A lot of people like to talk about leadership. Of the different opinions as to what is the best way to lead, servant leadership has recently become one of the more fashionable. Politicians talk about the value of being a leader who serves others. Magazines and journals publish articles on the theories that underlie it. We even hear leadership guru Ken Blanchard telling everyone the world needs more servant leaders (Thurston, 2006).
While it is hard to argue with the wisdom of Ken Blanchard, the challenge with servant leadership is that it has become so popular that many people espousing its value are not completely clear on the definition. Case in point, I had a dissertation student recently who wanted to do her study on servant leadership. My first question to her was how she defined servant leadership. She hemmed and hawed a bit before coming back with the reply that, “a servant leader is just a leader who is not a bad person.” This response reminded me of the scene from the TV show Cheers where Cliff Clavin was a contestant on Jeopardy. When presented the names of three famous people that he did not know, Cliff answered “who are three people who have never been in my kitchen.” That answer was just like the one my student gave in that it was technically correct but not the final answer.
The confusion about what servant leadership is can partly be traced to one of its core differences compared to other leadership approaches. Whereas most approaches to leadership focus on what the leader does, servant leadership is focused on why they do it. While this nuance may seem slight, the impact is major. The behaviors that result from these drivers are often considered to be more ethical and pro-social relative to the outcomes of other leadership approaches. While the ethicality and pro-socialness is often debatable depending on the cultural context, from a leadership study standpoint our main concern is less on the value of those outcomes and more on what makes the leader want to take on that role, and how they make behavioral decisions while in that role. This focus is fairly unique among leadership theory.
Regardless of cultural context, a servant leader is driven by a particular set of principles, values and beliefs (Walker, 2003). Most important among those beliefs is that they are there for the benefit and support of those they are charged to lead. Their behaviors, their actions, and even how they interact with others are driven by this core principal. The current conceptualization of servant leadership can be traced back to the writings of people like Robert Greenleaf (1977) and their calls for leaders who place other people's needs, aspirations and interests above their own. These calls came in response to the ethical and self serving behavior that they witnessed in corporations at the time. With many of the recent financial crises and corporate scandals, the calls for servant based approaches have only intensified (Doraiswamy, 2012).
One of the challenges with advocating a servant leadership approach is its close association with Christianity in general, and evangelical Christianity in particular. Some of servant leadership’s most ardent proponents point to Jesus Christ as the original servant leader and the example of what a servant leader is expected to be (Sendjaya & Sarros, 2002). If we look at the graduate theses and dissertations from universities with openly evangelical biases, a high number of these papers are on the topic of servant leadership and most of the abstracts clearly indicate a Biblical viewpoint. This close association with one particular religious perspective may cause some non-Christians and non-theists to be leery of servant leadership. This should be a non-issue, however, as more and more research is being published that looks at servant leadership through lenses that are not necessarily Christian. For example, Bardeh & Shaemi (2011) conducted a study of servant leadership at Islamic Azad University in Iran. Donghong, Haiyan & Qing (2012) conducted a study on how servant leadership impacts employee loyalty and satisfaction in China, and approached the topic from a completely non-theistic perspective. So clearly the value of servant leadership is applicable to much more than a single religious or spiritual point of view.
So with all that said, what is it that makes servant leader different than other leaders? As stated earlier, it is not so much an issue of what the leaders does but why that leader leads. They are driven by a calling to take care of those they serve/lead. They accept their leadership roles for reasons greater that personal gain or self satisfaction. Because of this focus, servant leaders do not behave as controllers and supervisors, but as cheerleaders, listeners and facilitators (Blanchard, 1995). Most importantly, they are leaders who focus on how they can serve their followers, rather than how their followers can serve them. The Zen-like irony of all this is that this focus on serving others makes these leaders so much easier to follow.
Bardeh, M., & Shaemi, A. (2011). Comparative study of servant leadership characteristics in management texts and Imam Ali's tradition (Case study: Najaf Abad Branch, Islamic Azad University, Isfahan, Iran). Interdisciplinary Journal Of Contemporary Research In Business, 3(2), 129-141.
Blanchard, K. (1995). Servant leadership. Executive Excellence, 10, 12
Donghong, D., Haiyan, L., Yi, S., & Qing, L. (2012). Relationship of Servant Leadership and Employee Loyalty: The Mediating Role of Employee Satisfaction. I-Business, 4(3), 208-215. doi:10.4236/ib.2012.43026
Doraiswamy, I. (2012). Servant or Leader? Who will stand up please?. International Journal Of Business & Social Science, 3(9), 178-182.
Greenleaf, R.K. (1977). Servant Leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press
Sendjaya, S. & Sarros, J. C. (2002). Servant Leadership: Its Origin, Development, and Application in Organizations. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies (Baker College), 9(2), 57-64.
Thurston, L. D. (2006). Business guru calls for more servant leaders. Caribbean Business, 34(44), 29
Walker, J. (2003). A new call to stewardship and servant leadership. Nonprofit World, 21(4), 25.
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About the Author
Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with seventeen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard. He is currently a Practice Area Lead with Beacon Associates.