As Wikipedia says, Servant Leadership is a philosophy:
Traditional leadership generally involves the exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Servant leadership turns the power pyramid upside down; instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people.
I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of the “top of the pyramid” form of leadership, but have you seen examples of servant leadership?
Study.com (membership required for full article) says that if you have people following the servant leadership philosophy they exhibit these characteristics:
- Active Listening
- Commitment to Growth and Emancipation
- Community Building
Now, this isn’t to say that those following the power leadership approach don’t exhibit these characteristics, but they are less likely to because there is no need. The servant leader serves the people as opposed to the other way around. If the servant leader wants the people to achieve certain goals they need to conceptualize those goals, persuade people that they are the appropriate goals for them, hear their objections, etc. The servant leader requires the characteristics to do their job. The power leader? They just tell people what to do.
Now, there are no absolutes. As much as you would like to classify someone (your boss, Donald Trump) as one or another, there are pieces of that person that don’t fit. Pieces that seem opposite from what you would expect. And, truth be told, there are times when each type of leader needs to switch, if just for a few minutes, to the other type in order to get something done.
The goal may be too ephemeral or abstract for their team to understand. There may be information that would clear things up, but which they are not allowed to divulge. Or there just may not be the time necessary to get the work done if they have to wait for the team to agree on what needs to be done. In those cases, and others, the power leader needs to come forth. Conversely the power leader may need to get more of a “grass-roots” approach on more controversial issues to ensure that a Coup d’état doesn’t arise.
The best approach? There is none. While we all publicly admire the concepts of a servant leader, the reality is that almost every situation is unique. Every position, every opportunity requires a slightly different type of leader. What is obvious, however, is when the wrong type of leader has shown up. You’ve seen this before, when a power leader comes into a role and starts ordering people around instead of trying to build the team. This fractures the team and instantly hurts productivity and morale, particularly if the team was already operating in a servant leadership style. Occasionally it’s needed, most often not.
In an unknown area I want someone to take charge. I will if I have to but I will defer to someone who has more experience or knowledge. But sometimes, I need to take charge and power my way to the end. My biggest problem is that I’m not always sure which type I should be in any circumstance.