With Martin G. Moore

Episode #109

Servant Leadership: Does it work?

The concept of “Servant Leadership” was first formulated by Robert Geenleaf 50 years ago, most likely as a reaction to the command-and-control leadership style of corporate America in the 1950s and 1960s.

Servant Leadership has a lot going for it. Putting the focus on the growth and well-being of the individual, and using this as a means to achieve organisational outcomes is indeed compelling. And despite the fact that there is little empirical research to support the hypothesis, a number of successful companies swear by this approach.

Join me as I unpick the key elements of servant leadership, explore the potential downside of adopting it as an overall style, and have a crack at cherry-picking the best features to help us improve and expand our existing leadership repertoire.

Generate Your Free
Personalized Leadership Development Podcast Playlist

As a leader, it’s essential to constantly develop and improve your leadership skills to stay ahead of the game.

That’s why I’ve created a 3-question quiz that’ll give you a free personalized podcast playlist tailored to where you are right now in your leadership career!

Take the 30-second quiz now to get your on-the-go playlist 👇

Take The QuizTake The Quiz


Episode #109 Servant Leadership: Does it work?

Hey there, and welcome to episode 109 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode – servant leadership: does it work? This week, we answer a question from our listener, David, who says: “My strength in leadership has been based in my referent power. Because this is my strength, I’ve found that servant leadership has served me well. Right now, I’m in middle management and at the beginning of my leadership journey. Will servant leadership be something I can rely on throughout my career? Or is there a functional limit?”

Well, this is a fantastic question. So thanks for that, David. When Robert Greenleaf wrote his essay on servant leadership 50 years ago, he proposed a concept that he hoped would change the way organisations viewed the role of the leader. The concept of servant leadership has a hell of a lot going for it. If there was a practical way to implement this, and a common understanding of what it might take to shift more towards this style of leadership, it could be an extremely helpful framework. So I’m going to dig into this a little and see what servant leadership is really all about and whether or not it can provide a roadmap to better leadership outcomes. We’ll start with the look at the principles behind servant leadership. I’ll then explore the potential downside of using this approach. And I’ll finish with some ideas for how to cherry pick the best parts and incorporate them into your leadership fingerprint. So, let’s get into it.

I would sometimes say to my executive team, “I am but a humble servant of my people”. And of course they would laugh uproariously. Now it’s not that I didn’t have elements of servant leadership in my style, but probably more that the strength of leadership I’d demonstrated on a daily basis was far removed from the concept of serving my team’s desires, whims and personal agendas. It’s worth understanding the context in which servant leadership was first proposed. Now Greenleaf worked for AT&T. His journey to proposing the servant as leader model seems to have been a reaction to the management style that he was under at the time. He saw this as an autocratic command and control style of leadership, which was employed in the American telecommunications giant in the 1950s and 1960s. So he came up with a theory that was virtually the opposite of this.

Now, often, it’s appropriate for the pendulum to come swinging back the other way and perhaps implement an overcorrection to try to restore some balance. We see this in almost every area of life, and we see this coming through very, very strongly in the servant-as-leader model. Now the main goal of servant leadership is to serve the employees, first and foremost. This has the effect of sharing power more with the team, rather than just having it reside in the leader. It puts the needs of the individual first and, in theory, this helps people to develop and perform. Now, let’s go back to David’s comment on power. I did a very early podcast episode on using power wisely. This was episode five. Now it discusses the five types of power and identifies, which are the preferable forms to use to achieve longterm results. It’s definitely worth going back and having a listen to this episode, but in a nutshell, the referent power that David referred to is the power of influence. People do what you ask them to do because they respect you. and they’re willing to apply themselves to the task at hand.

