If your honest answer to the above question is: “I’m really serving my own interests,” then you’ve likely adopted our culture’s prevalent value system in which power, status, and/or wealth are the primary motivators driving one’s leadership.

A leader who embraces this model of leadership is known as the autocratic leader ( This type of leader uses power to coerce followers into complying with his or her own needs. In effect, the autocratic leader is a dictator who treats followers as servants. Autocratic leaders de-value and even abuse their followers which results in devastating consequences for the organization such as loss of trust, low morale, decreased productivity, suspiciousness, and fear.

We’ve all heard stories of leaders who abuse their power and whose organizations suffer tremendous hardship as a result. Enron, WorldCom, and Arthur Anderson are just three examples of blatant abuses of power. Autocratic-led organizations usually experience high turnover rates because workers do not feel valued or appreciated for their efforts, and they eventually burn out and leave.


There is another type of leadership which is less toxic but more common in today’s organizations. According to extensive research conducted by Dr. Jim Laub, Professor of Leadership Studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, paternalistic leaders are those who view themselves as parents and their followers as children. They tend to place the needs of the organization above the needs of their employees.

Paternalistic leaders can be either nurturing or critical but what they share in common is their belief that followers are not truly adult partners in the leader-follower relationship. This type of relationship results in mere compliance rather than true internal motivation. Although willing to delegate responsibility for some tasks, paternalistic leaders retain the right to make the most important decisions for the organization. Laub’s research ( has revealed that most of today’s organizations are paternalistic in their leadership practices.


The third type of leadership is known as servant leadership. The term, initially coined by Robert Greenleaf, refers to placing the legitimate needs of followers above one’s own self-interest. Servant leaders treat their followers as adults and are willing to collaborate, share their power, and commit themselves to others’ growth and development. They are also willing to grant decision-making authority to followers in order to foster a deep sense of commitment and investment in the organization. Furthermore, servant leaders value and seek to foster a strong sense of community among all stakeholders within the organization.

Character development is also a priority for servant leaders as they seek to display honesty, integrity, humility, authenticity, and accountability in their personal and work relationships. They are willing to take risks to stand by their convictions and muster the needed courage to “do the right thing.”


You may be wondering at this point how the servant leadership model is relevant to your struggles and challenges as a leader. You may be asking such questions as:

  • “If I become a servant leader, how will that reduce my burden?”
  • “How will servant leadership increase the morale, productivity, and commitment of my employees?”
  • “How can servant leadership really work in an extremely competitive and demanding business environment which focuses on short-term results?”

These are valid questions and concerns which need to be addressed if you are to move forward in your decision to become a servant leader.

We have already discussed some of the issues which contribute to a leader’s burden at the outset of this paper, but there is another one that is especially burdensome – making decisions. Although they may be accountable to a board of directors, organizational leaders are the ones who typically make the major decisions which impact the well-being and performance of their employees and staff. Even if the leader truly believes that his or her decisions are what’s best for the organization, there often arises the challenge of achieving buy-in from the employees. Most leaders would agree that buy-in is critical if the organization is to achieve results and successfully implement its vision. This begs the question: “What is the best way to enlist others’ buy-in and foster a strong commitment to the vision?

There is a common principle that operates in those organizations who are effective in achieving outstanding performance over the long-term. Simply stated, people are more committed to that which they’ve had a voice in creating. To test this principle, reflect on those experiences in your own life when you’ve demonstrated the most commitment. It is very likely they were ones which flowed from your own passion and initiative rather than simply because someone told you to comply with their requests or demands. When leaders value and elicit their employees’ input, and then partner with them to create a shared purpose and vision, they harness the vast potential which exists among their people and unleash incredible amounts of motivation, passion, and commitment which cannot be generated merely by providing external incentives or simply telling them to “just do it.”

Servant leaders recognize the value of sharing decision-making authority with front-line employees if their organizations are to truly excel. However, you may ask: “How can I be sure that the employee will make the best decision for the organization and not just pursue his or her own agenda?” Very good question! By virtue of being human, we all have a tendency to promote our own self-serving interests. However, most people also yearn to be part of something that transcends their individual efforts and will gladly commit themselves to a vision that is aligned with their own values, passions, and interests. In effect, being committed to a shared vision can greatly override this self-serving tendency and thus lead to decisions that serve the organization rather than one’s own agenda. On the other hand, lack of a shared vision often leads to competing interests, political maneuverings, and lower performance among employees.

A final objection to servant leadership involves its practicality. In a business climate where beating the competition and short-term results are the primary focus, how can servant leadership really be effective? In order to answer this question, there is an underlying assumption about servant leadership which needs to be addressed. There is often the misconception that servant leaders are too soft, too lenient, and just want to make their employees feel good about themselves. This could not be further from the truth! In fact, servant leaders set the performance bar high, expecting and requiring their employees to excel in their achievement of organizational goals. The difference is in the methods servant leaders employ to attain organizational success. Rather than adopting a “push or pull” attitude in an effort to motivate employees, servant leaders seek to encourage, inspire, and develop their employees in the service of a shared vision thus creating a win-win outcome for everyone. While the carrot-and-stick approach used by autocratic and paternalistic leaders may be effective in the short-term, it requires constant monitoring and oversight to produce results. However, even then the results are not as effective due to the lack of internal motivation and commitment by employees.

Lest there be any doubt that servant leaders can be effective in a heavily competitive business climate, those organizations who embrace and implement servant leadership are some of the most successful. To cite just some examples, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Toro, The Container Store, Men’s Wearhouse, Nordstroms, the Ritz Carlton, and TD Industries continually rank toward the top in their respective industries.

Servant leadership is not a passing fad, a “touchy-feely” approach to leadership, or merely another leadership style to be used among several options, but is a dynamic, powerful, and effective leadership model that is fast becoming the preferred choice for those leaders who truly seek to propel their organizations to world-class levels of success in the 21st. century.

We now turn to the challenges involved in becoming a servant leader.


There is no question that the primary challenge for many who are interested in becoming a servant leader is the willingness to surrender his or her power and need to control others. Suggesting that one give up power can appear very unsettling to some and even foolhardy to others. However, the paradox is that surrendering one’s power over others actually fosters greater personal power because you gain greater influence and respect through empowering them. When your employees perceive you as sincerely willing to listen to their input, encouraging them to succeed, and caring about their well-being and development, they trust you and become very committed to following you. In effect, you gain tremendous credibility which is the foundation of any genuine leadership.


Notice that the words “sincerely” and “genuine” are used in the above discussion. It needs to be emphasized that the decision to become a servant leader has to originate from an inner desire to truly serve others, rather than any manipulation or ploy to motivate them to higher levels of performance. If you pursue the latter, your employees will eventually realize that your motives are not sincere and, as a result, their morale, commitment, and performance will wane, and even more tragically, your credibility as a leader will drastically suffer.


This need for sincerity in one’s motives points to the broader issue of character, an indispensable attribute of servant leaders. Although far from perfect, servant leaders seek to grow in their personal character, embracing and practicing greater levels of humility, honesty, integrity, caring, authenticity, and accountability. Moreover, their ability to live out these qualities on a consistent basis will have a profoundly positive impact on the organizational culture as employees become committed to a set of shared values which then provides a strong foundation for organizational success.


It’s now time to get more personal and practical in terms of assessing your leadership effectiveness. Are you ready?

By Roger L Parks