Monday, September 05, 2011

An exploration of servant leadership


In this paper I look at servant leadership and explore how servant leadership as described in Peter Block's (1996) Stewardship and Robert Greenleaf's (2002) Servant Leadership: A Journey fits within certain theoretical frameworks. Namely, adaptive challenges and adaptive leadership as described in Heifetz's work, as well as the triple bottom line, the meta- theoretical paradigms, systems thinking, and Vroom-Yetton model of situational leadership.

First, I must describe servant leadership. However, before I can proceed, I want to point out that the treatment of servant leadership by Block and Greenleaf are similar but at the same time, have clear differences. Also, Block the recent author of the two, appears to be influenced by the writings of Greenleaf. In both authors' work, the leader becomes a servant leader by being in service to others. For Block the leaders and everyone in the organization are in service of those on the front line, i.e., those who produce the final product, sell it, or those who are in service of the customer in general. Greenleaf's view on the other hand, is more expansive; he not only writes about the leader being in service to the individuals in the organization, but also about the organization itself being in service to the larger community, "the organization as servant." Here, Greenleaf focuses on the role that trustees can play in various organizational settings as a way to ensure such a service is delivered to society as a whole. I have been privy to attending a part of a Board of Trustees meeting for AUS in which the board members and the board as whole acted in a servant capacity, trying to make sure that AUS is committed to its mission of service to the student and local community. During the meeting, several student were questioned about their programs and the larger role that their programs play in the community.

Another difference between the treatment of the subject by both authors is that Block is more concerned with democratic leadership and flattening the organization than Greenleaf. Still, Greenleaf does touch on the subject, but does not go as deep as Block. It would seem that Greenleaf takes democratic leadership as a matter of course in servant leadership. He writes about the concept of first among equals(primus inter pares) as a way for the leader to operate in teams. This position seems to be at odds with Block's view which calls for true equality in work teams. Each of the position has its own merits, however, that is the subject of another paper.

An area of similarity between the two authors is the relationship of servant leadership to community building inside the organization. Both authors seem to think that there is a link. It would seem that Block's ideas in this book about the relationship between community and servant leadership serve as a precursor to his book Community:The Structure of Belonging book. Both authors think that servant leadership and the environment that it creates in an organization is more conducive to creating a communal experience within the organization.

Servant leadership has its roots in religious tradition. Here two stories stand out, the story of Jesus Christ washing the feet of the disciples, an activity only reserved for the most lowly servants of the time. The other story is the story of a leader of a religious order named Leo, who traveled with a group as their servant, while unbeknownst to them he was the leader of the religious order to which they belonged. As the story goes, the success of the group was highly dependent on the presence of this servant to the degree that the group fell apart once he left the group(Greenleaf, 2002).

Servant Leadership and Systems thinking:

In our systems thinking class we studied how theories can fit into one of the five meta-theoretical paradigms: classic, dynamic, cybernetic, field, and evolutionary. Looking at the treatment of servant leadership in Greenleaf's book and his proposal that the organization becomes a servant fits within a field paradigm in that it expands the horizon of the feedback from within the organization to the larger external environment. Also this fits within the views of open systems theory in that it deals with the boundary of the organization as if it was a permeable membrane.

An evolutionary paradigm in many cases is equated with self organization. Block, and to a lesser degree Greenleaf, use the ideas about servant leadership as a vehicle for or in combination with distributed democratic leadership in which decision making in the organization is more collaborative and shared. Such a treatment belongs closer to an evolutionary paradigm, but does not necessarily mean self organization. Even though the choice to re-organize in response to changes in the external environment might be there, that does not mean that this will happen; individuals might be married to their old paradigms and positions which prevents them from seeing or accepting the change that is required. Also as with any re-organization, certain individuals might lose their power, therefore they would rather keep the status quo.

Looking at the story of Leo through the lens of systems archetypes, one can see the evidence of the addiction archetype(shifting the burden) in the story; here the group became dependent on Leo to enable them to do the work. Service in this form has the potential of being its own undoing. This story was mentioned in Greenleaf's book, but the issue of dependency was never dealt with. Interestingly, Block's book went to great lengths in discussing the need to avoid creating dependency and how it would be antithetical to the principals of democratic leadership. He went as far as equating it with patriarchy and treating others as children, not as adults. Still he came short when trying to prescribe solutions. The solution here might come from systems literature, the burden has to be shifted back, the intervenor has to gradually allow others to take responsibility.

Donella Meadows is well known for writing about systems intervention points to improve performance in a system. In her book Thinking in systems(1977), she lists her intervention points in order of difficulty, with numbers being the easiest and paradigm shift being the hardest to achieve. The proposed shift in thinking about leadership from being the one who is served to the one who leads by serving others would constitute a paradigm shift.

It follows that as a system or organizational intervention, a shift to servant leadership should be only considered after other interventions have been exhausted or at least the organization has moved from the the first six intervention points(numbers, buffers, negative feedback loops, positive feedback loops, information flows, and rules of the system.) The other intervention points are more conducive and can be implemented at the same time as servant leadership.

Another link between Meadows intervention points and servant leadership is that once it is “implemented” other intervention point have to be adjusted as in any system, the various components are interconnected and therefore interdependent. Specially, the systems rules, and information flows, and the power of self organization.

