Is Your Boss a Counterfeit Servant Leader?

If you'd prefer to skip to The Bottom Line, please scroll all the way down. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the entire post.

In my book, The Transformative Leader, I go over 33 distinctions that set High Commitment Cultures (HCC’s) apart from the more traditional “command and control” cultures common to most workplaces. For the most part, because the contrasts are so stark, these distinctions are pretty intuitive and easy to grasp. However, I also introduce the idea of a “counterfeit HCC,” a workplace or organization which on the surface seems like it possesses the characteristics of an HCC, but if you dig just a little bit deeper you can see that it is just a façade. Counterintuitively, oftentimes the behaviors and mindsets that exist within such an organization turn out to be even more toxic than those in an organization which openly admits that they don’t care much about employee engagement and commitment. This post is intended to help you distinguish these types of leaders and develop some insight on what you can do to neutralize their power over the organization.

In exploring the distinctions between HCC’s and their opposites, I emphasize that most bosses, even the dictators who don’t understand or care about the inherent value of inclusion and engagement, are often smart enough not to blatantly exhibit behaviors that are clearly the opposite of how a Transformative Leader or a Servant Leader would behave. I refer to several counterfeit behaviors that bosses employ, intentionally or otherwise, to create and maintain a command and control culture while making it seem, on the surface, that they are indeed interested in being inclusive and empowering. I have met many of these so-called benevolent dictators during my 31-year professional career and I know of several more who are currently in positions of great power.

The first few interactions with the people who count on these benevolent dictators or counterfeit servant leaders generally reveals nothing but adoration and respect for their “leader.” If you know a thing or two about diagnosing leadership issues, however, and you dig a little deeper, it is not long before you uncover what is really going on. These so-called leaders have made it clear that as long as people agree with them and do as they say, they get to enjoy the benefits of being comfortable in the “safe zone” and perhaps enjoy a few perks as a result of falling in line. They have also been clear in their message, reinforced by their behavior, that the wrath of the boss is no respecter of persons and that no matter how loyal you have been and how much you have accomplished and so on, disagreeing with the boss is not going to be a good thing for you. This is because so-called benevolent dictators establish themselves as the authority on what is best for their organization, people, department, results and so on, regardless of what others think, and they are not afraid to reinforce their status with their officially or unofficially sanctioned administrative powers. The followers of such bosses have been trapped in the counterfeit definition of Servant Leadership, i.e. that the leader is the one who gets to be served, and have thus understandably reduced themselves to loyal servants who do as they are told, whether they think better of it or not, so as to avoid the wrath of the boss.

A note on terminology. Although I am using the term “benevolent dictator,” I really mean a dictator that masquerades as a benevolent leader as a strategic deception to gain more influence, rather than someone in charge who sincerely intends to do good but does so imperfectly. A parent could be described as a benevolent dictator of the latter kind, in that the child must do what they say even though the parent’s only aim is for the good of the child. This is not what I mean when I say benevolent dictator, or, more precisely a counterfeit servant leader. I mean the opposite, i.e. someone who puts on a show of doing what is good for others but in actuality is all about consolidating their own power and status. The fact is that a “benevolent dictator” is an oxymoron, because a dictator believes and behaves as if they know what is best for other people better than those people know what is best for themselves, and any endeavor founded on that basis, no matter how well-intentioned, is doomed to failure, violent or otherwise.

So, what is the difference between bald-faced dictators and counterfeit servant leaders and why would a dictator choose the latter path as opposed to the former? Let’s be clear, there is always a segment of the population in a society or an organization that is not fooled by their boss’ failed attempts at counterfeit servant leadership. These are the people who see right through the dictatorship, no matter what kind of package it comes in and they are often wondering why their friends and colleagues don’t seem to see the same thing they do. These friends and colleagues are the very reason the “benevolent” dictators take the path that they take. I believe every one of these seemingly dictators dreams of one day not having to put up the charade of benevolence and instead be free to act on their every whim and caprice. These are people who think they have all the answers, fueled either by astounding ignorance or spectacular arrogance, and are used to getting their way. They consider whatever they say to be the truth and if they want your opinion, they will give it to you! Some of these types of people have the boldness and wherewithal to act on this notion and declare themselves the dictator and openly diminish the power of any institution or policy that is put in place as a check and balance. There are countries around the world that are ruled by such leaders who make no bones about having the ultimate power. The benevolent dictators, on the other hand, are the ones who, for whatever reason, have not yet mustered the courage or don’t feel like they would have adequate power to come out as a dictator and for this reason, they take the sneaky route that involves appearing as if they are indeed inclusive and interested in listening to people, while secretly acting opposite to this façade. Net, there are two reasons why dictators choose the benevolent dictator route: 1. Because they have figured out that being a counterfeit servant leader fools a lot more people whereas just being a plain dictator invites a lot more resistance than they can handle; 2. They have a narcissistic need to be liked and admired and they convince themselves that they are actually working in the best interest of others and are just unfairly criticized or misunderstood.

