Switching From Servant to ‘Noble-Purpose’ Leadership

Servant leadership has led to a more compassionate work environment but has come at a cost for leaders: burnout. Two coauthors offer an alternate model, in which leaders and their teams take a more shared responsibility for creating greater good.

Author: Michelle Russell       

compass with blur arrow pointing north

In noble-purpose leadership, you’re in a role to make an impact, write authors Lisa Earle McLeod (left) and Elizabeth Lotardo.

More than 50 years ago, Robert Greenleaf wrote an essay about servant leadership, an other-centered management approach that has picked up steam in the past few years — a welcome departure from the traditional command-and-control leadership model at many organizations, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article. We wrote about servant leadership in 2018 and a related managerial style — leading teams with empathy — more recently.

two headshots of women

Lisa Earle McLeod (left) and Elizabeth Lotardo have updated Selling With Noble Purpose and added case studies to the book.

As the HBR article highlights, the idea of putting your team’s needs ahead of your own creates a more compassionate, human-centered workplace culture. But it has downside: It can easily lead to burnout. The authors of the HBR article, Lisa Earle McLeod and Elizabeth Lotardo cowrote the book Selling With Noble Purpose (first published in 2012 and now in a second edition with case studies) and they outline their more impact-driven philosophy of “noble-purpose leadership” from the new book and in their consulting practice in the article.

Their approach is meant to unite leaders and teammates in the pursuit of a shared goal — a cause bigger than themselves — that positively impacts their stakeholders. “In servant leadership,” they write, “the message is: You’re in your role to serve others, making it tempting to focus on pleasing others and difficult to say no. In noble-purpose leadership, the message is: You’re in a role to make an impact. This requires more strategic thinking in terms of where to place your efforts.”

McLeod and Lotardo share three areas where team leaders can focus their efforts:

  1. Employee interactions — Tweak the servant leader–style question to team members from “What can I do to help?” to “What do you need to be successful in accomplishing our goal?” “This small language change reframes the emotional dynamic,” the authors write, because it creates a sense of a shared responsibility rather than placing the responsibility entirely on the leader to support them.
  2. Decision-making — “When a leader frames their decisions solely through the lens of trying to be as helpful and supportive to their constituents as possible, it’s a recipe for burnout,” McLeod and Lotardo write. “At worst, it breeds entitlement, where employees think the leader’s job is to do nothing but to make them happy.” Instead, the authors suggest, leaders can frame their decisions around purpose. Rather than asking, “How do you feel about this? Does this work for you?” Leaders can ask: “What impact will this have? How will this affect our people or our customers?”
  3. Coaching — The authors recommend that, instead of managers asking themselves who on their team needs the most coaching, they should ask themselves where their coaching time will have the greatest impact. In other words, they write, “Who is the most coachable? Who learns quickly? Who has the most at stake with their customers?”After a program the authors ran for a group of sales managers in the hospitality industry, the managers began to spend more of their time coaching their high and mid-performers. They didn’t ignore the bottom tier but directed lower performers to “own more of their learning” with on-demand courses or self-study, they write.

The results? The high performers and mid-performers improved. The low performers did one of three things: worked their way to a higher level of performance; stayed the course, meaning they made the same marginal improvements as when they were taking up coaching time; or they left the organization when faced with the task of taking more ownership in their own development.

The noble-purpose leadership approach seems likely to be more appealing to Gen Z workers as well, although this was not directly stated in the HBR article. But in a recent article in The Washington Post, Julie Lee, director of technology and mental health at Harvard Alumni for Mental Health, said that Gen Z is looking for “meaningful work with a sense of autonomy and flexibility” as well as a workplace that puts a premium on collaboration. In other words, they need to feel they are contributing to making a positive impact, are given the tools to succeed as well as access to collaboration with team members rather than straightforward coaching.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.