What Exactly is Servant Leadership?

People FirstI teach a class called Introduction to Servant Leadership at Grand Canyon University. It’s a fun class to teach because many of the students have never really heard of servant leadership. They’ve heard of the servant part, as it is a Christian university. But they haven’t heard of it in conjunction with leadership. So I get many questions from students in the first couple of classes asking exactly what servant leadership is. Here is what I tell them.

There really is no universally accepted definition of servant leadership in academia, or in the business world. There are multiple constructs and theoretical models suggesting various characteristics, attributes, dimensions, and/or principles that make up servant leadership. As an example, Patterson (2003) provides seven “virtuous constructs” that define servant leadership. Barbuto and Wheeler (2006) offer 11 dimensions. Russell and Stone (2002) identified 9 functional and 11 accompanying attributes culled from the literature. Van Dierendonck and Nuijten (2010) defined eight dimensions in their study. Spears (2012) identified 10 characteristics that define a servant leader. In all fairness, many constructs/theories do provide similar characteristics/attributes. Here are a few of the agreed upon items:

Empathy           Humility               Love
Altruism            Vision                  Trust
Service             Awareness          Growth of People
Listening          Stewardship        Empowerment

And while this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to trying to define servant leadership or servant leader traits, I do find it interesting that these common items can all be grouped into two categories: employee support and general caring. So, by starting with those two categories as the foundation, and then utilizing the work of Stone, Russell, and Patterson (2004), I can offer a very simple definition for servant leadership. When it comes to leadership, if you put people first, and the company second, then you are servant leader.

For many, this sounds like heresy. The company must be first! That’s the whole point of business. The company must generate revenue to pay employees and make shareholders happy. This is the way it is supposed to be! Well, no, it’s not. What I have seen time and time again, in organizations that I’ve worked with or that I’ve read about, and what the research bears out (check out this article from Harvard Business Review, as an example), is that when people are taken care of, then people take care of the business.

It really is that simple. Nurture your people, and your people will nurture your business. Put people first in everything you do, and you are a servant leader.

References:
Barbuto Jr, J. E., & Wheeler, D. W. (2006). Scale development and construct clarification of servant leadership. Group & organization management, 31(3), 300-326.

Patterson, K. A. (2003). Servant leadership: A theoretical model. Regent University.

Russell, R. F., & Stone, A. G. (2002). A review of servant leadership attributes: Developing a practical model. Leadership & organization development journal.

Stone, A. G., Russell, R. F., & Patterson, K. (2003). Transformational Versus Servant Leadership–A Difference in Leader Focus, Servant Leadership Roundtable. October, PP1, 15.

Van Dierendonck, D., & Nuijten, I. (2011). The servant leadership survey: Development and validation of a multidimensional measure. Journal of business and psychology, 26(3), 249-267.

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