Servant Leadership in the 21st Century: Waxing or Waning?

A recent Forbes article (click here) asked the question “Why Isn’t Servant Leadership More Prevalent?

After providing a brief definition for context, the author points out many positive benefits for both the team of followers and the leader who chooses the path of “servant leadership”:

  1. Ready for the hike bsa 1911 handbookresearch suggests that servant leaders are not only more highly regarded than others by their employees and not only feel better about themselves at the end of the day but are more productive as well (Adam Grant, “Give and Take”)
  2. Servant leadership is designed to empower direct reports to succeed and to become servants to each other
  3. this model, when consistently applied, should also generate leadership qualities in those being led
  4. the establishment of genuine “community” within the workplace
  5. for Christians, it may be a reflection of obedience to instructions provided in Mark 10:42-45

The list of positive outcomes from consistent application of the servant leadership model is actually much greater, but the concern of the Forbes writer comes back to the general lack of engagement of this model among businesses and other organizations. Interestingly, the author provides little indication of why this may be the case and seems to have depended on reader feedback to fuel the ongoing conversation about the question.

Two of the many online comments in response to the article were very interesting:

  • Scout helping old lady“The problem with servant leadership is that it requires humility, confidence, and trust on the part of the leader. Leaders who know themselves, are comfortable with themselves, and who understand their own strengths, and especially weaknesses become good servant leaders. Leaders who don’t have that self-awareness will never reach that level.”
  • I’m afraid the attributes typically associated with leaders do not line up with the attributes of a servant leader. In most companies, in order to rise up the ranks to senior leadership positions, it takes a lot of horn trumpeting and self promotion. Our society has become very self-focused. Look at Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. It is all about me and what I’m doing. The selfless nature required to be a servant leader is not typically rewarded in our society. Servant leader attributes certainly aren’t broadly accepted as sought after traits for leadership roles, otherwise we would have many more servant leaders.

I think that these comments begin to address the original question posed by the article learning to teach others– “Why Isn’t Servant Leadership More Prevalent?”

However, I’d add that servant leadership isn’t taught, presented, encouraged or rewarded as broadly as other methods of leadership.

Consider other prevalent models of leadership we see in the news and throughout our culture today:

  • Competitive models found in sports and business suggest that heralding “wins” and keeping score are critical to demonstrating competency. Expressing confidence in one’s own abilities will rally followers to this type of leader so long as they keep winning. Once there’s a series of set backs; however, the charisma of the team leader may fade/falter and undermine his/her effectiveness to get buy in from the team. Additionally, the need to declare “wins” often means someone or something must “lose” on a regular basis in order to drive the scoring process – this can be counter-productive to the organization if other teams are crushed in order to make this team advance. Leaders focused on personal recognition and using their track record of earning trophies and medals can, indeed, build a cult-like group of followers who achieve great (material) things until:
    • the hero’s pride usurps what’s best for the team, the organization or other constituents
    • jealousy of the leader leads to a Caesar-Brutus downfall
    • wins become increasingly difficult to fulfill or the leader’s ability to compete effectively is surpassed by innovation or changes to the rules of the game.

Despite these potential problems, it seems to be a commonly adopted, popular model (perhaps due to people’s innate pride and vanity – if intemperate winning medals fuels self-image like some sort of narcotic addiction).

  • Technology or process competence is often used to designate a leader, especially in a tech-driven society. As another Forbes article on leadership stated “…you can possess the greatest technical wizardry under the stars, but that doesn’t make you a leader. If you don’t care, aren’t collaborative, can’t communicate, fail to take input and feedback, and allow your hubris to overshadow your humility, you might be intelligent, but in my book you’re not very bright. The really sad part of this story is how often this type of person is rewarded in a competency-based system.” (

Another by-product of this model is the temptation to put blinders on the team to keep them aligned with the leader’s own set of proficiencies. This could stifle innovation by way of the admonition “but we’ve always done it this way because it always worked in the past”. The fear of the unknown inhibits risk taking and tends to move the team towards maintaining the status quo instead of growing and reaching.

