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Leadership Development

The Pros and Cons of Servant Leadership

Zingerman’s didn’t invent the idea of Servant Leadership – we learned our approach from Robert Greenleaf and have adapted his thoughts, along with the thoughts of many other leaders we’ve admired, into our approach to Servant Leadership.  The basic idea of servant leadership is that, first and foremost, we are here to serve the organization. The higher we move up in the organization, the more people we are there to serve, not the more people who are there to serve us.

peppercorns-in-boat-1You might be thinking, “yeah, that all sounds great, but how will I get any of my work done if I am always doing whatever the staff asks of me?” I would encourage you to reread the statement above, the basic idea of servant leadership is that, first and foremost, we are here to serve the organization. It never says we do everything for the staff no matter what and we must always say yes. It is our job as a servant leader to put the organization first. Yes, it does take rearranging the way many of us view typical leadership and how many of us were raised in the business world, which is we are promoted to work less. In servant leadership the higher you are promoted, the harder you’ll probably have to work and the more you’ll likely need to give of yourself. But when you can commit to practicing servant leadership you can quickly see the pros outweigh the cons.

What is the perceived downside of practicing Servant Leadership (CONS)?

  • It takes longer to make decisions in the organization
  • Leaders must do whatever the staff asks of them
  • It takes too long to teach and retrain leaders to think like a servant leader
  • The leader can be perceived as weak
  • Leaders don’t have any formal authority to get things done

Take for example a scenario where George is a leader in the organization. He has 15+ years of management experience in a traditional organization and has operated under the “my way or the highway” mentality of typical managers. Sally, a newer employee of your organization, has an idea of how the scheduling could be changed to improve productivity and profits. Sally goes to George with her ideas and is immediately shut down because the changes Sally is proposing could affect George and his own schedule. Sally leaves feeling defeated and learns when she has good ideas she should just keep them to herself.

What is the benefit of practicing Servant Leadership (PROS)?

  • Decisions are made in the best interest of the organization, not just one or two people
  • Managers and leaders look at requests from staff through the lens of what is best for the business and can say no when it is not
  • When we are best serving our organization and the people who work in it we are actually best serving the customer
  • It helps our staff grow and succeed and helps staff grow as a leader
  • It sets the tone for the organization

leading-with-zing-11Put the same scenario above with Sally and George in a servant-led organization. Sally has ideas of how to improve productivity and profits and shares her ideas with George. George listens to Sally’s ideas and agrees the changes could be beneficial to the organization even though it might affect his own schedule and tells her he will think about if and how to best incorporate the changes. George thanks Sally for her input and then in a couple of weeks after talking to other leaders in the organization agrees the changes really are in the best interest of the company. When the changes have been implemented, he gives her credit in the company meeting  and now Sally is continually looking for ways to improve productivity and efficiency in the company and loves sharing her ideas with her boss.


One of things we love about Servant Leadership is you don’t need permission to be a servant leader. No one needs to grant you the authority to give great service to the team or to each other or to say thanks to the people you work with, for example. You can make the choice to act in alignment with Servant Leadership and help your organization become the organization you want to be.

The Bottom Line?

Servant Leadership is a practice, not a science. We can’t study servant leadership or read a book and all of a sudden realign ourselves from what we have always known. Servant Leadership is a practice, like yoga or playing the piano, the more we practice the more comfortable we can get. We encourage you to take small interactions and decisions you are making and run them through the lens of “am I acting or making a decision that is in the best interest of the organization?” The more we practice the servant leader mindset, the more natural it will become.