Servant Leadership or Plural Leadership?

blog leader leadership lemon leadership lemonpreneur Jun 05, 2024

What's essential in an age of widely distributed knowledge?

Servant leadership is good: it encourages positive traits such as humility, empathy and putting others first. Perhaps it has been partly responsible for overcoming the “because I’m the boss” mentality of decades past. But is it enough? What if we have servant leaders, but they operate in the wrong leadership structure? What if their adopted leadership models are faulty?

I have been working with senior leaders for decades; I designed an Executive Information System (EIS) for the CEO of a major international oil company in 1981 and went on to work on shaping such solutions for the next decade. I started an EIS practice for Price Waterhouse in San Francisco, then moved to KPMG where we did a joint venture with Apple called KPMG-Exis. Information was distilled as it flowed upwards, shaped into graphics and syntheses that matched how the top leader was wired. One of the challenges, however, was we only had two categories of leaders: Entrepreneurs and Managers.

There was a greater truth somewhat lost in the shadows: the metanoic organization was discussed in the early 1980s as being an organization with a different leadership construct. I was teaching an executive course at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate School of Business in the early 1980s and my co-lecturer shared about the metanoic organization which he described as one with a cohort of leaders, each with their own gifts, passing the leadership baton depending on what was needed at the time. The metanoic organization was focused on vision, the future it could create, and purpose. After the lecture I told him, “I know an organization like the metanoic organization you describe.” His eyes lit up. “It is the local church where I am involved in leadership.” His eyes glazed over in disbelief. Since he was a man of the Jewish faith, however, he should have known better.

Plural Leadership is old

“There is nothing new under the sun.” The concept of plural leadership gets lost among big leadership names like Abraham, Moses and David but, in truth, the ancient Hebrew culture had a clear understanding of the group where a quorum, or minyan, was 10 adults. You needed a minyan to perform certain religious and societal functions. There was an old saying, "nine rabbis do not constitute a minyan, but ten cobblers can".   

Today we need to embrace plurality of leadership more than ever since knowledge is spread so widely to so many. (My grandchildren know more about many topics than I do; my adult children are way more accomplished in areas I know little about.) The concept of the person “at the top” being the smartest person in the room is patently outdated... but it has been outdated for centuries. To embrace the old-new (or the new-old) we will need to break the mold on current leadership constraints. Servant leadership doesn’t do it because being a servant speaks to the heart of the leader but the generally accepted construct of leaderships still says, “there are only two types of leaders: Entrepreneurs and Managers.”

Tsinghua University, Beijing

I was invited by a professor from UC Berkley to accompany him to China to speak on leadership at the renowned Tsinghua University. I sat in on his lecture the night before I was to address the masters and doctoral students. “There are two types of leaders,” he shared the party line, “Entrepreneurs and Managers.” The next evening I broke the news to them: there are five types of leaders, Luminaries, Entrepreneurs, Managers, Organizers and Networkers... LEMON.

The genesis of LEMON Leadership was the result of a failed project which The Institute attempted with a university in Hawaii. They had a team of experienced and ethical leaders, and we had a shared vision and clear set of goals of creating a leadership center strategically located in the Pacific region. Our attempt to establish the leadership center together failed for many reasons. What was confusing, however, was the completely different recall about facts, events and agreements. I could not conclude that people were lying or being devious. I eventually came to realize that my framework of two leadership types—entrepreneurs and managers—was 60% short of reality. There were types of leaders in the mix that were simply not in the books. Historically those who were not either managers or entrepreneurs were not leaders—they were, by default, followers. This fallacy wrote off more than 50% of leaders who ended up being servants to “leaders,” even servants to servant leaders! Only when the missing slices of leadership were identified did things make sense. I recognized two or three leaders were Luminaries with a view of reality that differed radically from others. Then there were Organizers who got into the weeds and tackled practicalities quickly, while Networkers worked, and sometimes overly protected their web of contacts. (In the US we call it their Rolodex.) I began to see how all five categories were distinct:

  • They defined work differently

  • Their strengths and weaknesses were valued and understood

  • The language they spoke and how they heard conversations became clearer

  • Their efforts were better appreciated, and

  • The vision each leadership type embraced and articulated was seen as adding to the overall picture.

You will note that “visionary” is not a type of leader. Having a vision is innate for all leadership types, but the leadership thrillers tend to focus on the vision of Luminaries and Entrepreneurs more than the vision of Managers, Organizers and Networkers.

LEMON Leadership

By now I had identified the five types of leaders that conveniently formed an acrostic, LEMON. LEMON Leadership categorizes leaders into five types:

  • Luminary: idea-driven, innovative, and inspirational.

  • Entrepreneur: Risk-taking, opportunity-seeking, and initiative-driven.

  • Manager: Efficiency-focused, structured, and optimization-oriented.

  • Organizer: Problem-finding, solution-oriented, and systems-focused.

  • Networker: Relationship-building, collaborative, and resource-connecting.

