The Three Levels of Leadership – Scouller Leadership Blog » Why Do We Have So Few Servant Leaders?

Why Do We Have So Few Servant Leaders?

While I have no statistical data to prove it, it seems to me we lack servant leaders in the fields of business and politics.  And that’s even though Robert Greenleaf first described servant leadership – the idea that leaders are there to serve those they lead – over 35 years ago in 1977.  And, indeed, despite his ideas being generally well received.

So why don’t we have more servant leaders?  Well, here’s my view.  I suggest three reasons…

Reason #1: Transactional Rather Than Transformational

It was the scholar, James MacGregor Burns, who first defined the difference between transactional and transformational leaders.  In essence, he said:

  • The transformational leader taps into his people’s needs and values, inspires them with new possibilities and raises their confidence, conviction and desire to achieve a common, moral, motivating purpose.
  • The transactional leader, on the other hand, gets followers to act in a certain way in return for something they want to have or avoid.  So, for example, politicians may offer tax cuts in exchange for votes and business leaders may offer large bonuses for on-target results or threaten punishment if results aren’t good enough – in both cases without pushing towards a moral, inspirational purpose.

Not surprisingly, it’s the transformational leader who’s more likely to be a catalyst for genuine progress – not just a turnaround or rescue, which just restores the organisation (or nation) back to square one.

Which style is easier to apply?  From experience as an ex-corporate leader and now an executive coach, I’d say the transactional style is easier.  Why?  Because it’s less risky.  You don’t have to declare what you stand for.  You don’t have to take a risk by expressing a motivational – perhaps even inspirational – vision.  You don’t even need a vision!  And in not striving to achieve a high moral purpose, you’re less likely to fail.

And can you guess which category our “don’t-rock-the-boat, don’t upset the status quo” political and business institutions favour?  You guessed it.  Transactional leaders.

Okay, you may be thinking, I can see why this means we’re likely to have more transactional than transformational leaders, but how does this link with servant leadership?

Well, in my view, a servant leader will invariably be a transformational leader.  Why?  Because you can’t serve others as a leader if you haven’t tapped into their potential and needs and defined a shared, moral, motivating destination (what many people refer to as a vision).  The servant leader will know that a transactional approach to leadership may keep the ship afloat, but it won’t take it anywhere worthwhile or inspiring.

My point is that it’s too easy for transactional leaders to rise to the top in politics and business, which limits the number of servant leaders.  And until we place a higher value on servant leadership and the desire for a moral inspirational purpose, I think it will remain that way.

Reason #2: Lack of Vision

The second reason follows on from the first.  It’s that too many leaders perform their roles without creating a vision (a sense of destination) that motivates them and their followers.  I have to admit that the importance of vision as a CEO didn’t strike me until late on in my second managing director role.  So I had the same problem.  But I wasn’t, and am still not, alone.

This is partly because we have many transactional leaders who, almost by definition, don’t see a vision as essential.  The trouble is, you cannot be a servant leader without leading your people in a direction they want to follow.  Indeed, you cannot be a true leader without a shared sense of direction.  After all, the word “leader” presupposes that you are leading people somewhere, does it not?  Thus, a vision or a sense of direction is essential.

But the lack of vision is not just because we have so many transactional leaders.

It’s also because too many so-called “visions” are either bland, superficial, too centred on delivering benefits for a small elite (for example the senior managers or shareholders), have no action blueprint behind them or lack the thrust to overcome the inevitable obstacles.  Thus, “vision” has earned a bad name and many otherwise capable leaders are sceptical of the need for it.  To be honest, that was my problem in the mid-1990s.

However, there are leaders who do recognise the importance of vision in motivating and galvanising those they lead, but still they don’t create a credible, motivating sense of destination for their nation or organisation.  In my experience, in private, they find this more than embarrassing; they find it almost shameful.  They believe it exposes them as inadequate leaders.

Their mistake is to assume the leader must be the sole creator of a vision, like Moses coming down the mountain.  They don’t realise that you can co-create a vision with your closest colleagues – whether you call them your “direct reports” or your “team”.

So the lack of vision – and vision is always an element of servant leadership – is caused by too many transactional leaders, “vision” acquiring a bad name and leaders assuming that if they don’t have a ready-made vision (and many don’t) they are inadequate.  They don’t realise that you can co-create a vision.

Reason #3: Lack of Self-Esteem

But there’s a third, more subtle, more invisible reason for the lack of servant leaders.  It’s that so many leaders lack self-esteem.

Now this may surprise you.  You may have assumed that anyone who’s become a leader is always psychologically robust and refined.  Not so.  I’ve worked with many leaders who had pockets of negative self-esteem buried deep within their minds.  You may not have realised it on meeting them because they disguised their fears well, but those pockets of fear and shame were there nonetheless.

The problem of self-esteem deficits is so widespread among leaders I’ve worked with that I’m coming to suspect that nearly every leader has a self-esteem issue of some kind that’s limiting their ability to lead.

For example, deep down they may believe they’re not good enough and thus fear the risk of failure or making a mistake or being proven wrong and the humiliation that goes with all three.  Or that although they’re good at what they do, they are ruthless and if they allow people to get too close to them, their unpleasant nature will be exposed and they’ll be rejected; something that (unconsciously) terrifies them.

What has self-esteem got to do with servant leadership?  Well, the servant leader sees his role as serving the interests of those he leads.  And to want to do so he must care about those people.  But here’s the rub.  If you have significant self-esteem issues you have pockets of fear in your mind.  And yet the world doesn’t stop; you have to go on being a husband, wife, father, mother, friend and leader.  Thus, you constantly face circumstances that touch on and potentially expose your deepest fears, so you have to find ways of defending yourself against these anxieties.  Psychologists call these ways “defence mechanisms”.

My point is that we can use up so much energy defending ourselves against these unconscious threats that we find it hard, sometimes even impossible, to notice, connect with and care about others.  Thus, the basic requirement for being a servant leader – caring about others’ needs and potential – is absent.

This is why it’s so important for us to have leaders who work on self-mastery.  Self-mastery allows you to free yourself from the fears undermining your self-esteem and raise your ability to connect with and serve others… in other words, be a servant leader.

Big Picture

To summarise, I believe there are three forces that, together, are limiting the number of servant leaders.

First, the prevalence of transactional leaders – partly because our institutions favour transactional leadership and partly because it’s easier.  Second, the absence of vision in leadership and indeed a lack of emphasis on vision, for more than one reason.  Third, leaders’ lack of self-esteem.

I hope you found this helpful.


James ScoullerThe author is James Scouller, an executive coach.  His book, The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Knowhow and Skill, was published in May 2011.  You can learn more about it at  If you want to see its reviews, click here: leadership book reviews.  If you want to know where to buy it, click HERE.  You can read more about his executive coaching services at The Scouller Partnership’s website.

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