Is servant leadership really the right name?

I’ve been interviewing for a few engineering manager roles and I’ve been thinking a lot more about the idea of servant leadership lately. I get that the idea is beginning to gain some traction, but I wonder if “servant” and “leadership” are really words that can go together.

I do think the concept itself is great, of course - we really don’t have enough leaders who think their role is to serve their team members instead of commanding them. That’s admirable, and certainly can use more acceptance among leaders.

But is that really their primary role? Let’s face it - the leader owes their primary allegiance to the organization they’re part of, not individual team members. There might come a time the leader needs to take the difficult decision of letting a team member go, for any number of reasons. Does the word “servant leader” really sound honest here?

Being a leader means sooner or later they have to take difficult decisions, which might not immediately seem palatable to the team. They’ll have to read the riot act eventually to tide the organization over a difficult phase that’s not necessarily the fault of the team itself. Can servants really displease their masters and survive long?

Don’t get me wrong, I like all the ideas that encompass the typical servant leadership vocabulary - empathy, humility, mentorship, etc. But I think it’s a bit disingenuous to call yourself a “servant” when you have the authority to fire someone if they fail to perform to your expectations.

Perhaps calling it “empathic leadership” is enough. The idea being that while a leader will certainly do everything in their power to fix the issues affecting your performance and satisfaction at the job, they are certainly not beholden to your expectations and are quite likely to take decisions that you might not personally agree with, in the interests of the organization they serve. I think that’s a much more honest picture of a good leader.