For our second movie review paper for PSYCH 485, my group and I analyzed the documentary Nixon: In the Den, which looked at the life of President Nixon, from his childhood through when he stepped down as president after Watergate. We examined him and the situation he found himself in using the trait approach and the team leadership approach. After reading the assignments for this lesson, I found myself considering the servant leadership theory for Nixon’s case in particular and the presidency in general. Due to the team aspect of servant leadership, the fact that it encourages leaders to develop their followers as future leaders, the input-process-output design of the model and the 10 characteristics of servant leaders, the servant leadership model is a good theory for any president (or public servant) to use to develop their leadership style.
In general, the concept of servant leadership would be helpful to any president. The complexity of the situation in front of him was not unique to Nixon. While every president is going to be in office during a different time with a different set of variables, they are always going to be in a charge of a huge country with a lot of moving parts. Nixon did not trust those around him (BBC4, 2009) and did not like it when those around him succeeded. When his national security advisor Henry Kissinger successfully negotiated deals with Russia and China (which have turned out to be the crowning achievements of his presidency), he tried to have him removed from the administration after the next election (BBC4, 2009). A president needs to know that he/she is only going to be as effective as those around him/her. The cabinet alone consists of “the vice president and the heads of 15 executive departments – the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Attorney General” (The White House). It is not possible for a president to be an expert in all of the areas encompassed by that list. The president has to be able to rely on the members of the cabinet to provide information and advice if he/she is going to make sound decisions. For this reason, it is the job of the president to serve their followers and make sure that they have everything they need to do a good job; which will allow the followers to get good information and make good recommendations to the president when the time comes. A leader serving their followers is the idea behind servant leadership (Northouse, 2016, p.225).
In addition to the fact that serving their followers so that the followers can provide the president with the best information possible helps the president, using servant leadership as a model for behavior will also help presidents teach their cabinet members and other members of their administrations to be the best leaders possible. As stated by Greenleaf (1970), the developer of the servant leadership theory, one of the best tests of whether or not servant leadership has been successful is, “do those served grow as persons” (Northouse, 2016, p.226). Looking at the cabinet specifically, all of the members of the cabinet are followers of the president. However, every one of them is also running a large department which is full of workers who are following them. In addition to being good followers, they need to be good leaders and servant leadership allows the president to help them develop into good leaders who will hopefully become servant leaders themselves. In addition to the importance of the high up members of the administration being good leaders for the success of the administration, developing leaders is also important due to the nature of the presidency. Each president only has a fixed term. Assuming that all presidents, first and foremost, have the good of the country at heart, they want the country to continue to succeed after they leave office. One of the most effective ways they can do that is by teaching those who work around them in government how to be good leaders themselves.
Another benefit of servant leadership when examining the presidency is the fact that the servant leadership theory is a classic input-process-output model (PSU WC, 2020, L.11). In the servant leadership model, the input is the antecedent conditions, or the conditions that exist when the leader comes into a situation (PSU WC, 2020, L.11). The process is the behaviors the servant leader exhibits (PSU WC, 2020, L.11) and the output is the outcome of the situation, or the end result (PSU WC, 2020, L.11). Having a solid process by which a leader can go back and analyze a situation is important to a presidency. As mentioned before, the U.S. government is an incredibly complex machine to run. Mistakes are going to happen and, when they do, the people in government need to have a way to go back and examine the situation to determine what went wrong and what they could do better in the future. The clear set up of this model, with the antecedent conditions, servant leader behaviors, and leadership outcomes (Northouse, 2016, p.231), makes it a good model for that need.
Finally, the servant leadership model is appropriate for the presidency due to the 10 characteristics of a servant leader that it emphasizes. All of the characteristics it emphasizes are important for a president. However, I am going to focus on five. First, the behavior of listening is important for a president. Listening involves both “hearing and being receptive to what others have to say” (Northouse, 2016, p. 227). A president is not capable of being an expert on every subject he/she will have to make decisions on. They need to be able and willing to listen to others and take in their advice. Secondly, the characteristics of awareness, foresight and conceptualization are important. The president needs to be aware of what is going on around him/her in the government and in the country. The president needs to be able to conceptualize, be the visionary, for how to solve problems, create policies, and move the country in the direction that is best for the people (Northouse, 2016, p. 228). This is only possible if the president has the ability to use foresight. The president has to be able to interpret what is coming in the future from what is happening now to be able to decide what to do next (Northouse, 2016, p. 228). The president has a lot of people around him/her who are more knowledgeable in their matters of work to sort out the details. The job of the president is to be the visionary who can see the big picture and lead the country in the right direction. He/she can’t do that without having awareness of the situation around him/her, the ability to conceptualize, and the ability to utilize foresight. Finally, the president needs to demonstrate the characteristic of being able to build community. They need to be able to help those around them come together and “identify with something greater than themselves” (Northouse, 20916, p. 229). This is especially important right now in the current polarized political climate. A president who can’t get his administration and Congress to work together, along with the American people, won’t be able to get a lot done.
Overall, servant leadership is an appropriate theory to apply to the presidency. Running the largest country in the world is a complex job and the president can’t do it alone. They need to make sure those around them are working to the best of their ability and learning how to be better leaders for the people working under them. The nature of the servant leadership model as an input-process-output model makes it a good model due to the ease of after the fact analysis it provides the president and the 10 characteristics of a servant leader that the theory emphasizes are all important characteristics for a president to have. Any president who can successful implement the ideas behind the servant leadership theory is likely to increase the effectiveness of their administration and his/her success as president. In a democracy, all elected officials are servants to the public, so it makes sense for this attitude to be carried throughout the government to all public servants.
BBC4. (2009) Nixon: In the Den. Youtube. https:www.youtube.com/watch?v=tV9JT4pZH_o.
Northouse, P. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2020). PSYCH 485 Lesson 11: Servant Leadership. Retrieved June 28, 2020 from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2015147/modules/items/29089257.
The Cabinet. The White House, President Barack Obama. Retrieved June 28, 2020 from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/administration/cabinet.