Let’s Clear Up Some Misunderstandings about Servant Leadership

February 7, 2018

When people hear the phrase servant leadership, they are often confused. Their assumption is that it means managers should be working for their employees, who in turn would decide what to do, when to do it, where to do it, and how to do it. If that’s what servant leadership is all about, it doesn’t sound like leadership to them at all. It sounds more like inmates running the prison, or managers trying to please everyone.

The problem is that these folks don’t understand servant leadership. They think you can’t lead and serve at the same time. Yet you can, if you understand that there are two aspects to servant leadership:

  • A visionary/direction, or strategic, role—the leadership aspect of servant leadership; and
  • An implementation, or operational, role—the servant aspect of servant leadership.

The traditional hierarchical pyramid is effective for the leadership aspect of servant leadership. People look to their leaders for vision and direction. While leaders should involve experienced people in shaping a compelling vision, setting goals, and defining strategic initiatives, the ultimate responsibility remains with the leaders themselves and cannot be delegated to others. Once employees are clear on where they are going, the leader’s role shifts to the task of implementation—the servant aspect of servant leadership. The question now is: How do we live according to the vision and accomplish the established goals?

Most organizations and leaders get into trouble in the implementation phase of the servant leadership process. With self-serving leaders at the helm, the traditional hierarchical pyramid is kept alive and well. When that happens, who do employees think they work for? The managers above them. The minute an employee thinks they work for the person above them for the implementation process, they are assuming the manager is responsible and their job is being responsive to that manager’s whims or wishes. Now “manager watching” becomes a popular sport and people get promoted based on their upward-influencing skills. As a result, all the energy of the organization is moving up the hierarchy, away from customers and the frontline folks who are closest to the action. Servant leaders know how to correct this situation by philosophically turning the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down when it comes to implementation.

When that happens, who is at the top of the organization? The frontline employees who work with the customers. Who is really at the top of the organization? The customers themselves. Who is at the bottom now? The “top” management. As a result, who works for whom when it comes to implementation? The leader works for their employees. This one change, although it seems minor, makes a major difference. The difference is between who is responsible and who is responsive.

When the organizational pyramid is turned upside down, rather than employees being responsive to management, they become responsible—able to respond—and the manager’s job as a servant leader is to be responsive to them. This creates a very different environment for implementation. If a manager works for the employee, as servant leaders do, what is the manager’s purpose now? To help their employees accomplish goals, solve problems, and live according to the vision.

Servant leadership is when a manager’s mindset and skill set are focused on serving others first. This new approach, combined with a clear strategic direction, creates a 1+1=3 environment where leaders develop great relationships, achieve great results, and delight their customers.

Ken Blanchard


Would you like to learn more about servant leadership concepts?

Join me for a free online Livecast featuring 20 different authors, CEOs, and thought leaders from all walks of life. It’s a two-hour exploration of the new Servant Leadership in Action book I co-edited with Renee Broadwell, which goes on sale March 6. The event is free, courtesy of Berrett-Koehler Publishers and The Ken Blanchard Companies. More than 6200 people are registered already. I hope you can join us. Use this link to register or learn more: Servant Leadership in Action Livecast.

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