nonpartisanship is about being willing to accept new ideas from anyone, anywhere, almost any time. Delegating effectively is a specific attribute of the nonpartisan principle. British business leaders known for their nonpartisanship include Dame Cilla Snowball (AMV BBDO) and Dame Vivian Yvonne Hunt (Optum).

Great leaders are servant leaders. After all, if you’re not serving others you are self-serving and that is not leadership. We only need the term “servant” in servant leadership because society has confused the concept of leadership. Society teaches leadership as an achievement to reach - a title to obtain - a salary to score. It’s not. Servant leadership is a commitment to service.

The recent MT article made many valid observations and great recommendations for business leaders. It simply fell into the common misunderstanding of servant leadership. Let’s not proliferate that misunderstanding any further. Servant leadership is not weak management.

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder of Radiant Forest, which conducts  research on people leadership trends and opportunities. He is the author of Paradigm Flip: Leading People, Teams, and Organizations Beyond the Social Media Revolution, as well as Words to Lead By.

Image credit: Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd via Getty Images