Discussion: The Servant Leader

Discussion: The Servant Leader

Five Necessary Attitudes of a Servant Leader Larry W. Boone, The Peter J. Tobin College of Business, St. John’s University, NY boonel@stjohns.edu

Sanya Makhani, The Peter J. Tobin College of Business, St. John’s University, NY sanyamakhani@gmail.com

Executive Summary

Since the “servant leadership” concept was introduced by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, this style has been adopted by many successful leaders in a variety of contexts. Is the servant leadership style right for you? This article helps to answer that question for many leaders who may be interested in “serving others first,” or in “serving rather than being served,” by exploring whether or not a leader has the necessary attitudes to implement this leadership style. According to the authors, servant leadership can be a highly effective style for influencing a group toward the achievement of organizational goals if a leader possesses or can readily adopt the following attitudes: 1) believing that visioning isn’t everything, but it’s the beginning of everything, 2) listening is hard work requiring a major investment of personal time and effort – and it is worth every ounce of energy expended, 3) my job involves being a talent scout and committing to my staff’s success, 4) it is good to give away my power, and 5) I am a community builder.


Leadership is the ability to influence a group toward the achievement of organizational goals. Of course, the contingency approach dominates the extensive literature on leadership. The appropriate leadership style depends upon the situation. Some contexts call for autocratic leadership, some for participative

or consultative approaches, and still others call for transformational leadership-and so on. One of the most intriguing leadership approaches receiving a great deal of current attention regarding implementation effectiveness and its fit within contingency theory involves the servant leadership concept.

The term “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay “The Servant as a Leader.” Greenleaf spent his forty year career at AT&T working in the fields of management, research, development, and education. When describing servant leadership in his essay, he states, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first…” According to Greenleaf servant leaders intend to help followers “grow healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants” (Greenleaf, 1977:13-14).

Let’s look at one example of a servant leadership approach. Suppose a CEO is faced with the difficult situation of necessary cutbacks and/or layoffs in tough economic times. An autocratic leader might issue a directive to all personnel explaining that a decision has been made to reduce operations and staffing levels by 10%, and that implementation would be immediate. The CEO may assume that employees would


understand and accept this course of action based on his/her formal authority to implement such decisions and well-established corporate objectives of maximizing shareholder return, profitability, and efficiency.

A servant leader, on the other hand, might address the tough economic times and the need for change by communicating a compelling vision of how the firm will look and feel after the challenge has been addressed, attempting to build community by stressing that everyone is in this together, including the CEO, stating that the yet-to- be-determined courses of action will be true to the well-established corporate values of shareholder return, profitability, and loyalty to employees, and might solicit suggestions from departments and/or individual workers. Each approach may produce desired results, but significant differences may be realized in terms of implementation time, total expense, organizational morale, employee motivation, and ability to retain/attract key organizational skills.

This article will review some basic leadership concepts; explore the servant leadership style through its treatment in the literature over the past few decades, including discussion of many characteristics, attributes, and behaviors of servant leaders; and, through review of the ideas of several best-selling leadership authors, attempt to identify the most important attitudes that fit well with the servant leadership approach in an attempt to aid the reader in concluding whether or not servant leadership may be a viable option for inclusion within their personal leadership style.

Leadership: Skills, Behaviors, and Attitudes

Leadership is not comprised of a single characteristic or trait. It is not, as some may incorrectly assume, the hard-to-def ine attribute of “charisma.” Rather, leadership consists of a large set of well-recognized skills, behaviors, and attitudes. Skills and behaviors can be learned, then honed through practice. A few.

among many, commonly recognized leadership skills and behaviors include establishing credibility or trustworthiness, managing time productively, being proactive, empowering others to act, and networking (Boone and Peborde, 2008).

Servant leaders…recognize the empowerment of their people as an important goal.

Attitudes, on the other hand, are determinants of behavior. They are linked commonly with personality, perception, feelings, and motivation. An attitude is a mental state of readiness learned and organized through experience. Exerting specific influence on a person’s response to other people, objects, and situations, attitudes provide the emotional basis of one’s interpersonal relations and identification with others. Therefore, attitudes relate directly to one’s comfort and willingness to apply specific leadership styles. As previously stated, the major purpose of this article is to identify and examine five important attitudes that fit well with the servant leadership approach. If one possesses or can willingly adopt these attitudes, servant leadership may be an effective style to influence others toward achieving organizational goals.

Specific applications of many leadership styles, including servant leadership, can be quite challenging to identify and differentiate. Before introducing the attitudes compatible to servant leadership, typical characteristics and attributes of this style will be identified through a review of their treatment in the literature. This should aid the reader’s understanding of what servant leadership looks like, sounds like, and feels like.

Review of the Literature

Kent M. Keith, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, addresses the basis of

Five Necessary Attitudes of a Servant Leader 85

servant leadership: “It means that ‘servant’ is a fundamental, essential, continuing characteristic of a servant-lea der. If we are going to be servant-leaders, we need to start by being servants. That must be our true nature. That must be who we really are” (Keith, 2010). The main motivating factor for servant leaders is to serve first, and this is what distinguishes it from other forms of leadership. The leader’s attitude is that “I am the leader, therefore I serve” rather than “I am the leader, therefore I lead” (Sendjaya and Sarros, 2002). Servant leaders operate differently than other leaders. Their approach helps create a positive environment in the organization, adding to workers’ job satisfaction and commitment to the organization (Jaramillo et al., 2009).

