As Northouse states, “Servant leaders put followers first, empower them, and help them develop their full personal capacities” (Northouse, 2016). In our lesson, we also learned that one of the strengths of Servant Leadership is that it is the only theory than involves ethical behavior an important component of its explanation of leadership (PSU, 2017).
While Servant Leadership can be extremely beneficial, it must be used in the appropriate circumstances. Specifically, Servant Leadership only works when leaders have a humanistic philosophy and have altruistic tendencies, and “will backfire if a leader tries to engage this process while actually being a power oriented or domineering personality” (PSU, 2017). Indeed, some leaders may adopt servant leadership as a way to gain referent power, which is defined as a base of power “based on followers’ identification and liking for the leader” (Northouse, 2016).
This reminds me of the study of prosocial behavior in Social Psychology. According to Douglas, Neuberg and Cialdini (2010), there are 3 main types of prosocial behavior:
The difference between them is the intention within the prosocial act. In the first case, prosocial behavior is done for the potential external reward one might get. For instance, a boy helps an elderly woman cross to road so he can impress his love interest and possibly score a date. Although his act is prosocial and is a tangible act that helps the old lady, he did it for his own gain.
As for benevolence, prosocial behavior is done for the intrinsic rewards one might get. For example, a woman donates all of the cash in her wallet to a homeless man on the street. Even though she knows she will not get anything back, she feels good about herself for doing that. She knew that she would feel good for doing that, and it was the primary motivator for her in her prosocial behavior.
Finally, for altruism, prosocial behavior is done purely in the interests of the other person, with little regard to one’s own. Even if one naturally feels good about the act, the intrinsic reward was not the primary motivator. As an example, a man sees a little boy about to get hit by an onrushing vehicle, and leaps in the way to save the boy. He gets hit, but fortunately survives the accident. As he recovers, the man may feel good about his heroic act, however, in the moment, he wanted to save the child and could have sacrificed his life in doing so. While some may mention the desire of martyrdom in this example, the point is that the intrinsic reward is not the primary motivator even if it naturally exists.
This knowledge of the different types of prosocial behavior can be applied to Servant Leadership in order to better understand it. As mentioned earlier, if the leader has a domineering personality, Servant Leadership will backfire, as “the application will seem like lip service rather than authentic by followers and as such they will not grow and develop, but will rather become mistrustful of the leader and the organization” (PSU, 2017). In this case, the power-oriented leaders would use Servant Leadership as a means to an end, which is reflected in the first type of prosocial behavior for an external reward.
On the other hand, a leader may use Servant Leadership to help their followers without expecting anything in return and for no external benefit, and this will fall in either benevolence or altruism. In this trio of prosocial behavior, one may reasonably deduce that the authors intended altruism to be the ultimate ideal for prosocial behavior, since it is portrayed as the purest good of the three. Likewise, I believe that Servant Leadership proposes truly serving your followers by putting their interests ahead of your own, and wanting the best for them.
Whether you did it for an intrinsic reward or out of pure altruism, I believe that serving followers in this way is the most organic and effective, since it comes from pure intentions for their benefit while you as the leader stand to gain nothing. This will potentially create a virtuous cycle and recreate itself from the recipient of your service, who may in turn serve his/her own followers now and in the future. Therefore, it is evident that Servant Leadership is a very sustainable form of leadership that aims to make our world a better place through altruistic leaders who care for the less privileged and stronger individual actualization.
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2017). PSYCH 485 Lesson 11: Servant Leadership. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1848444/modules/items/22449234
Douglas, K. T., Neuberg, S. L., & Cialdini, R. B. (2010). Social Psychology: Goals in Interaction, 5th Ed.