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Leadership Is Not All Puppies!

Servant leadership is a powerful tool to unlock the ability of teams or groups to deliver value. As we have found, servant leadership unlocks several of the principles that underlie the Agile Manifesto.  Despite the linkage to Agile, applying servant leadership is not all puppies and kittens. There is no one perfect style of management or leadership, and servant leadership is only one of those styles. Different types of people and different contexts mean that servant leadership does not fit every organization’s need.  There are several criticisms of servant leadership that can illuminate who shouldn’t use servant management and in which contexts to avoid the style.  Below are some common criticisms of the style, along with my comments on those critiques:

Servant leadership can disrupt the chain of command within the organization. In business, managers are charged with serving owners first and customers second (society and employees are tertiary or worse ).  Managers that are not serving the owners and customers will lose their jobs. While leaders should engage, motivate, and support employees, this behavior does not rise to being their servant.

A servant leader who acts at odds with the direction of the organization or in conflict with the management structure undermines the authority of management and may negatively impact the value the organization delivers to its customers.  In the end, the manager’s primary duty is not to satisfy employees; rather it is to satisfy the needs of the organization.

Servant leadership can lead to a mismatch of goals or a conflict of vision.  (Note: this criticism is related to the idea of a disruption in the chain of command.)  In order to be effective and efficient, activity within an organization needs to reflect the ultimate goal of the organization.  An organization is the reflection of both individual goals and organizational goals. Giving primary importance to the needs and aspirations of individuals may generate conflict with the overarching goals of the organization.  One of the major conflicts not resolved with servant leadership is related to individual-organization fit; in the end, the needs of the organization need to be prioritized.

Servant leaders draw followers to themselves based on the concept or idea they champion.  Many classic examples of servant leaders can be drawn from religious history.  Jesus was a servant leader.  If a servant leader exists at the head of an organization then there will be no conflict or mismatch of goals. However, if a servant leader arises that is in conflict with the organization’s goals, that leader should be co-opted or removed.

Developing an environment of servant leadership within an organization often takes time. I ask everyone that I interview on my podcast what they would change if they had a magic wand. To a person, each wishes that a magic wand existed. Servant leadership, as an organizational philosophy generally requires undoing decades or centuries of organizational culture, and therefore, takes a lot of time to implement. Organizational change needs to start at the top and then diffuse throughout the organization.

As Greger Wikstrand in SPaMCAST 370 stated, culture change is a long and arduous path because the change must overcome how people and organizations have developed and evolved over a long period of time.  Just because a change is hard or takes a long time does not mean it shouldn’t be approached – just don’t get frustrated when you can’t wave a magic wand.

Servant leadership is not appropriate for all organizations.  Some organizations require high levels of structure and organization to survive. Military organizations tend to require structure and organization that is able to transmit orders and information from the top to the trooper in the field.  Servant leadership’s focus on the individual conflicts with the need for structure.

One size does not fit all organizations. There are scenarios in which servant leadership may not align with the basic business structure. However, the scenarios where servant leadership can’t be used are relatively rare in most corporate environments.

Servant leadership is not a good style for companies that need to be turned around very fast. Servant leaders listen, consult and serve their followers, which slows the decision-making process down. An individual making a decision is often significantly faster than group decision-making (whether better or worse will be the subject of another essay). When a crisis occurs leaders must, at times, suspend consultative and negotiative processes and issue specific orders. Examples may include significant market shocks or situations where downsizing is necessary.

Servant leadership can generate a parent-child relationship which can generate a demotivated and disengaged workforce. Servant leaders can fall into a nurturing parent to child relationship which may be viewed as manipulative.  Additionally, if employees feel that the manager overlooks or corrects errors, employee accountability falls, resulting in poor performance.

Parent-Child relationships in the workplace, whether critical or nurturing, rarely generate high performance over the long run.  A better model is an adult-to-adult relationship which is more balanced.  All leaders should be educated so they can foster a adult-adult relationship.

Servant leadership is one leadership style.  It makes sense in some scenarios, typically those in which values, commitment, and engagement of everyone are requirements.  Software development and maintenance typically fit this situation. However, it is not the only appropriate style, and the culture and context of the organization influence the prevalent style in the organization.

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