I hope you heard BrittanySpears song “I’m a slave for you” when you read the title!
The Servant Leadership Perspective can be practiced adequately by any individual who is taught the servant style of leadership. There may be many altruistic components to this leadership style which require a person to be inclined toward giving to others, and helping others in a way that does not come naturally for some personality types. However, there are many studies that don’t ascribe personality traits to the leadership style. Additionally, antecedent conditions like culture, leader attributes, and the willingness of the follower impact a person’s ability to practice the leadership and contribute to the effectiveness, or lack of effectiveness of the leadership approach. These are arguably variables that that can impact the execution and effectiveness of the leadership style, while not necessarily prohibiting the leader from conducting the leadership in the servant leadership perspective style.
Northouse cites Dennis & Bocarnea (2005) (Northouse, 2016) as ascribing “vision” and “agape love” as observed characteristics of servant leadership. Those attributes are not ones that can be taught, but you can teach people to love important aspects of their work and the people around them. As Northouse indicates, servant leaders often produce servant leaders among their employees and staff. I don’t believe that happens in a vacuum. I believe servant leadership is a culture that is created, and a tone that is set within an environment. It teaches servant-minded techniques to the members of the organization. Northouse cited a need for more empirical research on the characteristics of servant leadership, and the inconsistencies between the prescribed results among loads of existing research is a good reason to believe that is true.
According to Northouse, “the prescribed behaviors of servant leadership are not esoteric; they are easily understood and generally applicable to a variety of leadership situations…. Training in servant leadership typically involves self-assessment exercises, educational sessions, and goal setting (Northouse, 2016, p 235-236). This makes servant leadership accessible, and able to be learned. Southwest Airlines provides a good example of successful servant leadership training. In an interview posted on You Tube by KnowledgeAtWharton, Southwest President Colleen Barrett spoke about the leadership approach of her airline. She mentioned a pyramid of importance where the value the organization places on employees is at the top. The airline is one of the leading examples given in chapter ten, where a company embodies servant leadership at all levels. Large corporations like Southwest prove that servant leadership can be taught. The culture at Southwest breeds more of itself. Such a strong motivation and interest in helping others is a trait that doesn’t need to be inherently part of a person’s personality to effect the success of servant leadership. They have a very effective training program to support this since it would be difficult to hire based primarily on personality characteristics we can assume the company-wide leadership style is taught the employees. Many of the studies on servant leadership approach the leadership style “as a trait phenomenon (e.g., courage, humility) in some studies while other researchers regard it as a behavioral process (e.g., serving and developing others)” (Northouse, 2016, p 224). I believe it is the latter.
Besides personality characteristics, there are antecedent conditions that impact the effectiveness of servant leadership. One of those things is a follower’s desire to be led by a servant. In some cultures where there is high power distance in the region, there may not be an acceptance of shared leadership by follower (Northhouse, 2016). This may affect the effectiveness, but not the ability to learn the leadership style. Certainly, the accepted “seven behaviors of leaders that foster servant leadership: conceptualizing, emotional healing, putting followers first, helping followers grow and succeed, behaving ethically, empowering, and creating value for the community (Northouse, 20162, p 232) can be learned by almost anyone. Even conceptualizing, which Northouse describes as not clearly trait or behavior can be taught by emphasizing the need, and method in which a person can imagine an outcome. That lesson simply requires intelligence and cognition, not an inborn characteristic.
Spiritual leaders like Dave Ramsey, make a living by teaching others to serve, and in doing so, become leaders, and vice versa. Ramsey makes a living by empowering others to take control of important aspects of their lives. I once took a 2 month course of his that taught financial peace, and emphasized giving as an important measure of acquiring wealth. He often makes an example of Christian concepts related to serving (like paying tithes) that result in the success of the leader who is serving. Church leaders do the same each week during their sermons. In fact, Christianity is a religion based on God being the leader of this world, but one who emerged as a leader through first having been a servant who ultimately died, paying with his life for the sins of the people of this world to be forgiven. In an interview on servant leadership conducted by EntreLeadership Podcast, Ramsey describes leadership as a paradox where you must have power, but you shouldn’t use it. Instead of being weak as a servant leader, you are loving people and by serving them you are helping them “participate with the inevitable” (Ramsey, 2011).
There is a lot of evidence supporting servant leadership as a learned leadership style, and I firmly believe that it can be taught to any person who wants to learn it.
Barrett, C. (2008, July 9). Southwest Airlines’ Colleen Barrett on ‘Servant Leadership’ Retrieved October 25, 2014.
Northouse, Peter G. (Ed.). (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). SAGE Publications, Inc,
02/2012. VitalBook file.
Ramsey, D. (2011, September 27). The EntreLeadership Podcast. Retrieved October 25, 2014.