As a servant leader one does not force people to follow but walks among them and moves in a direction that can unite all in a common vision.

When Greenleaf first introduced the servant leadership concept, religious groups readily identified with the approach, recognizing the core principles of service and community development as scriptural values as well as recognizing, of course, that Jesus served as the best example of servant leadership. Many non-religious not-for-profit organizations also embraced the servant leadership style due to its emphasis on service and the development of purposeful, passionate communities within organizational ranks. Many business leaders, though, found it challenging, even puzzling, to develop the skills and, most importantly, the attitudes of servant leadership. However, as numerous scholars began writing about servant leadership, and as leaders slowly explored the advantages of serving their employees rather than directing them, this new leadership style began to permeate mainstream management techniques even within the business arena (Kelly, 2010).

Transforming from conventional leader to servant leader is not a simple task. It requires a conscious effort to change one’s way of thinking, acting, and reacting. According to Autry (2001), it is important to realize that servant leadership is not a spiritual concept, but a way of “Being.” The five most important ways of Being are to be authentic, vulnerable, accepting, present, and useful – making it easier for leaders to develop an attitude of service.

A vital prerequisite to servant leadership is credibility, which is the foundation of leadership. People must believe in their leaders and know that they are worthy of trust. To build credibility leaders must be honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent (Kouzes and Posner, 2007). Leaders who put their organization and people before themselves and don’t lead from the top are true servant leaders. They listen, have empathy, help people heal, know the value of learning, possess foresight, are persuasive and flexible, lead with a vision, work hard to gain trust, are passionate about helping their people progress and reach their potential, and work hard to build a community within their organization (Burrell and Grizzell, 2010). These skills, behaviors, and attitudes set leaders apart as servants who recognize the empowerment of their people as an important goal.

Servant leaders have a vision for the future. They communicate the desired direction of the organization with regard to its mission, values, and beliefs. Servant leaders break down this vision into small attainable goals that accumulate to their inspiring “big picture,” maintaining the progress of people and the organization at its core (Vinod and Sudhakar, 2011).

The servant leadership style has been compared to other leadership approaches such as charismatic and transformational leadership as well as leader-member exchange, but what differentiates servant leadership is the moral objective of serving others (Mayer et al..


2008; Barbuto and Wheeler, 2006; Graham, 1991). Discussing the effectiveness of servant leadership. Smith et al. (2004) argue that a servant leadership style is better suited for a more static business environment that has a stable external context, not for dynamic fast paced environments. However, Searle and Barbuto (2011) propose that the adoption of servant leadership adds to the ethical, moral behavior in any organization in any environment as it supports positive behavior on both micro-and macro-levels.

An early criticism of the servant leadership concept as a philosophical theory involved sparse empirical research to advocate its effectiveness in an organizational setting. Servant leadership “lacks sufficient scientific evidence to justify its widespread acceptance at this point in time” (Russell and Stone, 2002). Since then a number of models have been developed to test the effectiveness of servant leadership. Barbuto and Wheeler (2006) developed and validated a scale for measuring servant leadership behavior identifying five dimensions: 1) altruistic calling; 2) emotional healing; 3) wisdom; 4) persuasive mapping; and 5) organizational stewardship. Their results indicated servant leadership can produce increases in subordinates’ organizational commitment, community citizenship behavior, and in-role performance.

Liden et al. (2008) developed a multi- dimensional measure of servant leadership by identifying nine dimensions:

1. Emotional healing – the act of showing sensitivity to others’ personal concerns;

2. Creating value for the community – a conscious, genuine concern for helping the community;

3. Conceptual skills – possessing the knowledge of the organization and tasks at hand so as to be in a position to effectively support and assist others, especially immediate followers;

4. Empowering – encouraging and facilitating others, especially immediate followers, in identifying and solving problems, as well as determining when and how to complete work tasks;

5. Helping subordinates grow and succeed – demonstrating genuine concern for others’ career growth and development by providing support and mentoring;

6. Putting subordinates first – using actions and words to make it clear to others (especially immediate followers) that satisfying their work needs is a priority. (Supervisors who practice this principle will often break from their own work to assist subordinates with problems they are facing with their assigned duties);

7. Behaving ethically – interacting openly, fairly and honestly with others;

8. Relationships – the act of making a genuine effort to know, understand, and support others in the organization, with an emphasis on building long-term relationships with immediate followers; and

9. Servanthood – a way of being marked by one’s self-categorization and desire to be characterized by others as someone who serves others first, even when self-sacrifice is required.

Additional empirical work on servant leadership has been carried out (Russell and Stone, 2002; Neubert, Kacmar, Carlson, Chonko, and Roberts, 2008; Sendjaya et al., 2008). Additionally, it is interesting to note that when describing his level-5 leadership concept and the qualities of a “Good to Great” leader, Collins (2001) observes, “Self-efficacy, quiet, reserved, even shy – these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” These level-5 leader qualities relate well to those of a servant leader.

It is evident that effective organizational leadership is enhanced by developing a clear understanding and thorough adoption of

Five Necessary Attitudes of a Servant Leader 87

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