Advocates of servant leadership have admirable values and aims. It is thus unfortunate that they confuse the meaning of leadership with its application. We need a different concept, one that everyone can accept: the post-heroic manager.
Leadership can only be shown by influencing people to think or act differently, either by promoting a better way or by example. A green leader promotes sustainable energy use, for instance.
A servant leader promotes service to others and a related set of values. There is no unique model of servant leadership any more than there is for green leadership or financial leadership.
In addition, many find the idea of calling themselves servants objectionable. The term "servant" is too strong; it is possible to nurture people and consider their needs, even put them ahead of yours, their manager without literally being their servant.
The idea of the post-heroic manager could be a suitable replacement for servant leadership for a number of reasons. If we separate leadership from management, then there is no such thing as servant leadership because leadership is an influence process, an activity with an impact, like all other forms of influence. In this case, anything to do with managing people needs to be recast as management, not leadership. Strictly speaking, therefore, we should be talking about servant managers, not servant leaders. But, suppose we drop the term "servant" altogether, what can take its place?
The Post-Heroic Manager
Managers who know-it-all, who act as if they know everthing and are quick to offer their solutions to problems are failing to develop people. They want to be the hero, the team's top goal scorer, when they should be the coach. To act as a coach, they should ask employees: "What do you think?" to draw solutions out of people instead of being too quick to offer their own. This is what it means to be post-heroic.
Post-heroic managers are catalysts, facilitators and coaches, not solution-generators. In addition, they are not self-serving. They put the needs of the organization, customers, employees and other stakeholders ahead of their own ambitions and needs. They are not servants, martyrs or completely self-effacing, however. They don't totally ignore their own needs.
Post-heroic managers aim to build a sustainable organization and to leave a legacy of a successful organization behind them. They don't hog the limelight, recognizing the need of others to take credit for their own achievements. They develop people, not for their own sake, however, but in recognition that it is a good investment for the future of the organization.
To the extent that they value service, their primary customer is the total organization. They put the needs of the organization first because, without its prosperity, no other stakeholder will achieve success. Post-heroic managers strive to balance the needs of the organization with those of other stakeholders. This means not sacrificing employee needs for short-term profits but not giving employees so much that it hurts the organization either. After all, a business that sold its products at a loss would greatly please customers but not stay in business very long. In any case, post-heroic managers put the needs of the organization and other stakeholders ahead of their own.
They are thus relatively selfless, "relatively" in the sense that they are not like the person who so wants to feed the poor that he starves himself to death by giving away all his food. Post-heroic managers recognize that their own success depends on enabling others to be successful. They aim to succeed as coaches rather than as star goal-scorers.
But being a catalyst, facilitator or coach is to behave as a manager, not a leader. Hence this is not servant leadership. Post-heroic managers do, however, lead by example. But it must be clear that they lead BY example, not by serving others. When they do serve others, they are not leading them but setting an example in the hope that others might also adopt the practice of being of service.
For more critical comments on the idea of servant leadership, see in depth comments on our sister site, Lead2XL - Servant Leadership