Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Servant Leadership

Once in a while, I think about how much easier it would be to support The Wife, The Boy, and The Girl in a lower-cost-of-living region, so I scan ads for various admin positions in cheaper, but still appealing, environs.

I saw one recently for a nice position in a lower-cost location, but it listed among its requirements a belief in ‘servant leadership.’ I didn’t think that much about it at first, but over the past few days, it has creeped me out more and more.

I’ve worked with a couple of people (one former boss, one former colleague) who seemed to embody servant leadership. In both cases, an unquestionable work ethic was laced with a sort of conspicuous self-abnegation. Make a show of your self-sacrifice, and demand (directly or indirectly) that everyone else make similar shows of their own self-sacrifices. It’s hard to object to, in the same way that it’s hard to object to someone saying that you should eat your vegetables, but it really grows tiresome after a while.

Endless community service, mandatory altruism, is a losing proposition. It saps motivation over time, since there’s always more service to do and the point is not to enjoy it. It seems to derive from a bottomless need for external approval, but the approval is contingent on it seeming unnecessary; if the selflessness doesn’t look selfless, it doesn’t count. “Look at me! I’m being selfless! Yo, over here! Self-sacrifice, right here! See, everyone?” Ick.

The dark side shows up when others don’t meet the ideal standard, which is inevitable. Then, what should be a performance issue (if it should be anything at all) becomes a character flaw. Since character is harder to change than performance, once you’re on the ‘naughty’ list, you can never get off. People don’t care for being told they’re irredeemable, so over time, people start to withdraw altogether. What survives is a kabuki ritual of self-sacrifice, with barely-hidden smirks and lots of muttering.

I don’t care for it.

A college best serves its community by providing the best education it can, within the resources the community is willing and able to provide. (And I have no problem with colleges making the strongest possible case for the resources they need.) Employees do their best work when they’re working on things they actually care about. And creativity works best when it comes from many, rather than from a single person. (The blogosphere is a real-world example of many-centered creativity.)

To the extent that servant leadership implies exemplifying constant self-sacrifice, I have to reject it. I’d much rather see a definition of leadership that relies on clarification of goals and provision of resources, getting the incentives right to allow employees to channel their passions constructively for the good of the organization. For example, rather than berating the art department to work at a soup kitchen, I’d rather provide the resources for it to involve the community in creating art. Rather than devoting college time and resources to white-tablecloth lunches cosponsored by local banks to honor someone who planted flowers at a bus stop (I’m not making that up), I’d rather see the college host debates on current events for both students and community. Let academia do what it does best, rather than trying to be some pale imitation of a church, an Elks club, or a political party.

I don’t want to subject faculty to dreary self-improvement outings; I want to harness their passions for the good of the college. (Mortifying the flesh isn’t good for the passions – at least, for most people.) At some level, this is because I believe that higher education done well IS a public good (and is entitled to public support accordingly). We don’t need to add high-profile acts of self-flagellation to justify ourselves morally. Educating well, as opposed to indifferently, is justification enough. That’s the direction I’d like to see college leadership take. Save your own soul on your own time; colleges justify themselves when they tend to their educational missions.

(Btw, it may be the case that this entire rant is beside the point at religious colleges. I’ve never worked at one, and I’ll admit that it’s a blind spot in my view of academia. That said, there’s a reason I’ve never worked at one.)

Sorry for the rant. This one really struck a nerve.

Have you seen an example of ‘servant leadership’ that actually improved the vitality of a college? How did it work? Or am I just misreading the term?

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