Three researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and another from Michigan State reported a large-scale study of servant leadership in the prestigious Academy of Management Journal in 2014. Liden, Wayne, Liao, and Meuser studied nearly 1000 employees in 71 restaurants in 6 states using survey methods and corporate data. They suggested the concept of the leader focusing on serving followers differentiates servant leadership from other leadership theories. Here are some insights from their review of servant leadership studies and Robert Greenleaf’s writings:
- Employees see servant leaders as humble, more concerned with others than themselves.
- Employees see servant leaders as role models, whose behaviors they choose to emulate.
- Because employees emulate the servant leader’s behaviors, the servant leader creates a “serving culture.”
- “Cultivation of servant leadership among followers is central to servant leadership” (p. 1436)
- Demonstrating empathy and ethical behavior elevates the perception of the servant leader.
- A serving culture positively affects an organization’s bottom-line.
- “Store manager servant leadership was positively related to serving culture” (p. 1444).
- “Serving culture related positively with store performance” (p. 1444).
- Employees in “serving cultures” identified more strongly with their stores.
- Identification with stores was positively correlated with creativity and willingness to find “divergent ways of accomplishing tasks” (p. 1446).
1. I concur with the authors that “servant leadership is at an early stage of theoretical development.” The authors suggested social learning theory and modeling of the leader’s behaviors as an underlying mechanism. I would lean toward a Rychlakean perspective. Those followers so inclined adjust their premises to fit in and perhaps see a fuller meaning in their work experiences.
2. Overall, while I see the benefits of servant leadership, I suggest there are large individual differences among leaders here. Some leaders simply have a low probability of being able to put others first consistently or genuinely. My guess is this becomes more difficult as one climbs the corporate ladder. On the other hand, servant leadership may be a great fit for small business owners.
3. There are also individual differences among followers. People work for many reasons beyond the economic (see Decoding the Workplace, Chapter 4). For some people a serving culture may be inconsistent with how they view the workplace. They may not fit in.
4. The effectiveness of servant leadership on the bottom-line is an important finding in this study. This needs replication. My hypothesis would be that the effectiveness of servant leadership is situational.
5. You probably know whether you are a servant leader or can grow as one. You probably also know those around you who are servant leaders and those who are not. Regardless knowing yourself and understanding those around you are major factors in determining your success as a leader.
Liden, R. C., Wayne, S. J., Liao, C., & Meuser, J. D. (2014). Servant leadership and serving culture: Influence on individual and unit performance. Academy of Management Journal, 37 (5), 1434-1452.
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