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?

"Servant leadership" is a concept I've never heard of, so I googled it. Loads of hits. Apparently the concept originated with Robert Greenleaf, who established a center (, where I found this definition:

"Servant-Leadership is a practical philosophy which supports people who choose to serve first, and then lead as a way of expanding service to individuals and institutions. Servant-leaders may or may not hold formal leadership positions. Servant-leadership encourages collaboration, trust, foresight, listening, and the ethical use of power and empowerment."

The more I read, the stranger it becomes. Leadership is not,apparently, for institutional purposes, but to make those being led feel better about it. Or maybe I'm misreading this stuff.
I believe that you are 100% correct, and that you may be a closet Randian. Which is a good thing.
Duh -- I should have googled it. Good call, doc.

Closet Randian? I've been called a lot of things over the years, but never that. My impression of Rand, which I'll admit is secondhand, is that she had little patience with institutions generally; my goal is to make an institution more efficient and more effective. Not the same thing.
I'm no expert, but Rand believed in the primacy of the individual, that selfishness is not sinful, that every individual owns the fruits of his/her own labors, and that the greatest wrongs occur when individuals are required to "make sacrifices for the greater good of society." She was not against institutions per se, but was concerned by the way bureaucratic thinking could result in institutional paralysis and individual wrongs. The greatest sin to her was expressed as ""From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

Dean Dad, if I recall correctly you have something of a commute every day. A few years ago my brother gave me Rand's 'The Fountainhead" on tape, read by Edward Hermann. I listen to books on tape regularly as I commute, and Hermann is quite good at reading. I enjoyed "The Fountainhead" so much, I sought out "Atlas Shrugged" at our library, also read by Hermann as it happens. I recommend them both to you.

Your excellent "Randian" observation, with which I fully agree, was this:

"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 just what Howard Roarke would have said (The Fountainhead) had he been a Dean rather than an architect.

BTW, congrats on the Wikipedia entry.
"Servant Leadership" is a fairly common buzzword in evangelical Christianity. And it is most emphatically NOT the kind of whiny moralizing Uriah Heep-ishness that you fear.

Generally, servant leadership is used to mean leading for the benefit of the led (or of some other constituency) rather than for the benefit of the leader; from your writing and your concerns, you seem to me to be a good example. Servant leadership means leading so as to make the students, or the college, better off--rather than to make you, the administrator, better off.
The term Servant Leadership is paradoxical. It doesn't mean that the leader becomes a doormat or has to serve everyone or sign on to every volunteer project under the sun. If you read Jim Collin's "Good to Great" you will see a lot of similarities with the Level 5 leader and a true servant leader. There is a short NBC Dateline video at that you might find interesting.
You might ask who are some Servant-Leaders. Here are a few: Ken Melrose CEO Toro Corporation, John Bogle Vanguard Group, George Zimmer Men's Wearhouse, Herb Kelleher Southwest Airlines. I hope this helps in some way to clarify the paradox.
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