Commentary

The Servant Leader . . .

When I was reflecting on leadership development a few days ago – something I’m prone to do quite often because it’s central to my life’s purpose – I was asked a provocative question; "Who do you serve?”

The originator of the question, Professor Modesto Maidique of Harvard Business School, posed the issue in an article entitled "Are You a Level Six Leader?” published in July’s Harvard Business Review. He asserts that this is the central, most telling question to ask any leader.

He goes on to propose a six-level response matrix based on the core premise that ‘servant leadership’ is a pivotal aspiration. I believe he is right in that many people would subscribe to the idea that leaders serve others. He then suggests that a leader’s impact and effectiveness will depend on whether the focus is on self, the group or society as a whole, just to cite three of the six possible options.

This is indeed intriguing. He says that this question is a powerful vector on which to build a useful typology for leadership development. Basing his hypothesis on previous work by Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg and Robert Keegan, he suggests that the question of focus often reveals more about leaders than knowing their personality traits, level of achievement or whether they are transactional versus transformative in orientation.

Let’s review briefly the six levels that he proposes:

  • Level One – Sociopath – serving no one, this is an antisocial personality disorder (DSM-III) exhibiting abnormally low empathy, destroying value, oneself and ultimately others. It’s perhaps represented in Gaddafi, Hitler and Hussein and found in less than I percent of the population, almost all being males.
  • Level Two – Opportunist – serving only him/her self often at the expense of others; the key issue is ‘What’s in it for me?”, and the moral compass points mainly at material rewards almost at any cost. Typical of this genre are Madoff (Ponzi), Skilling (Enron) and a few others who have recently attained notoriety.
  • Level Three – Chameleon – who will bend with the wind, striving to please as many as possible at all times, either locally or broader. They rarely attain top rank in business although they can do well in politics. US Senator John Kerry is a prime example, pilloried for his ‘flip-flop’ stance on the Iraq War.
  • Level Four – Achiever – who often substitute the needs of the whole with their own personal striving to succeed and who currently dominate senior executive ranks in business; they exceed expectations, out-perform others and benefit many; they’re Drucker’s "Monomaniacs with a Mission”. Highly-prized and even idolized by business, we could include, among others, Welch, Iaccoca, and Fiorina/Hurd (HP)
  • Level Five – Builder – those who strive beyond goals to build the organization as well as individuals within it and thus become legends in their own time; they serve for the long-term through visioning, infecting others with their energy, enthusiasm and integrity, thus acting as role models for so many others. Representatives we could include here are Watson (IBM), Sloan (GM), and even Oprah Winfrey.
  • Level Six – Transcendent – going to the next dimension where issues of culture, gender, creed and society are irrelevant. These are Gardiner’s "Global Citizens” who serve mankind and work beyond the present space/time continuum. They are exceedingly rare but we could suggest Mandela, Gandhi and perhaps great religious leaders as possible candidates.

This all makes good sense as long as we recognize that we would be unlikely to even acknowledge levels one through three as leaders at all. In addition, most individuals are likely to progress from level two upwards as they mature in their leadership roles, until such time as they cease to develop. They may, therefore, exhibit the characteristics of several levels at one time or possibly reflect different levels depending on the situation in which they find them selves at any given point.

I suspect too, but have no hard evidence to support my view, that there are levels within levels, especially within levels three through six. It is, however, a useful framework for development and the issue of focus is indeed a very important one for all aspiring leaders.

If it provokes you to think about where you would like to be as well as where you are currently, and then to reflect on those behaviours you might need to change in order to develop positively, it has been immensely helpful. Go for it!