Leaders are often thought of as those who are ahead of the pack, great individuals who are willing to step onto the battlefield first and leave last, and those who inspire others to action over a worthy and justifiable cause. They are less seen in our minds as individuals who work tirelessly for the sake of another’s achievement, or the one who would accomplish a task for the benefit of someone else. However, that is exactly what the idea of Servant Leadership is all about, and believe it or not, falls directly in line with many of the most powerful leaders today. Indeed, even in large corporations and within the ranks of the military are the ideals of servant leadership preached, yet the real question is, can’t everyone do it? Despite what some experts on leadership research may say, I say not.
It’s about personality, it’s about beliefs, it’s about ego.
For starters, many cultures around the world have a common perception about what they believe leadership is about, and the idea of a leader bending over to the needs of a follower is not generally one of them. “Our everyday images of leadership do not coincide with leaders being servants. Leaders influence, and servants follow.” (Northouse, 2013) In the western world, most people grow up with an idea that leadership is all about being the person that tells others what to do, yet we know today that a person only capable of “barking orders” is not even close to being a “leader”. Thankfully, more and more today is this misconception slowly being weeded out, yet unfortunately, some current professional frameworks end up creating a contradiction as a result, but we will get to that in a bit.
In the United States Armed Forces (for example), leadership is emphasized in a more servant manner than ever before. Traditional manager roles are being cast aside as the forces seek to home-grow leaders from within an ever-increasing amount of educational and self-improvement requirements. Leader roles at all levels now demand continual career long coaching, guidance, and mentorship as leaders place importance in the growth needs of their subordinates, and the idea of institutionalized formal professional development has become a requirement at stages throughout an individuals career (yet, sadly for the Enlisted side of the house, has yet to see formal acknowledgement of accreditation. But that is a conversation for another time.).
This culture of servant leadership has been around for a long time within the military (Except for the U.S. Navy, where long outdated class segregation is alive and well, and Enlisted are often still seen as Officer “servants” in many ways to this day. Again, another conversation for another time.). Senior ranked individuals eat last, the best weapons and equipment goes to the man at the front, and credit and recognition is always given to those who supported the leadership – those who did the real work and who really accomplished the mission. Servant leadership is even written directly into military creeds, “MY two basic responsibilities will always be uppermost in my mind: the accomplishment of MY mission, and the welfare of MY soldiers.” (Army, 2014)
Yet not everyone possesses the capacity to put others before themselves, not everyone is capable of a life of service. Evidence for this is demonstrated in great amounts – documented over hundreds of years – through the disciplinary records within the Armed Services alone. Despite opportunities presented to them for leadership capabilities, there have been innumerous cases of individuals who were seemingly incapable of selfless service. “Servant leaders put followers first, empower them, and help them develop their full personal capacities.” (Northouse, 2013) These individuals did exactly the opposite of that, instead opting to place their own needs and/or desires first. The results have been everything from individual failures to team failures, from destructive toxic leadership to lives lost on the battlefield.
Sticking to the current evidence afforded by the military example, many of the service branches maintain a set of Core Values by which all its members are to live by. For the United States Army, Selfless Service is one of those. Greenleaf (1970) proclaims that, “[Servant leadership] begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead…” The All-Volunteer Force of the United States Armed Services are indeed about just such feelings of service, yet how many have fled from service after swearing an oath to serve? How many have refused to serve others and chose instead to serve themselves? The evidence is almost unfathomably in support of the possibility that not all individuals possess the capacity for servant leadership as so many throughout the history of the forces have fled from service.
Further, the possibility that some individuals simply lack the capacity for service – a basic internal requirement of servant leadership – is more plausible given psychological studies which state that brain plasticity slowly ends after maturity. Hale & Fields (2007) adds that, “Servant leaders place the good of followers over their own self-interests and emphasize follower development.” Since human beings develop personality in large part due to environmental influences, things like culture background, social psychology, and individual psychology play a large part in determining whether or not an individual personality would be inclined to serve others, or seeks out only self-serving interests. Whether they have humility, or cling to self-absorbed pride.
Along side of individual personality, servant leadership [in part] requires the existence of a culture that allows for its presence. “Servant leadership does not occur in a vacuum but occurs within a given organizational context and a particular culture.” (Northouse, 2013) A leader may attempt to take on a servant leader role, but if the culture shuns such leadership styles – instead favoring any different style it holds to be “correct” – the leader’s efforts would be in vain, and the servant leadership effort is squashed before it has a chance to become effective. This is that contradiction we mentioned earlier.
Back to our military example one last time, the services themselves may stress to endless levels the idea of servant leadership, but it’s very own professional framework demands a clear line be drawn between leader and follower. Servant Leadership requires that vertical types of authority structures (such as a military “Chain of Command”) be cast aside in favor of horizontal structures in order to be effective. The Army wants its leaders to grow those subordinate to themselves – personally and professionally – into the leaders of tomorrow. This type of action demands leadership becomes an influence across an organization as the ability to mentor requires raising others up along side of you, not keeping them vertically below you.
Yet, the problem arises when junior leaders attempt to take on a servant leader role, only to be told to get back in line with the Chain of Command structure. Any deviation from the rigid “verticalness” of the CiC is seen as a threat to senior authority, and the corrective action that follows is often swift and harsh. What we see in the military case, is that leadership in the socially “acceptable” sense is stressed, and new leaders are grown and instilled with traits that the prevailing culture sees as more “correct” (this is where that “that’s the way it’s always been done” attitude stems from, as old leaders force growing leaders to comply with what was originally instilled in themselves as they were developing, and slapping down new ideas, styles, and efforts that they themselves see as “out of line” or a “threat” in the process).
Given the evidence to disprove the idea that all have the ability to serve, it would be more plausible to suggest that some simply lack the internal capacity for service. Additionally, past documented examples, social and individual developmental psychological factors, and cultural demands, may instead show that these individuals might lack the capacity for servant leadership by no fault of their own. Whether it be through taught or inherited traits, self-centered pride, or lack of courage in the face of cultural demands, is seems not all can learn servant leadership, which is truly disheartening given both its demand, and its inherit ability and proven effectiveness as a leadership style.
Army, Department of the (2014). Field Manual 7-22.7 – The Non-Commissioned Officers Guide. Department of the Army.
Northouse, Peter G. (2013). Leadership – Theory and Practice. Sixth Edition. Sage Publications.