Servant Leadership

Posted: Monday, October 31, 2016 at 1:59 PM

I attended a public lecture by Professor Robert Liden at the University of Melbourne recently. The presentation provided an overview of Servant Leadership and summarised the international research findings conducted by Professor Liden and his associates. There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that Servant Leadership is an effective and powerful leadership style.

There are at least 66 styles of leadership, many of which align with Servant Leadership. Inclusive, Authentic and Ethical Leadership are four such approaches. But what defines Servant Leadership and sets it apart from other styles? Here are my thoughts, following Professor Liden's presentation.

Firstly, Servant Leadership emphasises service to others; secondly it stresses personal integrity; next it focusses on the development of followers to practice the same style; and finally it extends beyond the organisational setting to the home and community. Professor Liden points out that this final point differentiates Servant Leadership from the vast majority of leadership styles.

Since 2000, Professor Liden’s has conducted research in Europe, China, Singapore and the US across a range of both public and private sector organisations. A set of seven factors were identified in an early study distinguishing Servant Leadership in workplaces and these formed the basis of further research. These are:

  • Conceptual skills
  • Putting followers first
  • Helping followers grow and succeed
  • Empowering
  • Emotional healing
  • Creating value to the community
  • Behaving ethically

There is evidence that where Servant Leadership principles are practiced, key positive outcome variables relating to job performance, organisational citizen behaviours and levels of organisational commitment are demonstrated.

But is all this just too good to be true? Is Servant Leadership just a ‘soft touch’, which doesn’t hold up in difficult times where leaders must make tough decisions and seek to maintain authority and control. The research would suggest this is not the case. Servant Leader’s still manage and discipline staff and handle complex and challenging organisational issues.

Statistically sound findings indicate that in workplaces where the leadership engages in Servant Leadership practices, there is evidence that more people engage in helping and supporting each other. This manifests in positive organisational behaviours like: enhanced levels of respect; an increased perception of being valued; creation of a serving and customer focussed culture; and increased levels of self-confidence.

Further to this, where Servant Leadership pervades a workplace, there is evidence of enhanced levels of customer satisfaction; increased levels of staff well-being; and enhanced financial performance. Regarding staff well-being this is defined as ‘holistic’ and encompassing multiple dimensions at work and home. This is noteworthy, given the sad truth that we will spend the majority of our waking lives at work!

Studies have also found that increased levels of self-efficacy, ‘felt obligation’ and passion for the work occur in these workplaces. All resulting in staff striving for higher levels of performance.

An interesting aspect of Servant Leadership is that this style can be very pervasive, given it is practiced by both leaders and followers. They combine to act as challengers to the status quo. Behaviours and actions promoting self-interest are often directly challenged and helping behaviours become the preferred approach. The research suggests that those registering high levels of self-interest in a workplace will demonstrate statistically significant increases in their helping behaviours, where Servant Leadership is in evidence.

In summary, the body of evidence to date indicates that Servant Leadership positively relates to: customer satisfaction; revenue and earnings growth; a serving culture; enhanced individual performance; creativity; and proactive service orientation. It is also capable of overcoming employee self-interest.

Regarding the metrics of Servant Leadership, it is interesting to note that there is no distinguishing indicator measuring the strategic capability of the leadership. This is not to say that a skilled Servant Leader lacks strategic foresight, rather there seems to be an absence of this narrative in the Servant Leadership research findings. It could be reasonably hypothesised that strong strategic leadership combined with Servant Leadership, could help to create an empowered cohort of both leaders and followers, striving for longer term strategic outcomes in an organisation.

There was a word of caution however. Practicing Servant Leadership is not easy and takes sustained effort and practice. It takes time and a proactive approach to build trust and establish rapport with your people and it is one of the more difficult leadership styles to adopt. It requires humility, understanding and selflessness. However, the outcomes can be very positive for your people, organisation and the community.

For myself and the Talent Architects team, the ‘community focussed’ dimension of the Servant Leadership approach, in both philosophy and action, is one of its unique and compelling elements. It is in tune with our day-to-day work and the values the team embrace. Further to this, it aligns very strongly with community service and sectors like local government, aged care, early childhood and child and family services.

In conclusion, Servant Leadership is not for everyone and may not suit some organisations. Highlighting, that leadership begins with having the right person for the job, with the right style, skill set and approach…and not the reverse.


Andrew Alford

National Business Manager