Now we can imagine that Greenleaf’s time and AT&T was spent in a paradigm of mostly legitimate power and coercive power. These types of power are based upon both a leader’s hierarchical standing in the organisation (in other words, their position) and their ability to force people to comply through fear of losing their jobs. You can also imagine that in AT&T in the mid 20th century, there would have also been a fair bit of expert power in the mix too. So people respect you because of your technical expertise in a certain area. This is not the sort of power that a leader ideally wants to wield. The fifth and final type of power is reward power. That’s the ability to either grant or withhold rewards (such as it is) as a means of driving behaviour. Anyhow, go back and have a listen to episode five. We’ll leave a link in the show notes.

Let’s get back to servant leadership. In servant leadership, the main focus is not on the organisation, but the people who work for it. Now, supposedly this supports the personal growth of the individual, which in turn lifts, engagement, which in turn supposedly benefits the company. And it guides the team individually to seek self-improvement. I think the link between engagement and performance is spurious. There may be a loose correlation, but just because an employee is engaged does not mean that the organisation will perform. I can increase engagement really easily. Check this out, right? Let’s say I lift everyone’s wages by 30%. I give everyone Friday afternoons off. We have a policy of unlimited vacation and sick leave. Uh, while we’re at it, we’ll make our office pet-friendly. Let’s let every individual decide how many hours per week they’d like to work and maybe a choose-your-own-adventure style of work allocation.

Now that would definitely improve engagement, but it will definitely not improve performance – quite the opposite. So you can lift the engagement score without lifting company performance. With servant leadership people may report enjoying the work environment more, but this is more likely the result of reduced expectations than anything else. Now Greenleaf’s initial theory of servant leadership has been extended by others. It was pretty woolly when he first wrote his essay. One researcher came up with what he called the 10 dimensions of the servant leader. They are as follows 1. empathy, 2. listening, 3. healing, 4. awareness, 5. persuasion, 6. conceptualization, 7. foresight, 8. stewardship, 9. commitment to the growth of people, and finally, 10. Building community.

Now that’s all well and good, but with some of those dimensions, I couldn’t even begin to understand what they mean. Healing? Conceptualization? Okay, you got me. Servant leadership is supposed to build upon the skills of each person and make them better, so they perform better and everything else follows. It does have some incredibly positive underlying tenets though.

It promotes one-on-one communication to enable a leader to better understand and connect with their people. This is an awesome thing. It’s a big tick for me on that one. It’s also nurturing and safe. So when people feel emotional safety, you’re much more likely to enable their performance. While that’s a good point, it does potentially open a can of worms, but we won’t worry about that for the moment. Now, interestingly, I couldn’t find any data to support servant leadership. There are a number of companies that talk about using the servant leadership approach and they cite focus areas in their corporate values, things like physical environment, health and wellbeing recognition, personal growth, trust, pursuing excellence, and harnessing the power of individual differences. Well that’s okay. But these things aren’t unique to servant leadership, nor are they necessarily related to overall company performance.


So let’s leave aside the confusion of what servant leadership actually is. I think we know enough to make a comment on how valuable it is to us. I want to explore the downside of the servant leadership approach first, but in order to understand the frame that I’m looking through when I talk about servant leadership, I want to give you a quick window into my leadership philosophy, for those of you who haven’t spent a lot of time with my content.

I’m a massive believer in the principles of strong leadership. And it goes like this. It is first and foremost results based. The focus is on creating value in all its forms, not just financial value. It emphasises respect before popularity – leaders have to let go of their need to be liked in order to do the more difficult work of leadership. It requires setting high standards to achieve greater performance.

It requires selfless courage and a focus on the greater good. It recognises a leader’s duty of care to their people, but equally it recognises individual agency – everyone makes their own choices about how they behave and perform. And it demands that a leader holds their people to account for those choices and set the right example for others. There are no ‘tourists’ in a strong leader’s team. Strong leadership is based upon trust, which is earned. It doesn’t come with the title. It requires deep empathy and connection with your people and a commitment to stretch them, to get the best out of them and give them the opportunity to build their impact and self esteem. And it demands that the leader does difficult things in the best interest of the organisation and their people, whatever that takes. Now, it’s against this framework and belief system that I’m looking at servant leadership.

