Servant leadership: Half an old story

The idea of servant leadership has gained popularity during the past few years, launching a variety of books about how to unleash the power of employees through adherence to fundamental moral and spiritual values. Touted as a new way to combat overreliance on management practices that place profit seeking over the well-being of employees, servant leadership shuns so-called traditional authoritarian models for getting things done and promotes, in part, the following simple set of guidelines:

  • Making your expectations for results clear
  • Asking employees what they need to do a good job
  • Helping them secure necessary resources, training and other support
  • Removing barriers
  • Recognizing successes and coaching failures
  • Staying out of the way

Although these edicts have merit and may well deliver results, they tell only a fraction of the story of leadership. The leadership philosophy that illustrates servant leadership's place in managerial practice was more fully developed 3,000 years ago by Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching. His "Poem 17" captures the complexity of leading people and need to offset servant leadership with authoritarianism (see sidebar). With too much control, a task stultifies as creative processes and problem-solving give way to budgets and schedules and punishments meted out for failure. With too much empowerment, a vision loses clarity, setting organization goals adrift with selfish motivations. True leadership calls for the right practices at the right time. The following represents my modest interpretation of the concepts of Lao Tzu's "Poem 17."

1. Control. Lao Tzu speaks of the need to strategically manage organizational hierarchy. The higher a leader's position, the more likely he will enjoy reverence and affection. However, lower managers work closest to support staff and mete out demands, deadlines and, in some cases, demerits. Good leaders strategically use hierarchy to maintain their appearance as servant leaders while preserving their ability to make critical—and sometimes difficult—mandates.