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Sep 21, 2022
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

We’re all familiar with the concept of servant leadership.

It’s a leadership approach that prioritizes the well-being of employees and views the leader as, well, a servant; that is putting the needs of their employees above their own. In an era of record employee burnout and turnover, it makes intuitive sense that leaders should prioritize employees’ needs.

But here’s the problem:

What if your company is facing a once-in-a-generation market opportunity that requires employee sacrifice and even discomfort?

What if your employees are happy with their growth and development, but they’re still falling behind employees at other companies?

Let me put what I’m thinking about in another way.

Have you ever known someone who went to the gym every day, felt satisfied with their workouts, yet didn’t experience any new muscle growth? Sure, their workouts were enjoyable, but did they actually accomplish the goal of building muscle? See where I’m going?

Being uncomfortable is good

If we contrast servant leadership with alternatives like transformational leadership or a pragmatist leadership style, both of those alternatives prioritize the organization’s success over employees’ wellbeing. It’s not that transformational or pragmatist leaders want employees to suffer, far from it, but those approaches recognize that sometimes employees need to be uncomfortable in order to grow and achieve great results.

Ironically, in one study, Leadership IQ found that people who set difficult and audacious goals are 34% more likely to love their jobs. Those difficult goals are, by definition, less pleasant and fun than easy goals.

But difficult goals – just like creating microtears in muscle fibers during a workout – does force growth. And so it’s not hard to imagine that the people who are willing to push beyond what’s enjoyable or easy are more likely to enjoy the rewards of their extra effort.

So where does this leave leadership thinking?

A widely-cited paper from SSRN comparing transformational and servant leadership found that “transformational leaders have a stronger focus on intellectual stimulation than servant leaders.” It added: “Servant leaders emphasize developing their followers’ personal potential and facilitating their personal growth, whereas transformational leaders emphasize enhancing employees’ innovation and creativity. This concept is important because it illustrates the servant leader’s focus on individual development and the transformational leader’s focus on organizational development.”

In other words, if your goal is creating happy employees, then servant leadership is probably best.

But if your goal is creating more successful organizations and smarter employees, then transformational leadership is better.

Put another way, if your company needs to grow, compete, and get smarter, then a focus on employee wellbeing may very well be counterproductive.

Famous leaders were more intense leaders

It’s no coincidence that famous leaders like the late Steve Jobs and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos employed a more intense leadership style. Whether you call it transformational leadership or a pragmatist leadership style, leaders like Jobs and Bezos have high standards, and they expect themselves, and their team members, to meet those standards. They’re driven, competitive, and they value hitting their goals above all else. When forced to choose between adjusting schedules to meet employees’ needs or making employees a bit uncomfortable to hit organizational goals, they prioritize the organization’s goals every time.

There’s an insidious myth that companies can prioritize employee and organizational needs simultaneously. But that’s bunk. At some point, there will come a need to work overtime to meet a deadline. When that moment comes, every leader and company will need to decide whether to push the deadline or push the employees. To be sure, there are plenty of times when deadlines are arbitrary and even nonsensical. In those cases, of course, the company should prioritize their employees and extend the deadline. But when the deadline is legitimate, there remains a hard choice.

I’m not arguing that servant leadership is inherently bad. But I would urge leaders, especially those in HR and the talent management arenas, to think through the implications of servant leadership. It’s an appealing slogan, but when forced to choose between company goals and employee wellbeing, which option would your CEO select?

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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