I coined the term “serpent leadership” in contrast to the popular term “servant leadership”.

The term “servant leadership” was popularised by Robert K. Greenleaf in the 1970s. According to him, servant leadership is about helping your team-mates succeed by encouraging and motivating them to do their best, valuing everyone’s opinions, feedback and criticisms. It is about creating a conducive environment where ideas and dreams can be realised. A servant leader is seen and respected as a coach and a mentor.

A serpent leader is the antithesis of a servant leader. The boss who rants and raves, and vents his anger at his subordinates and team members, is the embodiment of serpent leadership; he is also one who throws things in anger, bangs the table, shouts and threatens his subordinates with termination.

Here are five traits that differentiate a serpent leader from a servant leader:

Undermines trust in the team

A servant leader cultivates and builds a high level of trust in his team, which forms the foundation for better and more effective communication and deeper understanding between team members, driving effective and efficient collaboration between team members.

In contrast, a serpent leader undermines trust and damages relationships within his team. He consistently drives a wedge between team members causing conflict and distrust. 

No concern for colleagues

A servant leader demonstrates a genuine care and concern for his team members that goes beyond the work environment. He is concerned about the members’ well-being and welfare, and their work and personal lives.

In contrast, a serpent leader cares only for himself and his own interests and personal goals. Serpent leaders are perceived as insincere, selfish and untrustworthy. 

Belittles others

A servant leader is one who treats others with respect and humility, and is authentic in his interactions with others. A servant leader encourages and motivates others to perform at their best.

A serpent leader believes that only his opinions matter. To him, life is all about power, titles and positions and he demeans and devalues the contribution of others by spitting verbal venom at them. 

Does not value others’ opinions

A servant leader values and solicits opinions from everyone on the team. He actively creates an environment where team members can talk and share openly. He strives to eliminate fear from the team environment.

A serpent leader creates a toxic environment by instilling fear within the team that discourages others to speak openly, and demands that things get done the way he wants. It is his way or the highway. 

Hogs the leadership limelight

A servant leader actively develops others to become leaders, and one of the ways he does this is to exemplify the behaviours of a good leader. He is constantly looking out for opportunities to let others lead and develop their leadership skills. A servant leader is seen both as a coach and a mentor.

A serpent leader is one who hogs the leadership limelight, constantly seeks to be at the centre of attention and takes credit for all the work done. He does not believe in developing others and will find ways to discourage other team members from taking the lead.

Serpent leadership, with its top-down, autocratic, command-and-control style, has no place in today’s complex and fast-changing world. True leadership is all about creating leaders and bringing out the best in the people you work with, and harnessing their collective knowledge, experience and passion. We should all aspire to become servant leaders, not serpent leaders.


Article by Steven Lock, a high-performance strategist of FutureTHINK!, a training and consultancy firm, and the author of Hiring for Performance: The CAAP® Model to Hiring and Building High-Performance Teams. For more information, visit www.futurethink.com.sg