  • Authoritarian leadership that is based in titles and formal grants of power through a rigid hierarchy tend to be task completion oriented and often use their power to push their direct reports hard. It’s an easy model to support since power and control are clearly defined. This model tends to rack up lots of checks on a checklist of accomplishments which looks impressive, but doesn’t always translate to team member growth or mastery of skills. Poorly performing leaders may be replaced like changing a light bulb and without apology. This model suits bureaucracies where clear reporting lines and tight deadlines are important to the culture. This model also suits benevolent dictators who have a strong personal vision for achievement and will use the team to reach their self-directed goals until it is no longer convenient.

Additionally, servant leaders are vulnerable to attack by their own teams where team members are encouraged to grow, but have such a pirate nature as to take unfair advantage of the leader’s own vulnerability. For instance, the team member flourishes under the nurturing leadership, but then wants to spread his/her own wings and backstabs the servant leader by politically taking their role. Top management will listen to the pirate’s plan to substitute servant leadership for a more aggressive model like the competitive, process competent, or authoritarian styles of leadership. While this gets a short term boost in productivity, the results over the longer term will be mitigated by team member departures, turnover, change in culture and growth of distrust.

Lastly, “top management” may not value servant leadership’s attributes (mainly due to a lack of understanding) – often mistakenly perceiving a servant leader to be:

  • weak,
  • focused on the wrong constituents (i.e. managers should serve shareholders and top management not line employees),
  • at cross purposes during emergencies (i.e. having to break the servant mold to be a tough enforcer during crisis mode), or
  • enabling of the wrong behaviors in line employees (i.e. “coddling” self-interests over the departmental business goals). (

I think the way to combat these potential negatives would be to hybridize the concept of “First Among Equals” or “Primus Inter Pares” model with “Servant Leadership” so that teammates are not coddled, managers/leaders are not weak, and everyone works to their own personal best to meet departmental goals in an atmosphere of mutual respect and willingness to put the needs of the team above personal desires most of the time.

During boards of review or scoutmaster conferences, I always ask “what are you eagle_researchtrying to accomplish here at our troop?” The usual answer involves their personal advancement priorities, but I try to redirect them to the larger picture of team building and leadership. How they address these themes tells me a lot about their priorities and tendencies.

This is also validated by making observations during troop outings – especially during campouts where the patrols must function to set up camp, prepare meals, clean up and organize campfire programs, etc. The leadership styles which emerge reflect the individual personalities like:

  • Authoritarian/Title Monger;
  • Cruise Director (make everyone happy);
  • Technical Competency Hound (i.e. “let me do it, I’m good at that”); or
  • the True Team Builder who conducts the orchestra – not trying to play each instrument, but helping each musician find the right tempo, measure and beat.

This is the mark of a servant leader – empowering others to do their own best where they fit, and not obsessing over keeping score or winning by someone else losing. It’s not as easy to do, and it requires getting to know the members of your team really, really well. Still the results typically outshine the other models in terms of consistency and quality.


Do you see servant leadership being promoted in your business dealings, or some other model of leadership?  Do you think servant leadership is a passing fad, or in need of a re-charge?  Do you feel strongly that servant leadership is mostly found in non-profits, service organizations, youth groups and churches?

So, how about in your unit? Are the adult leaders and the PLC team using and modeling “Servant Leadership” principles mixed with “Primus Inter Pares” learned at NYLT/NAYLE/WoodBadge? What are we really teaching our sons (and daughters) about leadership? Do they practice it well? Are they stepping up and assuming responsibility for planning, execution and results?  Are we showing and modeling the best of servant leadership so that they see the benefits of “others first” instead of “me first”?


About Troop113

Our Troop # comes from Psalm 1:1-3 - describing the men we want our scouts to become
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9 Responses to Servant Leadership in the 21st Century: Waxing or Waning?

