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The Servant Leader and the Illusion of Corporate Empowerment

Last week, I answered a reader question about what scrum masters are worth, financially speaking.  This gave rise to another reader question that I’ll tackle this week, and it has to do with the idea of the so-called servant leader.

Now, I usually follow sort of a FIFO approach for reader questions.  But I’m making an exception here because several people asked me the same question in the immediate aftermath of that post.

What do you have against the term “servant leader,” anyway?

They asked that because I threw some shade at the term in last week’s post, using the words “loathe” and “detest” to describe my opinion of it.  So I suppose it’s fair for people to follow up asking what my deal is.  And I should probably respond.

Here be dragons, like this one, when you accept a counter offer.

The truth is, up until now, my revulsion had been mainly visceral and subconscious.  But the exercise of outlining this post has helped me put more thought out bullet points behind a better thesis.

First Things First: Servant Leader, The Accepted Definition

Before I go any further, let me briefly explain the term itself.  This section will be journalism, rather than op-ed, as I explain the term to anyone unfamiliar with it.

A servant leader is, tautologically, one who practices servant leadership.  And servant leadership was defined in an interesting essay back in 1970, I believe, by a gentleman named Robert Greenleaf.

This essay is categorically not about line management of knowledge workers in the enterprise, nor was it about the enterprise at all.  Instead, it was a journey through ethical, moral, and even metaphysical considerations contrasting Messianic (servant leader) leadership impulses with will-to-power (autocratic) leadership impulses.  Greenleaf does not explicitly mention God, but he touches on faith, parables, societal ethics, and even, without irony, concepts like telepathy.

Eventually, the corporate world discovered this and does what the corporate world does — adopted it as the inspiration for a management fad.  It interpreted the historical, Taylor-esque corporate pyramid as the autocratic force in the corporate world.  And it defined a new, Messianic analog in which management exists to empower, rather than boss around, the line level employees.

So fast forward to the present, and “servant leader” is an in-crowd signaling term that represents “manager as enabler” rather than “manager as dictator.”

Given Your Railing Against Taylorism, Erik, How Can You Rail Against Servant Leaders?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog and/or my books, you might now be confused.  In my book, Developer Hegemony, I talk at length about Taylor’s scientific management.  Specifically, I talk about how it makes a terrible organizational approach to knowledge work.

So wouldn’t I be fully on board with the whole servant leadership thing?

Well, yes and no.  Yes, I’m on board with kicking scientific management to the curb.  But no, I’m not on board with replacing it with a ‘movement’ that you can fully grok and practice with six simple words: “try not to be a dick.”

Servant Leader as Empty Calories

This may sound coarse and flippant.  But if you look at some of the planks of the servant leadership philosophy, it goes like this.

  • Be self-aware (in other words, try not to be a dick).
  • Use persuasion instead of ordering people to do things (in other words, try not to be a dick).
  • Exhibit trustworthiness, humility, and caring (in other words, try not to be a dick).

I suspect you get the idea.

Inasmuch as the concept has any grounding in any corporate heuristic that isn’t a pure platitude, I’d say it’s, “treat the people reporting to you the way you’d treat your customers.”  And, the general advice for how to treat customers is… come on… you can probably guess… try not to be a dick.

So people introduce themselves as “servant leaders,” all I can really hear is, “hi, I’m Alice, and I try not to be a dick.”  And that’s first bemusing and then tiresome.  Why?  Well, if for no other reason than someone that introduces himself with “I try no to be a dick” is, likely, in fact, a dick.

Going Deeper than the Platitude Problem

So far, this is all relatively innocuous.  At best, I’ve made a pedantic and surface objection to a well-intentioned movement for being vague.  Well, I can’t promise to reign in my pedantry.  But I can go well beyond the surface, diving into familiar roles of pragmatists, idealists, and opportunists.

