I want to begin to discuss Servant Leadership, but before I get to this important modern philosophy, I need to begin by talking the oldest and most prominent type of leadership called “autocratic” leadership.

It is based on a false premise that productive management must be “autocratic” in order to be effective and get things done. To support this approach, hierarchies must be constructed, and people must be controlled at virtually every level. 

So, to prepare us to understand and appreciate servant leadership, let’s first discuss the history, traits, and consequences of autocratic leadership.

Historically, almost all leaders have been autocratic, meaning self-power, “a system of government in which absolute power over a state is concentrated in the hands of one person.” This is the most ancient and common form of leadership known throughout history. Beginning at the dawn of humanity and continuing today, its influence still governs the majority of citizens and organizations on earth. One of the least desirable traits of “human nature” is the primal yearning by many to control, to command, and to dominate others.  

Certain individuals have always arisen to assume positions of leadership among others and the overwhelming majority have been autocratic. 

Again, this is type of leadership is demonstrated by a “command and control” philosophy that seeks to achieve only the leader’s personal goals.

Those at the top of the pyramid believe themselves to be superior, and the most talented. They build an institution that rewards their supporters and the compliant while punishing those who resist the autocrat.

In history, governments and military institutions have gravitated toward this type of “top-down” authoritarian leadership. This philosophical approach has typically viewed followers simply as individuals to be restrained, manipulated, and often “disposable” in order to achieve the leader’s purposes. 

Now don’t be misled. There are many governments and other organizations who are “autocratic” while putting on a façade, or veneer, of accountability for the autocrat that doesn’t really exist. They may have so-called parliaments, or dumas, or a people’s assembly composed of sycophants who solely exist to endorse whatever the leader dictates. They may even have sham elections that allow their supporters to voice their acceptance of tyrant.

The truth is that though these governments or organizations paint on a semblance of accountability, 95% of the population lives in fear, constant control, and manipulation. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, known as North Korea. 

There are many businesses with so-called “Boards of Directors” who operate the same way. There is virtually no concern about the individual needs of followers. 

The reward offered to followers is continued survival, and possible advancement within the hierarchy “if” absolute loyalty is demonstrated.

With this historical background, it is no surprise that an autocratic leadership approach was naturally followed during the birth of the Industrial Revolution beginning around the year 1760. The changes brought by the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century overturned not only traditional economies, but also whole societies. 

These economic changes caused far-reaching social changes, including the mass movement of people to cities, and new ways of working. The Industrial Revolution was the first step in the modern economic growth and development we still experience today. 

If you were an entrepreneur opening a new factory during the Industrial Revolution, what kinds of leadership would you see modeled for you in society? You would see the British government. It was autocratic and hierarchal. You would see the British military. It too was autocratic and hierarchal.
You would see the Church of England. It too was autocratic and hierarchal. Finally, education and family structure were also autocratic and hierarchal. 

There were a small number of business reformers like Robert Owen but they were few and far between. So, it should be no surprise that the standard business model was, and has continued to be, autocratic and hierarchal.  Other changes in society seemed to justify this autocratic approach. 

As the Industrial Revolution began, workers living in the cities and arriving from rural farms were often uneducated and unskilled for this new kind of production labor. 

Work conditions were crude and the daily work hours demanded of them were oppressive. Unlike the farm, strict “start and stop” time requirements were demanded with no off-season.

However, work was scarce, and even meager wages could make the difference between survival or starvation in a nation where there was no social safety-net. The emerging class of powerful business leaders viewed these workers as basically ignorant, lazy, and undisciplined.

Organizational leaders felt they must control and rigidly supervise all workers to maintain high levels of production. Business owners viewed themselves as paternalistic “father figures” who needed to dominate their “worker children.” Workers who did not completely yield or conform to the owner’s dictates were immediately terminated.

As a personal anecdote, one of my first jobs in the early 1970’s was working for a successful electrical contractor in Cleveland, Ohio. The owner was an energetic man with one finger missing on his right hand. I asked him how he lost his finger? He told me that in the 1950’s he was an electrician in a coal mine in Pennsylvania. It was common to have a dangerous high-voltage line in the mines to operate machinery and provide power. One day he got too close and touched this high-voltage line, and though his life was spared, the voltage surge burned off his finger.

So what do you think happened? Was he provided with health care? Was he given some paid time to heal, or maybe given a weeks’ vacation?
No, he was immediately terminated.  After all, he was told, “what good is a four-fingered electrician.”

For over 200 years the general approach of leadership was hierarchal and authoritarian. This began to change in the latter part of the twentieth century. Democratic institutions brought about greater choices for workers. They began to have more control over their own lives.

Public education created a more educated workforce with the knowledge and skills to compete for better jobs and opportunities. Social safety-nets were created including offering unemployment benefits. 

Workers along with our Western culture began to reject dictatorial hierarchal organizations and the treatment they received from them. In the later part of the 20th century another type of an ancient leadership philosophy began to be studied and promoted by consultants, and a new generation of business owners who wanted change. This philosophy is called servant leadership, or stewardship, and we will discuss it in greater detail next time.

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This is Greg Thomas on behalf of Leadership Excellence Ltd. reminding you that it was Tom Peters who wrote, “ “The magic formula that successful businesses have discovered is to treat customers like guests and employees like people.”

If your organization or management team displays autocratic leadership, we can help! See our organizational training programs here!

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