How Companies Contradict Servant Leadership

I'll go on record and say "Servant Leadership" is a redundant term...or at least it should be. Being a leader IS caring for the group. That is why in normal informal groups, leaders rise based on the trust and respect given by the group, they are not selected by someone on high. It has nothing to do with title. So by definition, to lead a group is to serve the group. But if the whole idea is to serve the group, shouldn't the group have a say in who they trust, respect, and want to follow? The promotion process is where companies contradict the notion of servant leadership and make it about management followership. Management followership is the phenomenon whereby managers more readily promote employees who are good followers and good doers. It's an honest mistake but one that actually does way more harm than good.

Detriments to the Peter Principle

Promoting a high performing individual not only takes them out a of a role where they are contributing probably more than anyone else, but it actually has deleterious consequences for the team and the company beyond just taking your best performer out of the game. In an ongoing study, Harvard researchers found that when a high performing sales manager is promoted, the performance of each team member actually drops by 7.5%.

Taking Your Fastest Horse Out of the Race 

Lets say you were raising thoroughbreds. Promoting your best sales person is like taking your fastest horse and turning him/her into the horse that draws the trailer. They've already proven what they are great at - selling. Keep them there, reward the hell out of them, but for goodness sake don't take them out of an environment where they are successful. They are contributing your highest sales before you think to promote them, delete their sales for the last two quarters, drop the other members' performance by 7.5%, and let me know how you feel about taking them out of the race. Because math.

Testing the Water

Now could you have that person train, coach, and mentor others? Absolutely, if they want to do that. That would be the experiment to see if they want to lead since leading a team is more about training, coaching, and mentoring than it is doing the role. If they don't like or aren't skilled at those three things- promoting them into a role where that is their focus would be foolish. Yes, use your best sales person to make others better, but not as a manager, more as someone to chase and learn from.

No Going Back

Another problem with promoting the wrong person (your star performer) is there is no going back. Part of that is the cultural notion that being a manager is "better" than being an individual contributor. It's not, it's just different. But that is for another article. When the only path to career development or salary growth IS management, you're reinforcing the belief that managers are better than individual contributors. When you create that system, it is very hard to go back. Moving from management to individual contributor is seen as a demotion or step backwards. Even if you kept salary the same, the psychological status shift takes a toll. If nothing else, you've made someone's shortcomings very publicly visible. They will feel like a failure. No one likes to feel like they failed, least of all in front of individuals whom they desire respect from. And ultimately, it was not their failure, it was yours. You made the decision to put them into a role they were not ready or well suited for. Own it.

Identifying a Better (Servant) Leader

First, I'll start by saying that if you are in a position of leadership in relation to the group, you are not in the best position to evaluate the best servant leader. When looking down, you can see doers and followers really well, but leaders are harder to see because they don't lead you (they follow or do for you.) But here are two things that you can start doing that will help you identify better leaders the group will support and likely will take a mediocre performer and turn them into your best managers. 

Skip the Assessments

I'm not saying that assessments can't be helpful. They can be, but typically, they are not a show of potential; at least not in an overall sense. They might show areas of potential but they will also show areas of deficiency which, because of halo bias, often get overlooked or minimized in the process. Additionally, leadership potential assessment when used as part of the promotion selection criteria, can be gamed. When they know a promotion or raise is on the line people answer how they feel will give them the best opportunity, not always honestly. When you look at third party studies of the correlation between leadership assessments and leadership performance...the correlation is tenuous at best. If you are going to use assessments, use them as a learning tool to identify areas of strength and areas of development...not promotional criteria.

Look for Helpers

The best leaders recognize their role is to help others be great. It's not necessarily about them being the greatest performers but how they can help everyone else be the best possible performers. Beyond individual performance, look for people who:

  • take new employees under their wing (mentorship)
  • show people new ways to do things (training)
  • challenge the status quo that doesn't work (they are the ones with problem solving vision)
  • give honest and open feedback (Ohos tracks this for you)
  • recognize others (Ohos does this too)
  • split commission or credit (shows collaborative intent)
  • own problems (don't deflect or look for someone/something to blame)
  • connect resources (they know other experts and build relationships to make processes easier)
  • help others outside of the department (see "connect resources" above)
  • ask to lead/take the lead/volunteer for projects other than their main job duties (willing to go the extra step for the group)

Ask Others On the Team

Leaders often overthink this or skip it all together. Simply asking the team who they would willingly follow and who they respect can highlight others they trust to lead the group. This is the essence of servant leadership. Who does the group see as someone worthy of leading the group. And it's not that hard. If you have Ohos, we collect all that for you and give you some nifty graphs to boot, but you can do it yourself, too. Simply ask people to list 3 (2 if you have a team smaller than 6 people) individuals whom they would recommend to lead the team, put the results together, and give the top two people a shot (see "Testing The Water" above.)


Before you promote someone, ask them if they want to lead others. Give them an opportunity to say "no" by offering (even if hypothetical at this point) "If the pay were equal, would you rather stay in the role you have, or would you like to take on a new role to lead the group?" Having the option to say "no" is important. Considering only 23% of managers polled said they "like leading others", making the option to NOT lead is crucial. I tend to be better at the things I want to do. I also enjoy doing things I feel relatively good at. Your star performer, is likely no different. We all want the opportunity to grow but growth doesn't always mean "lead others" so get that out of your head. 

Moving Forward

To select better (servant) leaders, organizations need to re-evaluate top-down processes, which are inherently authority reinforcing, not servant reinforcing. Selecting leaders from the top-down has proven ineffective, picking the wrong person to promote 82% of the time. The impacts are huge. Not only do you immediately reduce the performance of the team, the long term impacts of engagement, retention, and team performance can be measured in the $billions of dollars in the US. By one study, bad managers cost US companies over $360 BILLION each year.

So to pick better leaders, check some of your beliefs and swallow some of your pride. Sure your input matters AND you're just not in the best position to pick the new leader. You need someone who can deliver and equally, you need someone the group trusts. To recap:

  • Save the assessments for development
  • Look for servant behaviors
  • Ask the team
  • Ask THEM
  • Let them say no
  • And test the water

It's not the fault of the individual who never wanted to be a leader when they don't perform well in a leadership role, it's a failure of the system. Don't be complicit and don't follow the Peter Principle. There is a better way to build a leadership and management team employees respect and trust to take them into the future, you just have to stop assuming your the expert at picking them.

Dave NeedhamComment