In a 2017 issue of Administrative Sciences, Martin Lacroix and Armin Pircher Verdorfer addressed one aspect of servant leadership. They noted that other researchers have found that servant leadership:
- is “positively related to service climate”
- shapes culture where people “prioritize the needs of others above their own”
- helps develop self-esteem and performance confidence in followers through empowerment and opportunities
Lacroix and Pircher Verdorfer focused on one effect of servant leaders on followers. Consistent with writings about servant leadership, they asked: Do servant leaders motivate in their followers a desire to lead? To answer this question they analyzed two waves of questionnaire data gathered from the health care industry in Germany. They predicted that servant leadership would be positively related to followers developing a greater desire to lead. Why? Because servant leaders display concern for others, ethical values, and desirable leadership qualities that followers should like to model.
The finding: If followers liked the idea of servant leadership as a leadership style, then they were more likely to want to be a leader. But if followers did not have servant leadership as their preferred leadership style, then they did not have a greater desire to lead. The researchers concluded:
“Indeed, in our data, followers seem to react somewhat cautiously to leaders who consistently place the good of followers over their own self-interests” (p. 8).
1. Lacroix and Pircher Verdorfer tackled one tenet of servant leadership and illuminated the issue. Human behavior is complex. The effect of a servant leader on a follower depends on what the follower thinks of this approach. For those who believe self-interest is the primary motivator of behavior, the authenticity of a servant leader may be difficult to accept. This would make a good conversation topic over drinks with Adam Smith.
2. The authors did discuss the limitations of their study: one industry, self-report surveys, small sample size (between 200-300), one country. These are not unique to their study. Even so, every study contributes something, provides ideas on which others can build. Given the popularity of servant leadership, researchers are needed to build on this and other studies.
3. I expect the effectiveness of servant leadership is situational. The key is to identity through research the essential components that translate into practice such as:
- Treating people as assets.
- Helping followers grow.
- Providing opportunities
- Placing service to others before self.
Lacroix, M., & Pircher Verdorfer, A. (2017). Can Servant Leaders Fuel the Leadership Fire? The Relationship between Servant Leadership and Followers’ Leadership Avoidance. Administrative Sciences, 7(1), 6.
Dinh, J. E., Lord, R. G., Gardner, W. L., Meuser, J. D., Liden, R. C., & Hu, J. (2014). Leadership theory and research in the new millennium: Current theoretical trends and changing perspectives. The Leadership Quarterly, 25, 36-62.
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© John Ballard, PhD, 2017. All rights reserved.
Author of Decoding the Workplace, BEST CAREER BOOK Next Generation Indie Book Awards 2016.
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