Servant Leadership

Interestingly, these attitudes of selflessness are in short supply, despite the benefits that accrue to the leader, followers, and the larger organization. As you read this article, think about how philosophy, servant-leadership, and selflessness are linked. In what ways does a selfless leader benefit? Why do you think the number of leaders who follow this approach is so low?

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader's main focus is the thriving of their company or organizations. A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Servant leadership inverts the norm, which puts the customer service associates as a main priority. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people.

As stated by its founder, Robert K. Greenleaf, a servant leader should be focused on, "Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?" When leaders shift their mindset and serve first, they benefit as well as their employees in that their employees acquire personal growth, while the organization grows as well due to the employees growing commitment and engagement. Since this leadership style came about, a number of different organizations have adopted this style as their way of leadership.

According to a 2002 study done by Sen Sendjaya and James C Sarros, servant leadership is being practiced in some of the top-ranking companies, and these companies are highly ranked because of their leadership style and following. Further research also confirms that servant leaders lead others to go beyond the call of duty.



Before the modern fad for the concept of "leadership" emerged, the autocratic enlightened absolutist King Frederick II ("the Great") of Prussia (r. 1740–1786) famously portrayed himself as "the first servant of the state".

Robert K. Greenleaf first popularized the phrase "servant leadership" in "The Servant as Leader", an essay published in 1970. In this essay, Greenleaf explains how and why he came up with the idea of servant leadership, as well as defining a servant leader. Greenleaf gave this idea an extensive amount of thought before bringing it to life.

Larry Spears, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, stated in an interview: "Greenleaf credited his reading of Hesse's 1932 book, Journey to the East, as the personal source of inspiration in his coining the term, "servant leader" in his 1970 essay, 'The Servant as Leader.'"

In Journey to the East, the main character, named Leo, is a servant just like all the others. All the servants work well together, until one day when Leo disappears. When the servants realize that things aren't the same without Leo, they came to the realization that Leo was far more than a servant – he was actually their leader. In that same essay, Greenleaf quotes Hillary Clinton's 1969 commencement address.

Greenleaf came to the realization that a newfound leader should be someone that servants or workers can relate to. Leo was seen as a servant, but when the other servants realized that things fell apart without him, he became far more than just a servant to them. Hence Greenleaf's idea of what a servant leader should be. Greenleaf first put his idea of servant leadership to use in an organizational sense while he was working as an executive at AT&T.

Servant leadership entered the arena of research in 1998 with the publication of the first peer-reviewed servant leadership scale, and since then, over 270 peer-reviewed articles have been published across 122 academic journals. The year 2008 was a significant year in servant leadership research with the publication of two seminal papers by Sen Sendjaya, James C Sarros, and Joseph C Santora as well as Liden, Wayne, Zhao, and Henderson, and the first publications using Ehrhart's (2004) measure.


Greenleaf's Original Formulation

The most important characteristic in being a servant leader, according to Greenleaf, is making one's main priority to serve rather than to lead. According to Ginny Boyum, Greenleaf proposed that servant leaders should serve first, make the needs of others their main priority, and find success and "power" in the growth of others; summarily, "A servant can only become a leader if a leader remains a servant". In simpler terms, servant leaders should seek to be servants first, to care for the needs of all others around them, to ensure the growth of future leaders. These traits indicate one is a servant leader because, overall, they are causing the ones they serve to become healthier and wiser, guiding others toward self-improvement. Eventually, the served are driven to possess the traits of a servant leader as well, continuing the spread of the leadership style.

Greenleaf believed the betterment of others to be the true intention of a servant leader: I serve in opposition of the traditional I lead mentality. The I serve mentality is evident in politicians who define their role through public service. From the I serve mentality come two premises:

  • I serve because I am the leader, and
  • I am the leader because I serve

The first premise signifies the act of altruism. Altruism is defined as the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. Greenleaf declares that servant leadership begins with the natural feeling of wanting to serve first. The act of leadership is in the context of serving others and to serve others. Only through the act of serving does the leader lead other people to be what they are capable of. The second premise of servant leadership is "I am the leader because I serve". In other words, this begins with a rooted ambition to be a leader or the personal ambitions of a leader.

Greenleaf's definition left much room for speculation because it lacks specifics. Servant leadership is handled throughout the literature by many different dimensions. Servant leadership represents a model of leadership that is both inspirational and contains moral safeguards, and in their paper, Mulyadi Robin and Sen Sendjaya propose that servant leadership serves as a holistic paradigm for leadership as not only is it transformative and ethical, but also engages followers in workplace spirituality.

Despite several conceptual papers on the topic of servant leadership, there is no consensus on empirical research for the servant-leadership construct until a state-of-the-art review published in 2020 by Nathan Eva, Mulyadi Robin, Sen Sendjaya, Dirk van Dierendonck, and Robert C Liden in the Leadership Quarterly.


Formulations after Greenleaf 

Scales and Servant Leadership Extensions

Several researchers and leadership experts have created scales and dimensions to differentiate among the levels of servant leadership practices and evaluate servant leadership behaviors.

One major extension was Larry Spear's 10 characteristics of the servant leader. Similar to other leadership experts, Spears believed that servant leaders should have these 10 traits: empathy, listening, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.

