Serving the need of people: the case for servant leadership against populism

Milton Sousa, Dirk van Dierendonck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


This article provides a contrasting perspective between populist and servant leadership. We propose four key differences based on distinct views on people centricity, the role of the people in the leadership process, the problem solving approach and the preferred leader role. Given the key function that meaning plays in leadership discourse, in particular during times of uncertainty and change, we further propose that populist leaders make use of simplistic meaning-making systems that emphasize monistic and over-simplified views around polarized options, while servant leaders in contrast use complex meaning-making systems that emphasize pluralist and reconciled views towards shared problem solving. Considering that populist leadership often makes references to serving, humility and self-sacrifice in defence of the people, we find it important to distinguish it from servant leadership. We advance, in fact, that servant leaders can function as an antidote to populism, being a genuine people centred approach with a reconciliatory and pluralist view and an adequate (but surely not perfect) response to many of our societal problems. MAD statement: Populism is on the rise, even in well-established democracies. Driven by galloping inequality, technological disruption, growing migration, and a resurge of nationalistic sentiments, populist leaders seem to strive on an overall feeling of insecurity and resentment. The recent COVID19 crisis has contributed to this trend. Populist speeches are often infused with an apparent motivation to serve the people and leader self-sacrifice. In this article we want to dispel this apparent similarity with servant leadership and expose the contrast between the two. By doing that we aim to contribute to a better understanding of servant and populist leadership processes and to enable people to distinguish more easily between the two in real life contexts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)222-241
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Change Management
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • meaning
  • paradox
  • people centricity
  • pluralism
  • populist leadership
  • Servant leadership


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