Servant Leadership and Adaptive Challenges

I must provide an explanation of adaptive challenges and technical issues. In Heifetz’s (2000) work, there is a distinction between adaptive challenges and technical issues; technical issues are issues for which the solutions exist and in which an expert can be brought in to administer the solution. Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are problems for which no solution exists. I can see two relationships between adaptive challenges and servant leadership. First of all, applying servant leadership in and of itself is an adaptive challenge; there is no clear cut solution for how one as an individual or the organization at large can let go of self interest and be in service to others. To have everyone become a servant would "require changes in people's values, attitudes, or habits of behavior"(Heifetz, 1995, p85).

Secondly, adaptive work has the mindset of service. In his book, Heifetz (1995) describes the role of a doctor who is dealing with a cancer patient who needs a change of behavior. He writes: "The doctor's authority still provides a resource to help the patient respond, but beyond her substantive knowledge, she needs a different kind of expertise—the ability to help the patient do the work that only he can do"(Heifetz, 1995 P87). Heifetz makes the same point about the creation of dependency was reached by looking at servant leadership from the systems thinking archetypes. If dependency exists and the servant leader leaves the system or abandons the work, then the organizational adaptive work comes to a full halt.

In servant leadership literature, there is an emphasis on being a servant versus doing servant leadership. By looking at servant leadership as an adaptive challenge, some of this dichotomy is resolved; adaptive challenges include a technical component: The being includes the doing and transcends it. This applies as much to individuals seeking to be servant leaders as it does to organizations.

Servant Leadership and the Triple Bottom Line

The triple bottom line is about organizations measuring their success not only by using financial measures, but also by how well they treat people and the environment. Some have understood people to include both employees and the larger community, while others have a more limited sense that included one or the other but not both. The triple bottom line provides a more systemic view of the organization that fits squarely within the assumptions of open systems theory; the organization is both adapting and influencing of its external environment: resources, people and ideas flow in and out of the organization. Also by measuring impact on the environment, and the community the organization takes responsibility for its actions. Finally, measuring the impact of the business on the employees is a better indicator of performance than financial measures alone, which usually have a lag or delay and are therefore insufficient as a sole measure of organizational health.

The environmental aspect of the triple bottom line seems to be absent from either authors' work. This lack of concern environment could be either done on purpose to keep the focus on democratic values. Also at the time of the writing of either book, environmental awareness was not as high as it now. Finally, the organization can really afford to ignore the environment as it is a commons, and commons usually have no feedback loop to indicate their level or quality.

Unlike the case with the environment, where there are no immediate consequences for acting in an environmentally irresponsible manner, dealing with the employee can have immediate impact on the bottom line. Both Block and Greenleaf seem to agree on how organizations and leaders should treat their employees. Both agree about the lack of success of top-down command and control leadership and the success of democratic leadership.

As far as the role of the organization as servant, Block seems to favor more money making, this can be inferred from his focus on serving the front-line employees such as production and sales people. Greenleaf, on the other hand suggests that the organization should take on some of the role played by government. The argument here is that American large businesses have the needed resources to act in a manner that is similar to government , and at the same time are nimble enough to have good chances of success, unlike the bureaucratic government.

Servant leadership and the Vroom-Yetton Situational Leadership Model

According to the Vroom Vroom-Yetton model, leaders should act in a democratic, autocratic way, or somewhere in between depending on the situation. The choice of the way to act depends on the following factors: Quality of decision, volume of available information, level of information structuring, acceptance of stakeholders, the need for participation in the decision making, and potential conflict over alternatives.

Of this list two things are relevant for use in servant leadership, acceptance of stakeholders and the need for participation in decision making. If the leader is acting in a servant capacity, then she is more likely to be interested in serving others first(being a servant,) not leading others first(doing servant leadership.) It follows that this would lead to more acceptance of stakeholders and of the leader. Also because the leader wants to serve, the leader is in service to what the group wants to do. That would not be possible without participation.

There might be a potential paradox here with regard to stakeholder’s acceptance. If servant leadership increases acceptance of stakeholders or makes it appear that stakeholders will accept the decision because of the leader, not the decision, then the model would require the move in the direction of less democratic leadership. In other words, if the acceptance of stakeholders is dependent on who is proposing the decision, and the servant leader has a good amount of ethos with the group, than the group will accept the decision without being consulted with because of the leader. The paradox then is that the leader would not need to consult with the group and would make the decision on their own(moving to AI or AII,) thereby rendering a disservice to the group. The solution then is that the focus should be on the importance of stakeholder’s acceptance of decision regardless of who the leader is.

Conclusion-Implications for Social Change

I have shown how servant leadership fits withing open systems theory, and an evolutionary/self organizing paradigm. I have linked servant leadership to the paradigm shift in meadows' point to intervene in a system. Furthermore I pointed out the potential issue of creating of dependency when applying servant leadership and how that can possibly be solved using prescriptions from systems literature.

I identified two links between servant leadership and adaptive challenges and have resolved some of the issues of treating being and doing as opposites in an either/or dichotomy. I also discussed the potential reasons for the lack of environmental responsibility when looking at servant leadership from the lens of the triple bottom line. In order for servant leadership to be holistic, it has to expand its view to include the environment. Finally, I identified a potential paradox when applying the Vroom-Yetton model of situational leadership to servant leadership. Awareness of this paradox would result in better use of the model.


Block, Peter(1996). Stewardship:Choosing Service Over Self-Interest. San Francisco, CA. Berrett-Koehler.

Greenleaf, Robert(2002). Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness 25th Anniversary Edition. Mahwah, New Jersey. Paulist Press.

Heifitz, Ronald(1998). Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.

Holman, Peggy et al(2007). The Change Handbook: The Difinitive Resource on Today's Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems. San Fransico, CA. Berrett-Koehler.

Meadows, Donella(2008). Thinking in Systems. White River Junction, VT. Chelsea Green

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