Generally speaking, corporate culture is a minor form of religion.  Opportunists cynically manufacture it for the sake of highly credulous idealists, and both groups use it to pacify the lapsed pragmatists.

Let’s go back to the Messianic connotations of the original paper.  These have dripped into the corporate context, which allows self-described servant leaders to smile beatifically and bask in the warmth of their own virtue.  They are, in fact, not dicks.  Instead, they’re acolytes at the temple of subordinacy, religious-philosophers of corporate culture.

People who earnestly call themselves servant leaders are idealists.  People call themselves this with an agenda are opportunists.  And their use of the term is much more interesting than idealist “I’m-not-a-dick-signalling.”

  • Ascendant opportunists without direct reports can call themselves servant leaders because the subordinate “servant” moniker shields them from the blowback of baseless claiming to be an organizational leader.
  • Ascended opportunists call themselves servant leaders superficially to declare their benevolence.  But the underlying cultural narrative, manufactured for idealists and pragmatists, is the fiction that “loyal/servile behavior brings ascendancy in our corporate culture.”  (For readers of Developer Hegemony, this parallels the wolf belly-showing metaphor for corporate Scrum.)

Servant leadership, as a movement, claims to invert the corporate pyramid.  But, in reality, it leaves the pyramid intact and simply inverts pragmatist and idealist perceptions thereof.  It creates an Orwellian dynamic.  “You don’t want to ascend because down is actually up!”

Anti-Taylor “Servant Leadership” is Fundamentally Incompatible with Corporations

Whether the CEO is a dick or not, and whether the CEO ‘serves’ the individual contributors or not, they still collect paychecks at the CEO’s pleasure.  This means that, in a standard corporation, the CEO ‘serves’ the employees… until she doesn’t or can’t.  A few down years that necessarily result in mass layoffs?  Who then, is she serving?  And, if you say “the remaining employees,” you should go grab yourself an Advil because that cognitive dissonance must be giving you splitting headache.

What would true servant leadership look like, within a corporate context?

It’s a fantastical idea, but it would probably go something like this.  You would spend a lot of time doing good works, and serving a societal need.  Inspired, other people would pick up oars to help you row, asking you for direction, in spite of your protestations that you’re not the boss.  All aspects of this relationship would be voluntary and absent mutual obligation.

That exists, and there’s even an entity that already legally encompasses it: an all-volunteer charity.

If people are asking for your direction as part of your all volunteer charity, you’re a servant leader.  If they have other motivation for taking orders from you, you’re just someone’s boss, reassuring people that you’re really not a dick.

The Cure for Taylorism Isn’t Martyrdom; It’s Distributed Decision Making

You can be a boss and a good person.  People reporting to you isn’t some kind of original sin, for which you must beg forgiveness and atone with the inversion narrative.

In fact, this whole concept does two deeply weird things.  First, it lets individuals punt on agency and responsibility with the assumption that the universe automatically rewards servile behavior because karma, or whatever.  “Be humble, clean the floors and you’ll wind up CEO someday” is a Disney movie, not a career plan.

And secondly, it demands a solipsistic view out of leaders who buy into the concept.  What makes an organization work?  Why, a charismatic, humble leader who ‘serves’ his people and totally isn’t a dick!

But that’s depressingly backward and misses the point in a tragic way.  The problem with Taylorism isn’t that middle managers over the last century have been dicks.  The problem is that they’ve historically been choke points for decision making, treating workers as extensions of the manufacturing equipment they operated.

Fixing Taylorism for a knowledge work economy isn’t about pseudo-religious navel-gazing at the management level, anymore than the solution for Hollywood hubris is yet another actor awards ceremony, but this one for humility.  The fix requires de-emphasizing (eliminating) the management layer altogether, in favor of collaboration models where experts working on the problems are making critical decisions.

So, in the end, why do I hate the term servant leader?  Because I want to eliminate Taylorism in the knowledge work economy once and for all — not slather lipstick on it with platitudes.

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