David Brooks in the NYT has another plea for humble servant leaders.
“Extremely self-confident leaders,” he writes, “can ..be risky. … charismatic C.E.O.’s often produce volatile company performances. These leaders swing for the home run and sometimes end up striking out. They make more daring acquisitions, shift into new fields and abruptly change strategies. Jim Collins, the author of “Good to Great” and “How the Mighty Fall,” celebrates a different sort of leader. He’s found that many of the reliably successful leaders combine “extreme personal humility with intense professional will.”
The term “servant leader” was coined and defined by Robert Greenleaf and supported by many leadership and management writers, including James Autry, Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Peter Block, Peter Senge, Max DePree, Larry Spears, Margaret Wheatley, Jim Hunter, Kent Keith, Ken Jennings and others.
Servant-leaders achieve results for their organizations by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve. In order to be a servant leader, one needs the following qualities: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, growth and building community.
All of these elements are common to both servant leadership and radical management and represent strengths of the term, "servant leadership."
However I believe that the term, "servant leadership" has some inherent limitations as a catch-all phrase for 21st Century leadership. .
· Inward vs outward looking goals: The goal of the servant leader is inward looking while the leader of the 21st Century needs to be outward looking. Thus the servant leader aims to “make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons?” The focus on helping the people doing the work to grow. By contrast, the goal of the 21st Century leader is not merely to meet their needs of the people doing the work and help them grow, but rather to delight the people for whom the work is being done. In the process of accomplishing that, the people doing the work will normally grow, but that’s a result, not a cause.
· Energy level: As formulated by Greenleaf, being a servant leader about serving people and is relatively passive. Our image of a servant is that of subdued behavior in the background: who ever heard of a servant being exciting and inspiring? Being a 21st Century leadership means taking active steps to delight other people, and is inherently energizing and exciting.
· Subservience: The servant leader is explicitly supposed to be “humble”. According to the dictionary, “humble” carries an implication of “a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience.” 21st Century leadership can bear no such implication. The 21st Century leader is neither humble nor arrogant. “Arrogant” would be counter-productive, but “humble” risks not getting anything done. The modern leader is active and insists on the principles of radical management,. There is no implication here of humility or arrogance: these are simply basic assumptions of the world of radical management.
· Boring: Being a “servant leader” is teeth-grindingly boring. Radical management is about delighting clients and having fun with a capital F. Work should be “more fun than fun,” as Noel Coward said.
Those are serious limitations of the term, "servant leadership" as a catch-all phrase for 21st Century leadership. It’s boring. It smells of the Jimmy Carter school of leadership. Solid. Dutiful. Moral. Yes, but it will have difficulty getting anyone’s pulse beating faster or taking us into the future.
The leadership of the 21st Century is about generating excitement and delight for clients, as well as growth of the people doing the work. It's about having the courage to look into the abyss of an unknown future and be willing to go there and inspire others to do so as well. The leader is open to other ideas, including the certainty that a proportion of what he or she believes firmly to be true is false. The leader is outward looking and neither humble nor arrogant—simply open-minded.
To learn more about radical management that inspires people to undertake deep change and creates genuine meaning and delight in people's lives, read The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century .