June 22, 2021 - Management


Time for Executives to Rethink About Servant Leadership

Today’s globalized nature of competitiveness is placing more pressure on organizations to employ effective leaders who can develop a global vision for organizations. Leaders need to think globally yet act locally because local strategies need to be realigned with the global economic integration and for individual countries. Leadership plays a critical role and is a strategic prerequisite for business success in global markets.

The Need For Leadership Theory Research

There is a global need to investigate leadership theories to accomplish sustainable competitiveness in global markets. Many executives wonder what academic and leadership writers are trying to explain via their various models and theories. There is not much difference between a model and a theory, except that a theoretical framework has been tried and tested, while a model may be an application that leaders can learn from and teach to others. For instance, the model for servant leadership theory is presented below. Many executives are familiar with the servant leadership theory that was developed by Robert Greenleaf.

This article is not about measuring aptitude or defining this leadership model. It is about getting the information needed to be successful in the global market into the hands of executives worldwide. Servant leadership theory has been challenged by various researchers and business leaders which has left executives with rudimentary and anecdotal ways to lead. This has left a gap between leadership effectiveness, satisfying followers and meeting customer needs.

Robert Greenleaf & Servant Leadership Theory

Robert Greenleaf first wrote an essay that later became the title of his book, The Servant Leader. He introduced the term ‘servant leadership’ into business literature for the first time and caused some controversy in the corporate boardroom while adding some value among the religious clergy.

Greenleaf was not only a scholar. In fact, the term ‘servant leadership’ came out of his work experiences at organizations such as MIT and the influence of Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. Greenleaf largely gained his insights through the central character of ‘Leo’, who becomes a servant leader and speaks about the Law of Service: He who wishes to live long must serve, but he who wishes to rule does not live long. Greenleaf recognized the main message of this story, and concluded that:

“The central meaning of it was that a great leader has experience as a servant to others, and he felt that this fact is central to his or her greatness. True leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a deep desire to help others.”

Servant Leadership Theory's Religious Roots

Servant leaders are those who turn the organizational chart upside down by putting the customers at the top. For instance, Greenleaf argues that the great leader is seen as a servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his or her greatness. The primary advantage of servant leadership theory it its focus on altruism, simplicity, and self-awareness. It emphasizes the moral sense of concern for others, and reduces the complexity engendered by putting personal desires in conflict with those of followers. Servant leadership can be clearly seen as rooted in the clerical leadership perspective that references Christ’s leadership. Greenleaf says that the words “service”, “to serve” and “servant” occur over 1300 times in the revised version of the St. James bible. For another example, Jesus once said:

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to place his life as a ransom for many.” 

Characteristics of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership theory highlights Jesus as the ultimate example of a servant leader. The theory suggests applying the leadership insights that Jesus gives us within our organizations. In this way, Richard Warren posits that “you are going to give your life for something. What will it be? A career, a sport, a hobby, fame, or to acquire wealth?” Unfortunately, none of these things will have lasting significance”. According to the model, service to others is the only pathway to real significance. Michele Lawrence and Larry Spears concentrate on the characteristics of a servant leader in their book, Practicing Servant Leadership: Succeeding through Trust, Bravery, and Forgiveness. In it, they recommend ten fundamental characteristics to be a true servant leader:

  1. Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Healing
  4. Awareness
  5. Persuasion
  6. Conceptualization
  7. Foresight
  8. Stewardship
  9. Commitment to the growth of people, and;
  10. Building community.

Criticisms of Servant Leadership Theory

Greenleaf acknowledges some criticisms about servant leadership, and posits that:

“In a time of crisis, like the leadership crisis we are now in today, if too many potential builders are taken in by a complete absorption with dissecting the wrong and by a zeal for instant perfection, then the movement so many of us want to see will be set back. The danger, perhaps, is to hear the analyst too much and artist too little.”

Servant leadership theory has not evaded criticism by scholars that are normally associated with leadership models and theories. This model has been challenged for a lack of adequate empirical studies to substantiate its academic rigor and is often shelved as a learning tool as opposed to a viable leadership application. An example retort in this scholarly debate is that servant leadership is systematically undefined and lacking in empirical support necessary for managerial implementation. The existing literature on servant leadership is filled with anecdotal evidence and that empirical research is critically needed to substantiate the use of it in the boardroom of large corporations. Servant leadership is also criticized for gender bias in its theoretical perspectives and is seen by many as being inapplicable for real-world scenarios.

Servant Leadership Theory Still Has Practical Applications

The practicality of the model still exists and has its roots in helping others and providing hope in an environment that seems to be not only hypercompetitive, but also elusive for companies to find a strong foothold. Therefore, while servant leadership is about shifting away from the old paradigm of a hierarchical pyramid-shaped organization, it ignores accountability in the workplace. Therefore, if this theory is taken at face value, all leaders should serve the people within their organization to provide the customer and shareholder with the best possible service. However, the practicality of the model indicates that servant leadership cannot represent a complete answer for effective leadership in today’s global market environment. The key is to see the model, consider implementing service for your organization and your followers and not anticipate a large change in the leadership gaps that exist in the organization.

About the author: Mostafa Sayyadi

Mostafa Sayyadi works with senior business leaders to effectively develop innovation in companies and helps companies—from start-ups to the Fortune 100—succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders. He is a business book author and a long-time contributor to HR.com, People + Strategy, Consulting Magazine and The Canadian Business Journal and his work has been featured in these top-flight business publications.

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