Organizations need all five types of leaders to be recognized, valued and included in decision-making. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in or what type of organization you are leading, all five slices of the LEMON are essential. Yet I regularly work with teams that have slices missing. Just this week I profiled a leadership team bereft of any Entrepreneurs (see pie chart on the right) and fairly skewed compared to global averages.

It is true that different industries can afford a different weighting of leadership types, yet every organization should identify and analyze the gaps between the current leadership types within an organization and the desired leadership capabilities given their purpose.

Leader, or stressor?

Max Du Pree famously said, “Leaders don’t inflict pain—they share pain.”  Yet a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey in 2020 found that “84%  U.S. workers say poorly trained managers create a lot of unnecessary work and stress.”  A DDI study in 2024 found that 57% of people quit their jobs because of their boss and frustration with their manager. The remedy prescribed was “Management training,” but it is not the answer; leadership identity is. Why?

Insecure leaders are the curse of the modern workforce. Many people are promoted into management with high technical proficiency and little leadership experience. In addition, the marvel of modern corporations has taught them that your function and title determine your effectiveness when, in actuality people lead from their identity. If leaders don’t know who they are—if they don’t understand and embrace how they are wired—they will be insecure. Insecurity leads to a long list of abhorrent behaviors on both the “being too soft” and “being critical and judgmental” side. We must settle our identity as individuals; then we must understand our team. How do we do this?

Leadership Gap Assessment

An individual can easily take the online LEMON Leadership Assessment and digest their learnings. This provides an individualized report highlighting ones primary and secondary slices. Reading the book won’t hurt. If you lead a team or are part of a team the magic happens in the group assessment.

Group Leadership Assessment:

The LEMON Leadership Group Assessment informs a comprehensive assessment of current leaders in the organization, identifying their dominant leadership types and their secondary slices. Broad gaps are highlighted and sets the table for exploring new possibilities for the team.

1. Luminary:

  • Current Status: Identify which leaders focus on intellectual capital, frameworks and foundational truths.

  • Gap Analysis: Surface the propensity towards innovative thinking and long-term imagining.

2. Entrepreneur:

  • Current Status: Identify those leaders who are risk-takers and opportunity-seekers,  adept at gathering needed resources.

  • Gap Analysis: Assess the organization’s appetite for collaborative innovation and new ventures.

3. Manager:

  • Current Status: Assess which leaders are focused on efficiency and structure, adept at building organizational capital.

  • Gap Analysis: Identify areas where the current team has a lower-than-needed organizational quotient.

4. Organizer:

  • Current Status: Determine which leaders excel in instinctively identifying problems and coming up with quick solutions.

  • Gap Analysis: Evaluate the need for more rapid responses to problem-solving and system improvements.

5. Networker:

  • Current Status: Evaluate the number of leaders who excel in building relationships, fostering collaboration and building relational capital.

  • Gap Analysis: Assess the organization’s possible deficiencies in internal and external networking, marketing and partnering.

Desired Leadership Profile:

Define the ideal mix of leadership types required to meet the organization’s strategic goals. This profile should blend all five LEMON leadership types according to the unique purposes and challenges of the organization. Remember, while there are no bad leadership profiles at the individual level, the alchemy of leaders at the team level often goes awry.

Action Plan:

The Leadership Gap Assessment should lead to a tailored plan based on your organization’s particular situation. Elements of the plan may include:

  1. Retooling leader communications: you cannot change how you’re wired, but you can change how you communicate.

  2. Decision-making: crystalizing a decision-making process that cuts through the clutter of egos, personalities and protocols.

  3. Hiring Strategy: Adjust hiring practices (and straighten out LEMON biases) to attract diverse leadership types that fill the identified gaps.

  4. Training and Development: Create tailored development programs for each leadership type to address specific gaps.

  5. Mentorship and Coaching: Implement mentorship programs where experienced leaders can guide those needing development in specific areas.

  6. Performance Metrics: Revamping metrics to correlate with the desired leadership mix; regularly review and adjust as needed.

  7. Culture Enhancement: Foster a culture that values and integrates all five leadership types, encouraging collaboration and mutual respect.


By systematically identifying and addressing gaps in leadership types using the LEMON Leadership framework, organizations can create a more balanced, effective, and adaptable leadership team capable of driving success and innovation. The blight of insecure leaders wreaking havoc on their colleagues could be addressed resulting in improved mental health.

Finally, servant leaders will be more likely to make the adaptations necessary to embrace LEMON Leadership because they have their ego in check and are willing to seek the good of the whole above their own agenda. With a proper understanding of the essentials of plural leadership their servant leadership heart can have concomitant leadership hands and habits.



About the Author:

Brett Johnson the author of LEMON Leadership, LEMONpreneur, LEMON for Lovers and 17 other books. He is an expert in leadership development and organizational transformation. With a deep understanding of various leadership frameworks, Brett Johnson has helped numerous organizations build dynamic and effective leadership teams. Connect with Brett on LinkedIn for more insights on leadership and management.

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