  1. David Servin says:

    First among equals with servant leadership – we can work that model!

  2. Mike Jernigan says:

    Paul, thanks for posting an interesting article. The short answer is that the members of an organization do not willingly “follow” anyone they do not trust nor do they willingly follow anyone who demonstrates different values from the members of the organization. Anyone who is not trusted nor demonstrates shared values can never be a leader, much less a servant – leader.

    We need more leaders. The members of any American organization prefer leadership over management, because following is voluntary and managers must be obeyed. The relationship is not equal, and Americans loath obeying or choosing to follow anyone they do not trust and who does not demonstrate shared values.

    Managers control people through the use of coercion and/or reward. Leaders inspire people to willingly do more than is required. Effective managers share the values of employees and share a mutual trust. Ineffective managers must use coercion to force people to obey, but poorly managed employees do the only the minimum required. Americans prefer leaders, because following is voluntary.

    In the US, Americans will prefer “servant” leaders because the sense of inequality between followers and the guy in charge does not exist. Servant leaders share mutual trust and shared values, but servant leaders offer a vision that matches the values of the followers, making people more willing to follow. Servant leaders remove the sense that they are the boss which means inequality between the guy in charge and the members of the organization.

    To understand why servant leadership or just plain old leadership seems to be AWOL today, one needs to consider the mindset of those who claim the position of leadership today, even when they are not leaders. The key is that the demands on CEOs and other organization “leadership positions” is so demanding that the CEOS, etc. do not trust employees to work without very close direction. This is actually management. It’s demanding, “holds people accountable,” and demonstrates a lack of mutual trust between the employees and the “guy in charge.” We call such people micro-managers. These people can never lead, by definition, but fear trusting the people in the organization. The real leaders do trust the other people in their organization and operate using shared values.

    Unfortunately, being a manger is easier than being a leader. Giving orders and “holding people accountable” is easier than developing a mutual trust and running an organization based on shared values. When those in charge of organizations do not trust the members of their organizations, they must control everything possible to make sure the guys in charge remain in charge. This means a person in charge of an organization must use his or her individual values of self preservation rather than being a “servant leader.”

    I’m not sure this helps much…

    Interesting article, though.


    • Troop113 says:


      I’m glad you thought it was interesting, and I appreciate your feedback. While I read your comment quickly, I’m going to come back and read it much more carefully on a break from working. For now, I wanted to moderate the comment and get it posted as a response to the article.

  3. Neil Lupton says:

    This is a magnificent blog. Thank you so much. May I have your permission to use and to whom should it be attributed.

    It may be something of ancient history but I attribute much of the “me” culture, at least in popular culture to Muhammed Ali “I AM THE GREATEST!!!”

    Prior to that, at least in sports, the attitude was something of Jimmy Brown “When you reach the end zone, act as if you’ve been there before.” Or John Unitas. Hand off the ball for the winning touchdown in the “greatest football game ever played” and quietly walk off the field. Or Lou Gehrig.

    But the me culture makes it very easy to publicize and make money through cult of personality.

    • Troop113 says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Neil. You can quote from, or reblog/repost in its entirety. Attribute simply to “Troop113” and include a link to the original posting that was quoted. We agree, “the times they are a changing” when it comes to competition — we like competition as long as there’s sportsmanship. Winning from determination and respect for peers, but not grand standing for publicity deals and merchandising, but that’s where we seem to be going.

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  7. Troop113 says:

    Reblogged this on Friday Afternoon Leadership Musings and commented:

    Since I’m on a personal vacation day today I thought I would simply reblog or repost an article I’ve written in the past comparing servant leadership to other leadership models in response to a Forbes article. The Forbes article simply asked why isn’t servant leadership more prevalent today? And that got me wondering about other models that might be more prevalent in business in lieu of servant leadership. Hope you enjoy the article and are not distracted by the overt Boy Scout references within the article.

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