Why is servant leadership a paradox?

In reality, the term servant leader is a leadership style that emphasises trust, integrity, communication and the ethical use of power. This leadership style stems from both intrinsic traits and learned skills and is seen as a lifelong process of being, learning and doing. And although at first glance servant leadership seems paradoxical, it is the very essence of leadership. Although the term has been around for centuries, Robert Greenleaf coined it in his 1970 essay, "The Servant as a Leader", and it gained traction and attention as a viable leadership philosophy.

Servant leadership, in its simplest form, means that the leader focuses on the needs of others before his or her own. The leader strives to ensure that all team members have what they need to succeed, works to create a sense of community in the team, and involves the team whenever possible in making decisions. The idea of servant leadership is as old as the notion of leadership itself. It dates back to at least the 6th century BC, when Lao Tzu wrote The Power and Pride subscale of our Servant Leadership Profile captures controlling and arrogant types of behaviour.

According to the opposition process model, servant leadership can only be applied to the extent that leaders are able to confront and overcome their lust for power and selfish pride. This is one area where servant leadership seems to diverge from a direct customer service approach. To paraphrase John Kennedy's famous speech from the 1960s, servant leadership says: "Ask not what your organisation can do for you". Provide an inspiring and strategic vision The number one responsibility of the Servant Leader is to provide a vision for their part of the organisation.

What is missing from that list is that I didn't go into management because I had this inspiring vision of what great leadership looked like. Humility is 'the flavour of the day', says Fred Hassan, former CEO of Schering-Plough, precisely because humble leaders are assumed to be servant leaders. Given the growing popularity of servant leadership in some circles, it is curious that in other circles the servant leader has been virtually absent. In an effort to contribute to research on servant leadership, this study investigated the relationship between perceived genuine servant leadership behaviours (i.e., the first step out of this frustration for me was to start by being clear and honest about what I wanted my leadership to look like.

A growing body of research shows that servant leadership is linked to important organisational outcomes. Overall, this study clarifies the interaction between leadership and service, improving the understanding of how the perception of authentic servant leadership has positive effects on followers.

Jason Klingler
Jason Klingler

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