August 15, 2018

Do you think of leaders as heroes? As people out in front, leading the way, setting the example, inspiring others to follow?

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It’s a very common thought, but with the development of theories more attuned to contemporary management challenges, different concepts of leadership have emerged.


Among those concepts is one that purports that the most effective leaders are actually service providers. A long-standing leadership model, Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership (Hersey, 1985) maintains that the leader’s job is to support followers, who assess the followers’ development levels and adjust their leadership approach accordingly.

For example, an employee new to a task requires a different leadership input from one with great experience.

It can be argued leaders provide a service, a service to ensure followers are successful.

Servant Leadership is a theory that was developed with this view in mind. But Servant Leadership is often described as ‘more than a theory’. In fact, it is recognised as a philosophy with lofty aims – creating a better world by enriching the lives of individuals and building better organisations.

The Greenleaf Centre for Servant-Leadership in Atlanta delineates the difference between the leader as a servant and our more traditional concept of leadership:

“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid”, servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

A number of studies attest to the success of this approach, both at the team level and organisational level. For instance, one study strikingly found that organisations with CEOs who practise Servant Leadership have a higher return on assets (Peterson et al., 2012). These same CEOs, when given a personality assessment, also tended to have low scores for the trait of narcissism.

Therefore, if Servant Leaders do contribute effectively to the success of the organisation, then this poses more challenges for an organisation when selecting, developing and rewarding their leaders.

However, in cultures that expect dominant leaders, a servant-leader may indeed be a new kind of hero.

Hersey, P. 1985. The Situational Leader, New York, NY: Warner Books.

Peterson, S., Galvin, B. M., & Lange, D. 2012. CEO servant leadership: Exploring executive characteristics and firm performance. Personnel Psychology, 65: 565-596.

This post has been co-authored by Dick Bunning and Tony Berry.

Dr Richard Bunning, Teacher, EBS MBA Programme About Dr Richard Bunning, Teacher, EBS MBA Programme

Co-author of Leadership with Tony Berry and co-examiner for the Leadership elective.