Conscious Leadership vs. Servant Leadership: Why Do We Need Another Leadership “Flavor of the Month”?

Related to the disenchantment with corporate life that is driving people to leave, which I covered a couple of weeks ago, people are growing skeptical, if not cynical, that companies are actually capable of delivering on their promises of positive change in any meaningful way.

Words can be manipulative, cause division where they’re meant to cause unification, and seem pretty empty and meaningless when that’s the case. People are sick of initiatives with catchphrases that amount to nothing actually changing for the better. Change initiatives face enormous resistance, and if an organization uses an inauthentic tactic to execute change, it strengthens that resistance into an even larger obstacle. There’s no sense trying to get buy-in from people who have been duped before.

Some companies are legitimately trying, and their leaders have good intentions. They lack, however, the blueprint, consistency, trust, and/or tools to spread change to every level of their organization and turn that into its new identity. Not all of them can see their blind spots or identify vulnerabilities.

Other companies steamroll change, disregarding casualties and intimidating the survivors into submission…or else.

When starting my new Facebook and LinkedIn groups, I reached out to you for your input on potential names for the groups. The responses that I received demonstrated that people don’t want a new “flavor of the month” when it comes to leadership. It seems people are becoming resigned to anything really transforming systemically. Even if a company can achieve an internal transformation, it sometimes has to operate under a larger system of archaic values and profit models used by its vendors, regulators, shareholders, etc.

About 5 years ago, I was explaining to a client that the way he was describing his philosophy on leadership seemed to align with “servant leadership.” He talked about how he didn’t see himself as the authority. He considered his team members the subject matter experts and he viewed his job as making sure that they had what they needed to perform their best and deliver for the organization. Sometimes that looked like lobbying for new technology, sometimes it looked like fighting for extra bonuses or vacation time, and sometimes it looked like taking all of the blame and accountability for something that went wrong. In his past, it also looked like whistle-blowing against his employer and providing his leadership with a healthy dose of truth when it came to negotiating project scopes and timelines.

At the time, I saw servant leadership as the noblest kind of leadership to emerge. I loved the idea of an upside-down organizational chart where value is shifted to the frontline.

Servant leadership goes back to 1971 although it wasn’t necessarily in every corporate leader’s lexicon until Southwest Airlines brought it en vogue as a model. It then took several other pioneers to demonstrate that this style of leadership is responsible for dramatic performance and engagement improvements.

While Southwest continues to lead in culture and servant leadership, they may not qualify as a consciously led corporation. I read recently that their on-air water quality was among the poorest and contains high levels of E. coli bacteria (that’s the poop bacteria.) This might just be an overlooked facet of their procurement, but it could also be a symptom of leadership that is not fully considering the wellness of people and our planet at all levels of the organization. I’m not saying that they are absolutely not a conscious company, but I am distinguising between servant leadership and conscious leadership.

There is so much I would not refute about the value of servant leadership, but it’s not an end-all, be-all leadership model for 2020 and beyond. Like many “flavor of the month” terms that came before it, once a way of leading earns the spotlight, unconscious companies will come along and “borrow” it. They will make it their new manifesto and try to sprinkle it around to get people excited and re-engaged. They will do this, however, without a real concrete blueprint or training to imbue it into all leadership decisions and relationships at every level of the organization. So, transformation falls flat, the results it was intended to garner don’t last, and the community becomes skeptical of new initiatives. Future change becomes that much harder to execute and accept.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on why NOW is the critical time for conscious leadership to earn the spotlight and get adopted in corporate America.

While conscious leadership certainly shares values with servant leadership, such as authenticity, transparency, and empathy, there are a few key distinctions that augment servant leadership so that results are sustainable and profits don’t come at a cost to people or the planet.

One key difference is accountability. There is a risk in servant leadership that employees, whether engaged or not, will come to expect that a leader is there to create perfect conditions for performance. This nurtures entitlement. Perfect conditions are not always possible. While in conscious leadership, there is the acknowledgement that people perform better when they are supported, they are not supported at the cost of the customer, the growth that will lead to sustainable success, nor the environment. Instead, they lay out the short and long-term potential impacts of change to all potential populations with the input of subject matter experts. Then, they involve the most engaged people on their teams to devise a plan to do the most amount of good while causing the least amount of harm.

