Exploring Servant Leadership: What’s wrong with having a “boss”? (Part I)



In Explored: Management in Networks by Harold Jarche we looked at how management is changing in the 21st century and the possible intersections along the road to change.

One aspect we briefly touched on was Servant Leadership. This mini-series explains what Servant Leadership is and how it differs from the traditional alternative, which we shall call Boss Leadership.


There are many definitions of Servant Leadership, this one is as good as any. But most of the definitions I’ve seen make servant leaders sound like some orange-robed Zen master with lofty ideals – not something to which a hard-working manager with a difficult practical role can easily relate.

One reference for further reading worth a look is The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

Let’s explore Servant Leadership and see how it differs from its conventional alternative, which I shall call Boss Leadership. We’ll examine their pros and cons and crucially, their consequences.

In this first article, we’ll explore Boss Leadership and look at the case for change. After all, what’s wrong with what we’ve been doing for hundreds of years? Surely we wouldn’t still be doing it if it didn’t work?

Boss Leadership


Boss Leadership and who does what

This is the type of leadership you are almost certainly familiar with.

There is a boss and workers whom the boss “bosses around”. There’s a hierarchy of bosses at least several layers deep. Bosses do a thing called “management” and workers do a thing called “work”: they have separate responsibilities.

Because doing and managing work are separate, there’s a need for separate artefacts to keep track of work and communicate progress. Bosses create plans, lists, charts and reports. Workers provide bosses with updates. They sit separately and communicate via documents and meetings.

All of these artefacts and rituals come with a heavy cost: it’s not unusual to find people spend most of their time in meetings and preparing reports – instead of actual work (unless you are brainwashed into thinking these are “work”). Because bosses don’t do any of the real work they naturally expand the management tasks to fill their schedules – creating more work for everyone.

The philosophy is Command and Control based on the theory (and it is merely a theory) that people need commanding and controlling or nothing will get done. The boss issues orders, controls tasks, monitors progress and then delivers either punishments or rewards depending on the outcomes.

They may even prescribe how the work is to be done, so that workers are reduced to little more than robots following instructions.

Because doing and managing work are separate, there’s a need for separate artefacts to keep track of work and communicate progress

Such leadership styles do not embrace learning through failure.

The thinking is the unrealistic “Never make a mistake” (what do you mean, never do anything new or better?) rather than more realistic “Never make the same mistake twice” which is much more helpful because it puts the focus on learning.

The boss is implicitly assumed to be omniscient and infallible and gets to make all important decisions – even when they are well outside their area of knowledge or competence.

In theory, the people who become bosses are those best suited to those tasks rather than those not suited to other tasks. They are usually paid more than workers, using the (faulty) theory that they must be more valuable to the business because they are higher up the hierarchy. In reality the further up you go, the further you are from the work, so the less likely it is that you are critical to normal operations.

At any rate, most places that implement “payment or promotion by results” reward bosses not on their direct contribution but on the collective contribution of the workers in their team(s) which can be in spite of the boss.

The thinking is the unrealistic ‘Never make a mistake’ rather than more realistic ‘Never make the same mistake twice’ which is much more helpful because it puts the focus on learning

It’s all very nineteenth century. Lovely people those Victorians and they achieved a lot – but their working conditions were terrible. For most people work has changed so much that it would be unrecognisable to a Victorian. So isn’t it time that we adopted modern management practices?

Punishment and reward as a motivation technique has been widely debunked and replaced with a different framework. As I explored in True Motivation: A marriage of meaning and money there are far better ways to motivate people.

What about the theory that some people need strong boundaries to be productive? Yes, of course that’s true but there are more productive ways of creating strong boundaries without command and control techniques as we shall see. What makes us think there’s only one solution to that?!

In Boss Leadership, the boss is inside the flow of work – everything goes through the boss. They are explicitly in the loop: they make the decisions, they must be consulted and nothing significant can be decided without them. You might say the mindset is “Everything runs with me”. They work in the business, not on the business.

The boss’s goal is to be ‘on top of everything’ – even when this smothers people and progress

One problem with this (there are many) is that it makes the boss a bottleneck. It’s common to find that delays are caused by the queue to access the boss and receive the wisdom of their enlightened decision-making. Another problem is that decision-making is artificially limited to a few individuals rather than leveraging the wisdom of crowds.

In such environments everyone is regularly reminded that the boss is the most important person in the room (and therefore they aren’t). The boss’s goal is to be “on top of everything” – even when this smothers people and progress.

Consequences of Boss Leadership


Some consequences of Boss Leadership are:


Growth of a work/activity artefact industry which is expensive and time-consuming

Ineffective and inefficient communication mainly by documents and meetings

Long delays implementing changes and getting decisions

Heavy and increasing workload and stress for the boss staying “in the loop” and “on top of everything”

Low trust with workers because they have little autonomy and discouraged from taking responsibility and showing initiative

De-skilling of workers because learning and growth is restricted by their “role” or “job”

Disconnection of the bosses from the real work because they are so busy with “management”

Descent into an audit/compliance culture where documents and procedures matter more than real work


What are you saying? We don't need Leaders or Managers at all?!


Having read all of this you might think that this is diatribe against the very notion of leaders or managers. No, not at all. People need leadership and they need help to organise, coordinate and work together. That’s very important.

In the new management, leaders and managers do have a crucial role to play but it is a very different (and more enjoyable) one. If you are thinking though that fewer leaders and managers will be needed, you’d be right.

Everything I’ve said above is true of Boss Leadership but not of its superior alternative, Servant Leadership. There is a better way as we’ll see.

And of course in every business you’ll find successful bosses who find ways to mitigate and avoid many of these consequences. But my point is that they do this despite the system, not because of it. It should be much easier to do the right thing.

In Part II we’ll explore the alternative: Servant Leadership.

Until then, perhaps you could consider how many of the consequences listed above are present in your own organisation.

Posted in Decision-Making, Leadership.

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