Servant Leadership and its Pitfalls: BE AWARE

servant leadership

Coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership (SL) is a hybrid of Strategic Leadership and Operational Leadership (Blanchard, 2018). This leadership style is known for flipping the hierarchy, sharing power, reducing or abandoning ego, and empowering people in the organization via the support and development of the individuals that comprise the organization (Blanchard, 2018). SL has grown in popularity, and it has gained quite a following in recent years. Is this popularity created out of wisdom and evaluation or because of the buzzword that “Servant Leadership” has become?

What Do Servant Leaders Do?

In theory, Servant Leaders provide both the vision and “the how” of the organization. However, the Servant Leader takes the approach of being a “servant first (Greenleaf, 2016).” The highest priority of the Servant Leader is that the needs of their people are being served (Blanchard, 2018). Essentially, the focus is on the well-being of the worker and their community and on building trust. The test is whether the people within the organization are growing by becoming healthier, wise, and freer.

Dr. Ken Blanchard states clearly that Servant Leaders SERVE. In that, he provides an acronym to help illustrate the pillars of SL.

  • S – See the future,
  • E – Engage and develop people,
  • R – Reinvent Continuously,
  • V – Value results and relationships,
  • E – Embody the values (Blanchard, 2018).

Additionally, Dr. Blanchard’s position is that SL is a higher quality leadership that fosters higher performing organizations and brings more success and significance to the leader, the people, and the organization (Blanchard, 2018). SL is great in parenting, non-profits, and organizations that thrive in an unorthodox and sometimes experimental hierarchy. According to Berrett-Koehler Publishing, companies that embrace Servant Leadership include Starbucks, Marriott International, and Nordstrom (Sivasubramaniam, 2017).

While the theory of SL is compelling and provides some organizations with a robust model with which to base their operations, it is also essential to understand that Servant Leadership is far from perfect. This is to say that it will not work in all situations or with all leaders. Contrast is necessary when evaluating leadership styles and perspectives. Therefore, we need to explore some of the limitations of Servant Leadership.

The Potential Limitations of Servant Leadership

Strategic Leadership Is Not Simple

As previously stated, SL is said to be a mixture of Strategic Leadership and Operational Leadership. The problem here is that Strategic Leadership is not something that is quickly learned or practiced. While highly effective, leaders should understand that there are entire degrees dedicated to its study. As Dr. Deedee Myers says, “Strategic leadership can be difficult to describe because it is highly complex and complicated (Myers, 2015).” This is to say that the competencies are vast, and implementing those competencies is a challenge. Furthermore, achieving Strategic Leadership as defined requires a great deal of knowledge and practice. The fact is that many in a leadership position may not have the background or expertise to pull it off as intended, which might hinder the full implementation of Servant Leadership as defined.

Operational Leadership is Not What It Sounds Like

As any leadership-educated professional can tell you, managers manage processes. Operational Leadership is often seen as centered around developing systems, policies, and procedures (Smith, 2019). Operational Leaders also perform assessments and monitoring and are often considered the hub of business operations. In this regard, it is quite similar to Transactional Leadership. Of course, Transactional Leadership is generally frowned upon by leadership experts because, in practice, it looks too much like management (Ciulla, 2004)

The point is that when it comes to several leadership philosophies, such tasks are often seen as management responsibilities. This familiarity might help to explain the appeal of Servant Leadership for management professionals. In that, Operational Leadership could potentially be regarded as a “management trap” for trained leadership professionals. On the other hand, these Operational elements may be neglected to some degree by leaders seeking to adhere to Strategic Leadership principles, which might also hinder the full implementation of Servant Leadership. Keeping in mind that in some ways, the two are actually opposites. Confusion is not uncommon when trying to implement SL.