Leadership experts such as Bolman, Deal, Covey, Fullan, Sergiovanni, and Heifitz also reference these characteristics as essential components of effective leadership. Likewise, Joe Iarocci, author of Servant Leadership in the Workplace, identifies three key priorities(developing people, building a trusting team, achieving results), three key principles (serve first, persuasion, empowerment), and three key practices (listening, delegating, connecting followers to the mission) that distinguish servant leadership in the workplace context.

Researchers Barbuto and Wheeler created a dimension called the natural desire to serve others, by combining the 10 characteristics of Spears. These researchers developed operational definitions and scales to measure 11 potential characteristics of servant leadership.

Factor analyses reduced this scale to five unique dimensions: altruistic calling (four items), emotional healing (four items), wisdom (five items), persuasive mapping (five items), and organizational stewardship (five items). This framework specified the fundamentals of servant leadership and was consistent with Greenleaf's original message. Among these five dimensions, altruistic calling is most aligned with ethics.

There are also researchers such as Russell and Stone who reviewed the literature and proposed nine "functional" attributes of servant leadership (vision, honesty, integrity, trust, service, modeling, pioneering, appreciation of others, and empowerment) and eleven "accompanying" attributes (communication, credibility, competence, stewardship, visibility, influence, persuasion, listening, encouragement, teaching, and delegation).

They also argued that the servant leader must be a teacher to develop their followers, and that values and core personal beliefs were the antecedents to servant leadership. Researcher Patterson also developed a more spiritual conceptualization of servant leadership around leader values including agapé love, humility, altruism, creating 21 visions for followers, being trusting, serving, and empowering their followers. This work was exploratory in nature. No confirmatory analysis was performed, no criterion was posited to establish validity, and convergent/divergent validity was not established.

Sendjaya, Eva, Butar-Butar, Robin, and Castles' (2019) six-item composite of the Servant Leadership Behavior Scale (SLBS-6) which uniquely contributes a spiritual dimension, a distinguishing feature that makes servant leadership a truly holistic leadership approach relative to other positive leadership approaches. The inclusion of spirituality faithfully reflects Greenleaf's (1977) initial, and Graham's (1991) theorizing, that servant leadership relies of spiritual insights and humility as its source of influence.


Thoughts on Servant Leadership and Further Definitions

In addition to some early definitions and distinct characteristics of Servant Leaders, researchers and leadership experts have used research to add on to these. James Sipe and Don Frick, in their book The Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership, state that servant-leaders are individuals of character, those who put people first, are skilled communicators, are compassionate collaborators, use foresight, are systems thinkers, and exercise moral authority.

Similarly, researcher N.D. Akuchie explored the religious and spiritual articulations of the servant leadership construct. Akuchie examined a single Bible passage related to servant leadership, just like the one mentioned in the opening of the essay. Akuchie suggested that the application of this lesson is for daily life. However, Akuchie did not, in any way, clarify servant leadership as distinct from other forms of leadership or articulate a framework for understanding servant leadership.

In their review of the servant leadership literature, Eva, Robin, Sendjaya, van Dierendonk and Liden argued that for research, servant leadership should be defined as "an (1) other-oriented approach to leadership (2) manifested through one-on-one prioritizing of follower individual needs and interests, (3) and outward reorienting of their concern for self towards concern for others within the organization and the larger community".

The authors proposed three key elements that capture the essence of servant leadership and set it apart from other leadership styles - namely the motive (the underlying personal motivation for taking up a leadership responsibility, requiring a strong sense of self, character, and psychological maturity), the mode (that they lead by prioritizing subordinates' needs above the organization's bottom line), and the mindset (that servant leaders are stewards who reorient their followers' focus towards others).

In essence, servant leadership comprises of the following: (1) someone or something other than the leader, (2) one-on-one interactions between leaders and followers, and (3) an overarching concern toward the wellbeing of the wider organizational stakeholders and the larger community.


Critiques of Servant Leadership

Various critiques of servant leadership have been made. In one such critique, Sendjaya and Sarros used the same Bible account as Akuchie, and made the claim that Jesus Christ, not Greenleaf, introduced the notion of servant leadership to everyday human endeavor. They argued that this leadership principle was so important to Christianity that it was captured by all four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). The researchers argued that servant leaders have a particular view of themselves as stewards who are entrusted to develop and empower followers to reach their fullest potential. However, Sendjaya and Sarros' research work did not propose a testable framework nor did this work distinguish between this and other leadership styles.

Feminist scholars have noted that servant leadership is based on patriarchal approaches to leadership, noting that leadership discourse, in general, is attributed to masculinity. Similarly, Black scholars have pointed out how notions of servants as being subjugated and mistreated is largely absent from servant leadership discourse. Black scholars also note that although Greenleaf attributes his ideas to Herman Hesse, Martin Luther King Jr. preached similar approaches and was a contemporary of Greenleaf in the United States, but King is never mentioned in any of Greenleaf's original works.

Researchers Farling, Stone, and Winston noted the lack of empirical evidence for servant leadership. The researchers presented servant leadership as a hierarchical model in a cyclical process. This consisted of behavioral (vision, service) and relational (influence, credibility, trust) components. However, this conceptualization made by these researchers did not differ from leadership theories such as transformational leadership. Researcher M.S. Polleys distinguished servant leadership from three predominant leadership paradigms: the trait, behavioral, and contingency approaches to leadership. Polleys' views aligned with transforming leadership but, once again, made no distinctions among charismatic, transformational, and servant leadership.

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Last modified: Thursday, January 21, 2021, 3:38 PM