“But wait,” you say, “That’s not inclusive of disengaged employees, and how do you decide fairly who is engaged and who isn’t?”

You’re right! That’s why engagement framework comes along with the conscious leadership blueprint. It borrows from traditional engagement surveys, but it is determined by more than just an individual’s perception of his/her own engagement, which can be misrepresented. It includes, but is not exclusively determined by, how well employees meet KPIs. It also incorporates how well this person has aligned with the company’s mission, vision, and values as exhibited by their actions and multi-dimensional feedback. People are not penalized for being on a static track versus a growth track. People can still be engaged in their jobs while they allocate extra focus to other areas of their lives besides work. At times, it’s necessary.

In conscious leadership, leaders invest time in understanding, communicating, and learning how to circumnavigate or achieve their own areas of development. This brings the leader to a human, relatable level with his or her team(s) and demonstrates that being imperfect is okay. It encourages self-reflection as well as openness and honesty. How much of a servant can a leader be, after all, if they remain blind to the real challenges of team members?

Servant leaders are still susceptible to situational greed. It works like this: A leader does good and as a byproduct receives recognition, accolades, and compliments. This releases a flood of feel-good hormones and the brain says, “I want more!” So, with positive reinforcement, the leader continues to do good and continues to be praised. Also, keep in mind that with attention, accolades, praise, and prestige often come lucrative opportunities and chances to integrate with movers and shakers, which makes doing good even more intoxicating.

Now, the leader falls prey to someone promoting a high-prestige program as good that will get the leader even more accolades than before! At some point, the brain switches the motivation to do good from doing good to receiving accolades. This leader is essentially duped by an ill-intentioned leader preying upon this leader’s desire to do good. It turns out that the program was not good or mostly good. In fact, it hurt people. The leader failed to examine all facets of the program and perform conscious due diligence because he or she wanted the praise more than the reality that this program had major flaws and should not have happened.

This leader was a servant leader throughout this scenario – encouraging and supporting the team, giving others credit, doing everything possible to create conducive conditions to top performance. Yet, this leader was not a conscious leader.

A conscious leader would have used a conscious decision protocol to explore all of the known potential short-term and long-term impacts and, even at the risk of making an unpopular decision, would have led a team in deciding that the risk was not worth the reward. Personal gain would have been eliminated from the equation through a self-check that helps leaders recognize when they are operating from ego and switch to the higher self.

A conscious leader also recognizes value systems, belief systems, and methods without discrediting or disregarding other perceptions. That is not to say that a conscious leader has to make all parties happy or even be agreeable to other perspectives. It just means that the impacts on people as they report them are considered valid and are considered – even if in the end, the plan decided on does not accommodate them.

Like all leaders, in a pure definition of a leader as beings someone who creates and develops more leaders, conscious leaders see the development and growth of the team to be the best way to serve the most people and achieve the most good.

If you are interested in learning more about the Conscious Leader Blueprint for Leaders or the Consciousness Ripple Formula for Aspiring Leaders, join my new Raising Corporate Consciousness Facebook group. If you are a conscious leader looking to spread awareness of conscious corporate practices and discuss the challenges of widespread adoption, I invite you to join my new LinkedIn group, the Conscious Leadership Connection.

Karen Huller, author of Laser-sharp Career Focus: Pinpoint your Purpose and Passion in 30 Days (, is founder of Epic Careering, a 13-year-old leadership and career development firm specializing in executive branding and conscious culture, as well as JoMo Rising, LLC, a workflow gamification company that turns work into productive play. 

While the bulk of her 20 years of professional experience has been within the recruiting and employment industry, her publications, presentations, and coaching also draw from experience in personal development, performance, broadcasting, marketing, and sales. 

Karen was one of the first LinkedIn trainers and is known widely for her ability to identify and develop new trends in hiring and careering. She is a Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Certified Career Transition Consultant, and Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist with a Bachelor of Art in Communication Studies and Theater from Ursinus College and a minor in Creative Writing. Her blog was recognized as a top 100 career blog worldwide by Feedspot. 

She is an Adjunct Professor in Cabrini University’s Communications Department and previously was an Adjunct Professor of Career Management and Professional Development at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business  She is also an Instructor for the Young Entrepreneurs Academy where some of her students won the 2018 national competition, were named America’s Next Top Young Entrepreneurs, and won the 2019 People’s Choice Award. 

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