Servant Leadership is Not Always Practical

Aside from Servant Leadership sometimes appearing Laissez-Faire (Singfiel, 2018), SL is simply not the best approach for all organizations. A great example of this might be in the military. In organizations where rank, structure, and protocols are essential, especially where time is essential and power cannot be shared, Servant Leadership is simply not the best choice (CAS5184, 2018). Ultimately, that weeds out many, if not most, industries. Though, it might be decent for non-profits.

Servant Leadership Takes Time

Servant Leadership takes lots of time (Tee, 2018). When one considers the development of others, building relationships, building trust, and attempting to discover the wants, needs, and desires of those who comprise the organization, one quickly gets the sense that time is a factor. Hence, when time is pressed and when leaders cannot afford to be perceived as soft or lazy, Servant Leadership may not be the preference. The good news is that there are plenty of other philosophies that will work in such a setting.

The Validity of Servant Leadership Remains in Question

Servant leadership still has a few holes to consider. Servant Leadership scholars are still trying to hash out the core dimensions of the process and have yet to reach a consensus regarding the framework or universal definition of the approach (Northouse, 2016). Adding to this confusion is the idea that many practitioners and advocates of Servant Leadership are not really leadership researchers or leadership professionals concerned with its validity (Northouse, 2016). Dr. Ken Blanchard might be an excellent example of this. While insightful, Dr. Blanchard, a well-known advocate of Servant Leadership, is a management trainer and consultant whose education consists of government, philosophy, sociology, and education administration (Soylent Communications, 2019). In my experience, I do not know many true leadership professionals that are big fans of this style.

Emotions Usually Don’t Fix Problems

When writing on the topic of Servant Leadership, Dr. Ken Blanchard stated that “The antidote for fear is love (Blanchard, 2018).” That is a scary proposition when it comes to organizational effectiveness and change. To be clear, the Servant Leader is one that stresses the importance of feelings and inclusion. However, when it comes to organizational change and fear of what that change might ultimately bring, I fundamentally disagree with his position. A leader has better things to do than babysit feelings. Instead, I tend to agree with Dr. Debasish Mridha when he said, “Fear comes from the lack of knowledge and a state of ignorance. The best remedy for fear is to gain knowledge (Mridha, n.d.).” In context, and in my experience, I have found that workers want answers and information over being told that you care about them. Mindset can make all the difference when faced with organizational challenges, and some of the worst leaders I have ever worked under were both caring and ineffective.


Many leadership professionals have said that too many people outside of the leadership industry are simply unaware of what Leadership truly is. I concur. However, for this reason alone, leadership professionals should pay particular attention to the information they choose to digest. Furthermore, those seeking leadership information should be aware that many management professionals have latched onto the “leadership” name in the attempt to stay relevant in a time when management is losing favor in some circles. If Dr. John Kotter is correct in the idea that management is not Leadership (Kotter, 2012), then a leadership professional should be aware of the source of the leadership information being provided, ensure that it is not laced with management principles that could undermine leadership efforts, and always validate the data being considered before attempting to implement it.

There Is Another Option

There are plenty of options out there. Servant Leadership may be right for you and your organization. If it is, that is great! I am not writing this to persuade you away from it. SL has a place, and it can surely be effective in some situations. Of this, there is no doubt. However, if it is not right for you or your organization, but you like the general idea of Servant Leadership, then you might need an alternative.

From an organizational position, and in my opinion, Transformational Leadership would likely be a fantastic alternative. Similar to SL, Transformational Leadership seeks to develop the team and organization. But rather than placing so much emphasis on the wants and wishes of the individual follower, it emphasizes the teams and the organizational vision instead. Also, in my opinion, it tends to generate more cohesive teams. Simply stated, Transformational Leadership focuses on developing teams and on inspiring followers to work towards a common goal (Allen et al., 2016). However, even Transformational has its limitations.

Another alternative is Reasoned Leadership. Reasoned Leadership has a slew of benefits, and it will work in a variety of settings. That’s because it was specifically and strategically designed to integrate the best parts of a variety of leadership theories. I will publish something on this approach in the coming months. Stay tuned!


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