A friend of mine recently posted a feminist critique of servant-leadership by Deborah Eicher-Catt, which I had read once before as a way to see what different perspectives were out there about a mode of leadership which tends to have as many different definitions as there are voices in the room. In short, the author critiques servant-leadership as highly binary, highly masculine, and mythical. From the abstract:
In this paper, I offer a feminist interpretation of S-L based upon a semiotic analysis of the gendered language and discourse that constitutes it. First, I describe the essential dimensions of S-L that articulate it as innocent speech. Second, by carefully reviewing its rhetorical language, I expose its gendered connotations. We find that the apposition of “servant” with “leader” instantiates paradoxical language games that do not neutralize gender bias but accentuate it. Third, at the level of discourse, I argue that the form of S-L operates, essentially, as a myth. My analysis reveals that S-L perpetuates a mythical theology of leadership for organizational life that upholds androcentric patriarchal norms. (accessed 7/23/16)
Hearing this stance brought to mind an activity the Gabriel Center leads with almost any group or individual we encounter, a simple word association exercise with the separate words “servant” and “leader” – what do you think of when you hear or see these words? We create a chart with two columns, one for each word, and write down the group’s associations. It is always fascinating to see words that might end up on both lists, like “worker” or “humble”. There is often a blurring of the columns, when leader is servant and servant is leader. It’s not a simple binary.
And while many voices in the field of servant-leadership are masculine, there are many feminine voices, too. Again, it’s not a simple binary.
From my perspective, servant-leadership opens up space for equality and diversity of every kind. Every voice is heard and every perspective valued.
I valued reading my friend’s post, for it challenges my own assumptions about servant-leadership and helps me articulate what I do believe, which, put simply, is that there is space for all.
President, The Gabriel Center for Servant-Leadership