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Is the Servant Leadership Model Paternalistic?

April 24, 2019 Matt Rocco

Imagine this. You are invited to a board meeting, and everyone is getting settled. While putting his cup down, the CEO accidentally spills coffee onto the desk and floor. What is the aftermath your picture? Do you already, through your mind’s eye, see interns and mid-level managers rushing to clean up the mess? Or, even better, do you envision the CEO calling for janitorial to tend to it so that he can carry on with his meeting?

According to one Harvard Business School professor, James Heskett, when he encountered a similar scenario at a ServiceMaster board meeting, neither of these outcomes played out. Instead, the CEO asked for cleaning supplies and got down on the floor to clean up the mess himself. While this is a very literal interpretation of what it means to be a service leader, it nonetheless accurately depicts the servant leadership model.

What is Servant Leadership?

 Put simply it is a leadership style defined by giving rather than delegating. In the mind of a true servant leader, organizational success depends on the employees’ ability to do their jobs well. And, in turn, the employees’ ability to do their jobs well depends on the leader’s willingness to provide the tools they need. Thus, instead of commanding employees, a servant leader aims to promote success by asking the question, “How can I help you succeed?” This, in turn, gives employees a sense of purpose and motivates them to be more proactive while building a sense of teamwork.

Is It Paternalistic?

The complicated answer to this question is yes and no. The servant leadership model does feature paternal overtones, but it is not quite the same as paternalistic leadership. According to a study published by Pennsylvania State University, paternalistic leadership is not very well understood, even within the management community. This is because of conflicting ideas on how it should be applied, and how it has varied across cultures, based on how paternal roles vary.

Sociologist and political economist, Max Weber, argued against the practice, stating that it led to bureaucracy and would only further the role of traditional domination. Perhaps because of this sentiment, paternalistic leadership has, in most First World countries, been likened to an autocratic leadership style, which is not at all in-tune with the principles of servant leadership.

On the other hand, studies coming out of Asia opposed Weber’s conclusions, instead of painting the paternalistic leader as a caring fatherly figure. Researchers in Asia argued that paternalistic managers operated as a pillar of support and provided care and protection to their employees. This is much more akin to servanthood leadership.

A study conducted in Turkey also found a strong positive correlation between paternalistic and servant leadership styles. The values of servant leadership that were perceived as paternalistic include the following:

  • Altruism
  • Empowerment
  • Relationship building
  • Participation

Why Choose the Servant Leadership Model?

In today’s increasingly individualistic culture, especially in American culture, you don’t come across many true servant leaders. But, when you do, they have amazing stories to share about how their leadership styles have helped to not only grow their business but improve the communities around them.

Two leaders that have been named as true servant leaders include Kevin Johnson, the CEO of Starbucks, and Arthur M. Blank, the co-founder of Home Depot. So, if key leaders of household names have built their multibillion-dollar empires from this type of leadership, how can you benefit from employing the servant leadership model in your business? Read on to find out.

Increased Social Responsibility

Servanthood leadership encourages social responsibility both inside and outside of the office. As a benefit of this leadership style, a corporate conscience comes with many other benefits itself. Here are just some of the main advantages of social responsibility, according to Inc.

  • Increases the appeal of your brand, thereby expanding the potential market size.
  • Modern customers are eco-conscious and are willing to pay a premium price for companies they believe are engaged in social good.
  • Customers are more likely to remain loyal to brands they believe are supporting their core values.
  • Opens up the opportunity to receive financial grants from the government.
  • Investors see a commitment to social change as a long-term positioning plan, thereby making your business more attractive.

Stronger Team

The servant leadership model focuses more on people than the work process. This helps to humanize the work environment, breaking down barriers and building stronger relationships based on a common goal. In this scenario, everyone plays a different but equal role. This sentiment energizes workers to step up to the plate, be proactive, reach for higher goals, and to see how they too can serve others.

Lower Turnover Rates

Turnover is an expensive cost of poor management. Every time someone walks out the door of your business, they are taking the knowledge and experience you have provided, with them. To encourage more employees to stay, you must create an environment where they are not only happy to show up at work every day, but also have the opportunity to grow. Managers who embrace the servant leadership model will provide opportunities for employee growth through student programs, on-going training, promotional opportunities, and the opportunity to work on special projects. Lower turnover rates not only save the company time and money but allows it to hold on to its primary investments: its people.

Who Does a Servant Leader Serve?

Most leadership literature on servant leaders seems to focus on serving employees to help them reach organizational goals. However, servant leaders also work hard to serve their clients and the members of the communities they operate in.

One good example of this is Arthur M. Blank who, after helping to select the location of the Mercedes-Benz stadium in downtown Atlanta, then worked to develop the communities around it. Thanks to his efforts, crime has dropped 43 percent in the area, year after year, and he has helped 680 residents to find full-time jobs.

At Etech, though serving our communities and our employees are also paramount, serving our clients takes center stage. By employing the servant leadership model, we encourage our workers to join us in ensuring that not only is serving our clients a top priority, but it is our only priority. For more information about how we can serve you and your clients, contact us here.