The presence of the benevolent dictators in organizations is most prevalent, in my experience, in organizations where the top leaders have chosen to break with the past traditions and take a more inclusive and engaging approach, that is, where there is a top-down desire to transform the culture. This leaves mid-tier bosses in positions of high influence in a difficult situation, because they are accustomed to managing with an iron fist but are fearful of alienating themselves from their own higher-ups, and so they choose to make it seem like they are aligned with the transformation when, in fact, they are still using strong-arm tactics behind the scenes and preventing it from getting out. I must say, I have much more respect for those who are courageous enough to be straight and push back on the idea of Servant Leadership. These people have enough integrity to declare their true position and deal with the consequences of doing so. I have seen many of them choose to leave the organization and a few who have been asked to do so, but I have also seen many of these same people eventually become strong advocates of organizational transformations because, through direct and honest dialogue, they were able to address their concerns and see the merits of the new approach. The counterfeit servant leaders, on the other hand are a far worse liability as they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, whose continued presence in the organization and unwillingness to engage in authentic dialogue over their concerns does nothing but undermine its integrity and its ability to sustain a cultural transformation.

Some of the other ways in which the three types of leaders are distinct from each other is as follows:

The best way to neutralize a counterfeit servant leader is to first realize what they are attempting to do and then force their hand and have them show their true colors so others can see who they really are. This is not likely to happen within counterfeit leader’s small circle because those people anticipate way too many personal benefits in maintaining the status quo vs. challenging it. They hope to ride the person’s coattails to fame and fortune (or at least a few promotions and a big office and the ability to make big decisions they are probably not qualified to make). The movement is also not likely to go very far as long as those who clearly see the person as the dictator that he/she is are the only ones pushing back. After all, they are perceived by the members of the counterfeit leader’s “team” as the ones who just don’t get it. As long as they are in the minority, their motives for challenging the leader’s ways are questioned and their attempts at exposing the truth often don’t get enough traction until such time as key figures within the counterfeit leader’s inner circle choose to take action. These are the ones who could potentially follow the leader and reap some benefit, but choose not to do so, either out of personal conviction or commitment to something beyond their own interests or even perceived slights by the counterfeit leader. They are often the ones in organizations and in societies who make the difference in shedding light on what is really going on and forcing the counterfeit leaders to either genuinely change their ways or risk being exposed and ousted as for their shady tactics.

As I watched the movie Selma for the second time last week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the important role that the white people who lent their support to the civil rights movement played in bringing attention to the atrocities that were being committed against blacks. These people weren’t directly or immediately affected by the negative implications of segregation and racism and yet they chose to stand up for those who were. They chose not to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the pleas for justice and equality, and they were the ones who caused the nation to take notice that this was not just a black people problem but a human being problem. I’m not suggesting, by any stretch of imagination, that that particular movement has succeeded, as its work is never ending and must ever continue, but I use this example to highlight the importance of empathy and action on the part of those who are not necessarily affected by a “benevolent” dictator’s current policies. People like this act first of all because they know that one day it could be their turn, and secondly and most importantly, because even if that is never the case, they are simply not going to stand by and let their organization or their society be ruled by those who merely pay lip service to what is in the best interest of the people, while ignoring those very same people when they point out that something actually isn’t in their best interest.

The same plays out in organizations. With the exception of those in the benevolent dictator’s small circle, who are blinded by the prospects of power or fortune and fame, everybody else generally knows that the leader who pretends to be inclusive and empowering is really not that way, but most choose to remain silent and let it play out, and hence become part of the problem, either because they also agree with the leader’s perspective or because they suffer from a case of Acute Lack of Empathy (ALOE), as I call it. Many of them gradually compromise their values and not even notice that it is happening. To everybody else, it is clear that they have changed, but to themselves they are the same person they were yesterday and the day before that. They are like that frog in a pot of water on the stove, who thinks he is in a hot tub until he realizes when it is too late to jump out, that he is now a pot of frog soup.


The Bottom Line:

The opposite of Servant Leadership is dictatorship, but many dictators choose the option of showing up as a counterfeit servant leader instead. That is, they pretend on the outside to subscribe to ideals of inclusion and engagement and service while holding fast to the ideas that they are better than everybody else and that the world would be a better place if everybody just did what they said without questions. The people who look to these seemingly benevolent dictators to leadership come to settle for following the boss’ lead just to stay out of trouble and never truly own their power to create and contribute in the way that they are capable of. If you suspect you are being led or managed by one of these benevolent dictators, the best thing you can do it to become aware of what is really going on rather than just being a willing “cult member” who helps perpetuate a culture where the privileged few determine what is best for the whole organization, and where others are denied their opportunity to show up as the Transformative Leaders that they are.