We often think that the autocratic, top-down leader is a mean person with bad intent. Hence, when it seems that a leader is nice and genuinely wants the good of the people he is leading, we can easily fall into the notion that he must therefore be a servant leader.
But this is actually incorrect. It failures to recognize what autocratic leadership really is and, conversely, what servant leadership really is.
Being an autocratic leader is not first about being mean, and being a servant leader is not first about being nice.
Rather, the difference lies in the way you view the scope of your authority.
The Heart of Servant Leadership: Recognizing Your Limited Authority
The essence of servant leadership is not being in charge but just being nice about it, but rather recognizing the limits of your authority and that people are capable of and deserving of being self-directed. The servant leader thus seeks to empower rather than control.
Autocratic leaders, on the other hand, think they have more authority than they really do. They don’t realize the limits of their authority. Further, they often think that as long as they seek to use their authority for good, that that is enough to make them a servant leader. But it is not, because to think you have more authority than you really do is, by definition, domineering — regardless of your intentions for how you will use that authority.
Here is an example from the world of government. Let’s say the US was a monarchy and we had a king. Now, let’s say the king decided that we could read certain books, but not others. Further, let’s say this king has good intentions in his decree. He sincerely believes that if people are able to read the books he has banned, it will harm them. He has issued his decree for the good of his people.
Is this monarch a servant leader, or a dictator?
He is a dictator, because he has exceeded the scope of his authority. It does not matter that his intentions are good; he is exerting authority in an area over which he does not have any. That makes him a dictator. He may be a benevolent dictator, but he is still a dictator.
From this we see that the essence of being a dictator lies not in your intentions, but in your whole approach to leadership — whether you accept the God-given limits on your power.
Though of course our nation has its problems, our democracy (republic) is a helpful example of institutionalized servant leadership. The president does not have unlimited authority over us; there are limits on his (or her!) power. Further, we believe that these limits aren’t simply chosen by convention, but arise from real natural rights that people have, and which not even government has the right to infringe.
The Corollary to Limited Authority: Respecting People’s Rights
This is the essence of servant leadership, and it applies to all areas of leadership, not just government — organizations, churches, non-profits, and everywhere else. The servant leader respects people’s rights. The servant leader recognizes that all humans are created in the image of God and thus have a certain right to self-direction over which the leader has no right to infringe.
The essence of servant leadership is to realize that having true intentions for the good of those you lead means respecting that reality about people. In other words, truly seeking the good of the people you lead means that you don’t simply have a good end in mind, but also good means in your leadership. And good “means” in leadership means leading in a way that acknowledges and fully respects people’s independence and initiative. It means you seek to therefore lead chiefly through influence and principles, not control.
This brings us back to the benevolent dictator. Though he may have had good intentions, his approach is not even going to have good results. It won’t have good results because it goes against people’s God-given rights. By failing to respect their autonomy, it fails to respect their judgment. It will therefore fail to develop mature individuals. It will create a dependency on him as the leader, rather than growing up people into maturity — which is the true aim of leadership.
I hope to blog on the difference between autocratic leadership and servant leadership more in the coming weeks. But from this, note at least this key point: if we think the essence of servant leadership is simply that the leader has good intentions, we have misunderstood the real nature of servant leadership. That is why autocratic leadership often goes undetected — we too easily think it simply means having bad intentions in leadership (or being mean) and have failed to realize that at its root, autocratic leadership is about leading chiefly from authority rather than influence.
Don’t fall into the benevolent authoritarian view of leadership. Realize that truly seeking the good of those you lead means seeking to lead through empowering them, not controlling them.