Servant leadership is a term coined by Robert K Greenleaf in ‘The Servant as Leader’ essay published in 1970. A major aspect of his essay is that a leader’s main priority should be to serve their followers and by doing so, they empower and allow them to grow to their full potential. When that happens, the leader organically becomes a true leader that his people need and want. In contrast, a command and control leadership aim to establish power and control over their subordinates and processes to drive stability, personal and organizational success
Throughout history, society has been surrounded by uncertainty, resource scarcity and information asymmetry. Under these conditions, it has continuously strived for self-optimization and stability to ensure its survival. Stability under these terms often comes with accepting personal limitations for the greater good. When that happens, command & control leadership can easily move into the space whether for the benefit of the whole or the few.
Is the basic economic problem that all resources are limited in one way or another, which causes people to actively make resource allocation decisions to satisfy its needs and wants. Limited availability of resources such as physiological needs, safety, belonginess, self-esteem, education, career opportunities and manpower have a direct impact on the availability and capacity of managers and employees capable of working under environments that are not command & control-centric.
Inability or difficulty to determine the outcomes of a matter or event. Uncertainty comes in different flavors; it can mean not knowing what comes next from an organizational or societal standpoint if a well-liked leader were to step-down to deciding to stay in a hostile environment due to not knowing what is available outside. Internal and external factors impact the individual’s perception of its surrounding, leading to actions and consequently environments that strive for stability and self-optimization. In uncertain environments, some people benefit from creating social contracts that delegate leadership to others to help them decrease the ownership of potential bad outcomes or to allow them to share risk with someone who may be more capable of leading or have the resources to lead.
Situations where two parties do not have the same quality and/ or quantity of information in an exchange. Due in part to resource scarcity and in relation to uncertainty, information asymmetry creates an environment where the optimization of one’s wage, career, success, quality of life and more is dependent directly in their ability to compile, assess and act upon said information in exchanges with other parties. For example, if someone has only experienced one type of leadership and organizational culture, chances are that they have learned to optimize themselves to that environment and may have difficulties adapting to other cultures and processes. In other cases, someone may accept a lower wage in comparison to their peers due to their limited knowledge of that labor market.
It can put undue mental pressure and fatigue to its leader. It is already challenging to drive organizational success with short-term results in mind when leading by command and control, it can be even harder to some to have factors such as overall health & satisfaction of one’s subordinates. Many managers already believe that their resources are stretched, adding another set of factors to the equation can be challenging to some. That is specially the case when resource scarcity, information asymmetry and uncertainty is added to the equation.
Organizations often have a continuous cycle of recruitment and turnover. When hiring, it can be challenging to find resources that have similar values and characteristics that will mesh with a servant leadership environment. In addition, servant leadership can take time to learn and implement and require a fine balance in order to be maintained. One bad apple from the management or the employee side can quickly spread to others.
It is common for many leaders to inherit a situation from their predecessors. Even if they hope to implement servant leadership, every individual in the team and organization has already built a culture that can be difficult to change. For every change implemented, there tends to be a period of peaks and troughs before it stabilizes. That can have a material cost to the organization’s operations. Transfer of leadership can be more challenging as employees have become used to the style, structure and stability found in the previous servant leader. Balancing the differing priorities, including short to long-term profitability with an environment of servant leadership can be extremely challenging.
Servant leadership requires a toolset that is not easily available in the market and may not be easy to learn, maintain and cultivate. The more limited the pool of resources due to specialization and other factors, the more difficult it can be to find the right fit as organizations become more specialized in their work and fight for a limited pool. For example, organizations may have challenges in looking for Cybersecurity managers, therefore, finding a Cybersecurity manager that also has a servant leadership style can become even more challenging.
Servant leadership can often lead to the sharing or transfer of organizational accomplishments from the leader to its employees. Depending on the incentive structure of the organization, this can lead to the promotion of those who received praise as opposed to balancing with the value that ‘servitude’ has built. Getting noticed pays-off in a lot of organizations which can result in a disincentive for servant leaders. As a result, misaligned incentives can often derail a cultural shift to ‘Servant Leadership’.
There is an interesting division between leadership perception between nations. Countries such as the US tend to value servant leadership, while others in places such as Asia put more emphasis in command & control (C&C) leadership. In servant leadership, management aims to give power to its subordinates for decision making, sometimes giving a better sense of ownership to employees. In C&C leadership, management tends to dictate what needs to be done. This type of leadership usually fully transfers the accountability at the strategic level to the leader, in exchange, employee accountability at the execution level increases exponentially. One of the potential downsides of C&C leadership is that such leaders may find themselves hearing what their subordinates think they want to hear as opposed to what may need to be heard. This increases the odds of a leader not receiving valuable feedback (or the full picture in certain situation), potentially leading to less than optimal outcomes. At the same time, a culture ingrained in C&C leadership may find it easier to move forward with their actions since it is about following, like a drop of water in the river.
There are trade-offs to all leadership styles and considerations need to be made when deciding who, how and when to have leaders use different leadership styles. It is worth noting that management tends to be a very individualized art impacted by one’s prior experiences and expertise coupled with the team, organization and industry environments in place. Regardless of conditions, great leaders will often have the following characteristics: (1) be trustworthy, (2) fair, (3) able to listen to others, (4) emotional intelligence, (5) situational awareness, (6) adaptability, (7) motivational and (8) acumen.