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Most examples explaining servant leadership are not just hard, but impossible to achieve. Take the example of Jesus Christ — an example way above human reach.
The bar has been set so high that aspiring servant leaders can easily be discouraged from taking the first step. Furthermore, the adjectives attached to the qualities of a true servant leader make the concept more of a utopian fantasy than an achievable reality.
It is pretty impractical for an individual to possess all these qualities, especially to the degree required to demonstrate authentic servant leadership. Worse, the list of qualities that an ideal servant leader must possess is becoming longer, with every new researcher identifying another quality.
Lack of clarity in the identity of the servant leader
So far, much of the debate and literature available on servant leadership has been theoretical. Much of the promoters’ conviction of servant leadership has been based on appeals to emotions and academic case studies.
Despite the enormous amount of discussion, very little evidence has been gathered through practical observation. This could partially be so because it is a relatively new research topic. Perhaps the proof of servant leadership is difficult or impossible to get and analyze, rendering the whole theory untestable. Either way, it is challenging to compare servant leadership to other extensively researched theories like transformational leadership.
Too much about servant leadership is generic, but not much about it is precise. Most literature uses attributes, characteristics and qualities to describe what a servant leader needs to do, how the leader needs to behave, how servant leadership can be illustrated — but not much on what servant leadership is.
There is a need to clearly define the term to help future theorists have something to build upon. More importantly, a definition will help future researchers and practitioners have a benchmark and evaluate the degree of success of the concept too.
Gender and too few examples
Most terms used to describe servant leadership in literature are masculine, despite the model advocating for a genderless approach to leadership. Servant leadership literature uses patriarchal connotations, yet the theory uses a masculine-feminine contrast to create an emotional appeal. Ironically, the theory of servant leadership tries to advocate for a fair and inclusive approach to leadership while at the same time underpinning privileged masculinity.
Servant leadership has a few examples of leaders that fall within its descriptions and even fewer organizations that practice it. Little research has been done to determine if it has been applied in organizations and whether it has achieved the desired results in the organizations.
The 21st century is driven by business and information. Without big multinational corporates embracing the concept, there will be reluctance from smaller organizations to do so. Also, more prominent organizations will not embrace the concept until the theory has been reliably tested and shown to deliver results.
Association with religion and the paradox
Most servant leadership literature indicates that servant leadership emerges from Judeo-Christian theology. This explains why some of those who have questioned the theory have also indirectly questioned Christianity as a religion. This is further reinforced by the numerous times Jesus Christ is portrayed as the ultimate symbolic leader of what an ideal servant leader should be. All this seems to make it difficult to critique the idea, and even worse, it has made it much more difficult for those who do not subscribe to Judeo-Christianity to embrace it wholeheartedly.
To compound the lack of an agreed definition, servant leadership is composed of two paradoxical words. Servant means to serve — someone who does some tasks to benefit a person, usually higher in status or rank. On the other hand, a leader is a person who directs and guides others towards a specific goal or vision. Hence, the act of being a servant while at the same time being a leader is an oxymoron as the two words have opposite colloquial meanings. Only a clear definition of the concept can clear this up.
Provision for resistance from followers
People are usually resistant to change, mainly when the status quo might be benefiting them in one way or the other. However, servant leadership does not consider the resistance that may come from the followers. Some followers may fail to reciprocate when there is less pressure, leading to failure in meeting their targets. The assumption that the leader’s goodwill is sufficient to make the model a success is unrealistic.
Finally, the theory does not specify if the attributes that help define servant leadership are supposed to be inborn or learned. Some learned qualities, like humility, do not come out as natural talents to many people — it is learned. Some attributes like persuasion could come naturally to some people and not to others. At the same time, the model does not specify which feature is required in what proportion, which one is a must-have and which one can be compromised or substituted.
In a nutshell, servant leadership seems like more of a populist, ideological and less of a pragmatic leadership style deployed to achieve desired goals. Still, much work remains to be done to make it a testable concept and one that can be practically implemented and monitored. In a competitive 21st century world, it would be a risky move to embrace an idea out of emotional appeal and gut feelings without relying on tested and measurable evidence.