Why don’t we start with one of my favourite leadership quotes from Rosalynn Carter: “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”

This seems to fly in the face of the concept of servant leadership. Servant leadership seems to be the type that takes people where they want to go. So let’s just keep this in the back of our minds while we examine the downside of servant leadership. Servant leadership changes the whole concept of who’s cooking the chook, who controls the agenda. It gives the balance of power back to the team, but just remember they don’t have the same visibility of data… they don’t have the same range of inputs… and they certainly don’t have as deep an understanding of the drivers behind the organisational objectives as the leader would. They’re not even necessarily driven by the same objectives.

Are they value based outcomes or are they local micro imperatives that may or may not deliver value overall. Catering first and foremost to the needs of your people can produce some unintended consequences. There are many situations where people’s individual needs don’t quite align with the needs of the organisation. What happens if one of your employees comes to you, the servant leader, and tells you how they expect you to help them grow and flourish. “Marty, I want to develop my skills as a performance artist.” Well, okay. But you do realise you work for a company that manufactures door handles. So I’m not sure how we can facilitate your personal dreams and aspirations and still meet our production targets.” So surely I jest, but you get the picture of how this misalignment can occur. If the leader lets people do what they want and not what the organisation needs, under this premise, would you ever truly stretch someone?

People don’t like to be challenged and stretched, and this gives a weak leader the perfect out for allowing an individual to choose their own level of commitment without any constructive tension to seek to do better. The challenge / coach / confront framework that I espouse looks completely different when serving a person’s individual desires, rather than delivering results for the organisation. Weak accountability is another likely byproduct of servant leadership. Servant leadership implies a soft approach – let everyone do what they can and that’s good enough. If they can’t perform, well, that’s okay – there’s a place for them anyway.

This is completely anathema to setting high standards and it’s a total contravention of the ‘no tourists’ policy. So what happens? The whole team performance degrades. Strong leaders raise the performance to meet the standard, but weak leaders lower the standard to meet the performance. Now, servant leadership feels suspiciously like it would encourage the latter.

Then there’s the focus on results. Execution is tough. Turning strategy into action and outcomes is one of the biggest challenges in any organisation. It requires a real commitment of energy to the outcomes. Without this focus, it’s unlikely you can achieve anywhere near what you otherwise could, but at least you’ll have happy workers, right?

Leaving all of this aside, there’s one really major problem that people are neglecting. In my view, the biggest problem is the people who currently occupy the millions of leadership roles in organisations across the globe. Do we really think there’s a critical, mass of leaders who are capable and willing to apply the servant leader model? If so, are they just weak leaders using the cloak of righteousness that servant leadership provides? If we think about leader maturity and motivations in the organisations we’ve been in, how many do you think are capable of servant leadership without just falling into weak permissiveness?

Now, without being too cynical, I can’t help, but think servant leadership is an aspirational platitude handed down from the top of organisations in an attempt to recognise that people are actually important. How this plays out on the ground is anyone’s guess, but I’d love to be a fly on the wall in some of the teams that say they follow the servant leadership approach. Servant leadership on face value appears to be one side of the coin of strong leadership. But if the other side of the coin, that focus on performance and results, isn’t there as well, it could be disastrous!

Now, as with anything. I’m sure there are some really valuable lessons that we can pull out of the servant leadership model. For example, there are some situations in which servant leadership could be a pretty good style to use, overall. Let’s look at government organisations for example, and without overgeneralizing, these organisations often have constraints on the extent to which you can put consequences in place. So sometimes that “everyone is welcome” culture prevents the use of a stronger leadership style. And in this case, servant leadership may be your best chance of lifting performance through people.

But let’s also try and cherry pick some of these concepts. How can we take some of the lessons of servant leadership for organisations that are less constrained in driving value and results? Where is the intersection between servant leadership and leadership for results? What can we take from the servant leadership model and adapt so that we’re not standing at either end of the leadership continuum.

