Power to the people

'Power management' may be on the way out as the bias changes from tough leadership to a more inclusive style. E&T discuss the concept of the 'servant-manager'.

The world is changing at top speed. This is also true about work relationships, which in turn has consequences for views of leadership. The dominant leadership model - the power model - is fizzling out. There is a cry for a serious alternative.

When talking about leadership, most companies use the power model. According to this model, leadership is all about the attainment, exercise and retention of power. The boss has only one goal: to ensure that people do what he or she wants. It consists mostly of handy strategies to win. Ethics and morals do not come into their vocabulary or, at best, only as an afterthought.

The problem with the power model is that power has become a goal in itself. Power is a scarce commodity and attracts competition. The person who finally acquires it needs then to defend it strongly, and sharing is completely out of the question. This results in conflicts between various groups and factions; the idea that leadership is about beating the other group is ingrained in old management ideology.

This is a shame because internal fighting is a waste of precious energy, and is not productive. The ambition for power also shades one's view of success, defining it in terms of power, rather than what has been achieved for the organisation or community. In addition, power is addictive. You can never get enough and, as a result it can have a corrupting effect.

Thus a need for a leadership model with a more productive approach: the wish to serve others. In large part, this model is referred to as 'servant-leadership' due to the motive. Power is not seen as irrelevant, but is consciously used in order to serve. People working within this model are called servant-leaders.


Companies that implement servant-leadership are very successful as a result. How is it that servant-leadership succeeds where the unilateral power model fails in combining opposites? The answer can be found in the double focus of a servant-leader. The power model tilts heavily in favour of leading, whereas servant-leadership integrates both serving and leading, or, even better, serving by leading or leading by serving. This is a much broader basis that results in a more harmonious management style.

A servant-leader knows that his or her own growth comes from facilitating the growth of others - those who are the final deliverers of the output. In addition, this double-focus fits perfectly with the raison d'être of the company. Companies derive their existence from what they can do for the community. Whether discussing private, public, government or non- profit companies, the ultimate goal is to be forthcoming in meeting the needs of mankind. Regardless of whether the people are clients, patients, students or citizens, if things are going well, they are core.

At the bottom of it all, every company has a serving function. In practice, however, that realisation is rarely made. All too often, entrepreneurs are at the centre of their own world and the universal value of service has been replaced with shareholder value. Corporations have, in some cases, become isolated from the community and cut off from their own roots.

Managing the community

Servant-leadership is actually a reaction. This leadership style consciously goes back to basics. That means more than is maybe apparent at first appearance. In this model, leaders are not triggered by the search for money and power, but rather by the question: "What do people need and what can I do to make sure they get it?"

The most important job for leaders is to find out what the needs of the community are and to fulfil them. In some ways, you can say that the power model is all about taking, while the service model is about giving, which is a completely different paradigm.

However, working with this paradigm is only possible when people are both capable and motivated. Therefore, in addition to making sure the wishes of clients are satisfied, it is also important to pay attention to the needs of employees. It is important to understand that work is about more than just earning money.

Employees look for meaning and advancement in their work, and they can only find this if they are given the chance to exercise their talents. This is precisely what servant-leaders do: they serve their employees. In the process, they improve standards, thereby serving clients too.

In the bigger view, they are also serving the world, the shareholders and themselves. This is a path that one can also take in the opposite direction, and where there are different starting points.

There are many different ways to deal with culture differences. Within the power model, the leader usually follows his or her own path without looking back.

The other extreme is also possible: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. The latter is good in terms of being accepted by others in unfamiliar situations, but your own authenticity is lost in the process. In addition to that, the 'Romans' would see your behaviour as that of a second-rate actor.

There is also the more 'adult' alternative: the compromise. This seems to be the best solution by far. When you both want something else, you cannot both get what you want, so you both sacrifice something to a certain extent. In this way, you get a bit of what you wanted in the first place, and so does the other. Therefore, you will both be happy, right?

Well, in any case, neither of you will be completely satisfied because the sign of a compromise is that you meet each other halfway. This means that both parties have to give something up. The result is often presented as the best possible solution considering the options and, therefore, a win-win situation. In reality, however, it is a disguised loss.

Combining opposites

The service model, on the other hand, answers the problems by overcoming the opposites. While the power model follows the principle of divide and rule, the service model is defined by reconciliation. The idea that opposites exist to be combined, because that is the way in which you can best serve people, is a novel thought. That is why servant-leaders look not at what separates people, but rather at what brings them together.

According to servant-leaders, culture differences are not problems, they are chances; opportunities to create something together that is stronger than the two parts.

Instead of watering down your own point of view, you can enjoin the opposite to make it watertight, turning your disadvantages into an advantage for both.

This entire process can only occur when there is an atmosphere of mutual trust. This trust comes out of the understanding that, at the deepest level, there is a commonality that all people share.

Differences are a certainty, but it is better not to increase them unnecessarily. It is an art to bring out those things that unify, with an open mind and respect for cultural differences. Beneath every difference, there is a shared foundation: humanity. There is recognition at the deepest levels because all over the planet people have the same big questions: What is the purpose of life? How can I be happy? What is my purpose on this Earth?

The answers that people come up with in different cultures are determined historically and culturally. With this view, we are suddenly no longer dealing with insurmountable differences, but with different accents. This realisation is a productive basis for intercultural management, a solid foundation that can be built upon. When people have this frame of reference, reconciliation is within reach.

It was this kind of thinking that drove the merger between Dutch temp agencies Randstad and Vedior in 2008. During the integration they did not hire an expensive consulting company to come in and iron out the culture differences; instead organised 'get-togethers' where the employees were able to meet and get to know each other simply as people.

Instead of focusing on the large differences between the two organisations and giving employees tools to deal with the differences, people across the organisation were zooming in on the underlying foundation.

At every level and in every department, employees were invited to share their personal stories with their new colleagues. Meeting others for the first time via emotional lifelines, during which people shared the important moments in their lives with each other including past mistakes and painful memories, created a strong bond.

"People are people, regardless of their cultural background," explains Tex Gunning, then CEO of Vedior and believer in an interpersonal approach. "Focusing on what you share and the ways in which you resemble each other leads to a sense of connection, humanity and compassion.

"If you come together at the most fundamental levels, you will see each other eye-to-eye. That makes sustainable change possible."

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them