We know that we don’t want to be on the far end of the spectrum, that dictatorial hierarchical, coercive space of command and control leadership, but equally we’d be foolish to sit at that laissez-faire end of the spectrum, where weak leaders focus solely on keeping people happy at the expense of the organisational results they’re being paid to achieve. From my perspective, I think there are three main lessons we can take out of the servant leader model. So I just want to run through those.

The first learning we can take is to put self-interest aside. Now for later, this is a must. A classic example of this is that if you can’t put others’ interests ahead of your own, you will always struggle to give performance feedback. You’ll be too worried about your own fear and discomfort and anxiety, instead of what the other individual needs to hear in order to improve and to be successful. If you can see the world through the eyes of others, you’ll struggle to make that hard decision that’s in the best interest of the overall organisation. And if you’re always thinking about what an event, action, or situation means for you, you’ll never become a leader that others will choose to follow.

The second lesson we can take from servant leadership requires a leader to think about what drives each individual. Now everyone performs at different levels. They have different strengths and they’re motivated by different drivers. Taking the time, effort and energy to understand what these are, is a prerequisite for liberating people’s best performance. I talk about setting a high performance bar, but for everyone, that bar is actually in a different place. You need to know that everyone can meet the minimum acceptable standard, but to get the most out of people, a leader has to choose to give them much more guidance. Knowing where people’s strengths and weaknesses are, their worldviews, their personal limitations and their ultimate potential is the only way to unlock the magic. And that doesn’t happen without a shit-ton of one-on-one conversations and interactions. Servant leadership actually promotes this approach.

The final learning, I think we can apply from servant leadership is humility. Now, a lot of people talk about humility as an essential leadership trait, but they don’t really talk about what it means and how to achieve it. I’m always a little cautious about this one too because, sure, a leader has to be humble, but it’s a pretty tough world out there sometimes. And a level of robust confidence is necessary to balance the humility and enable you to lead people through the most difficult challenges. Humility when paired with an underlying confidence is superb, but humility when paired with a timid uncertainty is just dangerous.

Be that as it may, a little humility would go a long way, particularly at the most senior end of corporate life, where those who occupy the positions of power have often learned to believe their own bullshit. History has shown us how hubris and overconfidence have brought many organisations to their knees. If we took nothing else from servant leadership than an extra dose of humility, then it will have served its purpose.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 109. Thanks so much for joining us, and remember, at your CEO mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. You can help us do that by sharing this podcast episode with your network. I look forward to next week’s episode, “Getting in the Arena”.

Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a no bullshit leader.

Em: Guys, I want to share something really exciting that Marty and I have been working on and it involves you. It’s pretty incredible to think that we’ve had over 800,000 downloads in the past two years. That’s a lot of leaders from around the world who are listening to our content and getting value out of it. You know, that our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. And so we’re going to do something that hopefully helps us to reach even more leaders over the next three months. Our goal is to hit 1 million downloads by the 31st of December, 2020. And if we do, we’re going to run a free virtual event for you in February. Yep. Completely free half a day’s worth of live Marty, and we might even get a few guests on board too. We’ll see how we go. So what can you do? If you want to help us to reach this milestone and you want to attend our very first, Your CEO Mentor run virtual event, share the podcast far and wide.

You can also subscribe, follow, rate and review the podcast that helps us to sit higher in the charts so that more people can find us. At the end of the day, the more people who are listening to No Bullshit Leadership consistently and actually implementing Marty’s strategies, the better the world of work will be. It’s that simple. I’ll be updating the number of listens each day so that you can keep track at, www.yourceomentor.com/stats. You’ll be able to see in real time how we’re going, and hopefully this inspires you to share this super valuable, completely free resource with your community. So a quick recap, if we hit 1 million downloads by the 31st of December, 2020, we’ll run a free virtual event in February. Thanks for helping us to improve the quality of leaders globally and for being part of our seriously awesome leadership community.


  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Start now

  • Leadership Beyond the Theory- Learn More


Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Subscribe to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast

  • Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts

  • Repost this episode to your social media

  • Share your favourite episodes with your leadership network

  • Tag us in your next post and use the hashtag #nobsleadership