In the modern globalized world, leadership remains a highly complex topic that requires a multifaceted approach to its understanding. At the same time, it goes without saying that it is impossible to overestimate the significance of leadership skills for the performance of almost any organization and facility. Leaders articulate inspiring visions, set directions, and guide people toward the achievement of common goals. They motivate and inspire others serving as role models and control the completion of tasks being responsible for general productivity. At the same time, leaders consider their subordinates’ needs, feelings, emotions, skills, competencies, and experience, admitting that the cooperation of competent specialists in a healthy working atmosphere is the foundation of efficient performance.
At the same time, due to new challenges caused by the changing organizational structures, leadership attracts the particular attention of both theorists and practitioners. According to Gandolfi and Stone (2016), “leadership may be seen as one of the most over-researched topics” (p. 212). However, it remains a highly misunderstood business phenomenon as well due to the absence of unified patterns. In general, every leader chooses how to lead and how to impact an organization on the basis of its structure, the peculiarities of its performance, objectives, and leader’s individual characteristics, preferences, and talents. In this case, there are multiple types of leadership identified, and a considerable number of studies are dedicated to their assessment in order to define the most effective ones.
Over the past decades, leadership has presupposed the role of a leader as a commander who monitors his subordinates’ commitment being responsible for the completion of all tasks in a time-sensitive manner. However, the modern competitive environment that requires the mobilization of all human resources and the utilization of employees’ full potential leads to the popularity of servant leadership. This paper aims to examine the concept of this leadership style and its efficiency for organizational performance.
Types of Leadership
There are multiple types of leadership and leadership styles identified in the present day. Regardless of differences, a prevalent number of them are based on theories that explain the concept of leadership and its practice (Gandolfi & Stone, 2016). In particular, the majority of theories view leadership from the position of three major perspectives. They include leadership as a relationship or a process, leadership as “a combination of personality traits and characteristics,” and leadership as related skills and particular behavioral patterns (Gandolfi & Stone, 2016, p. 218). While leadership is a dynamic process, every leadership style has unique features, and there are no common leadership techniques that lead to success; in any case, works dedicated to this phenomenon nevertheless tend to underestimate its complexity.
At the same time, the number of leadership styles and the evaluation of their effectiveness determine the necessity of their classification for research and evidence-based practice. Thus, their potential categorization is based on the following aspects:
- A leader’s cognitive qualities and personal characteristics presuppose his success in this role (Trait leadership);
- A leader’s acquired skills and knowledge as substantial factors of efficient performance (Skills leadership);
- The application of a particular leadership style depends on a situation (Situational leadership);
- The choice of a leadership style for a particular situation determines a leader’s effectiveness (Contingency leadership);
- A leader’s ability to show his followers the path towards desirable goals’ achievement and motivate them (Path-goal leadership);
- A leader’s expectations that lead to particular consequences (Transactional leadership);
- A leader’s ability to build solid relationships with his subordinates and reach their maximum potential through communication and addressing their interests and needs (Transformational leadership);
- A leader’s tendency to act primarily as a servant (Servant leadership).
Description of Servant Leadership
In general, the concept of servanthood has both positive and negative connotations. While serving others is frequently regarded as helping and self-denial, it may be associated with indecisiveness and passivity as well (Heyler & Martin, 2018). In companies, servanthood is traditionally associated with employees helping leaders. However, servant leadership changes this paradigm and inverts the organizational hierarchy. According to Heyler and Martin (2018), servant leadership presupposes that “organizational leaders are serving the other members of the organization” (p. 230). In the present day, it has gained popularity as its application leads to positive outcomes for organizational performance as the modern competitive environment requires the utilization of employees’ full potential. In this case, autocratic leadership that emphasizes the commanding role of a leader and ignores subordinates’ initiatives are gradually replaced by leadership styles, including servant leadership, that may be described as cooperative, individualized, and personal.
Servant leadership may be regarded as oxymoronic in its nature, being seen as a specific philosophy and practice at the same time. According to Gandolfi and Stone (2016), “while traditional leadership often involves the accumulation, harnessing, and exercise of power at the top of an organizational hierarchy, the servant-leader purposefully shares power, places the needs of individuals first, and enables them to perform and grow” (p. 219). The term was initially introduced by Greenleaf in 1996, who stated that servant leadership derives from a natural desire to serve first, and while being served, subordinates become wiser, freer, healthier, and more autonomous (Gandolfi & Stone, 2016). At the same time, servanthood may be regarded as a timeless concept being mentioned in various cultures, traditions, and religions.
Nevertheless, regardless of the fact that the concept of serving others had always been regarded as morally virtuous in various cultures across the globe, the introduction of servant leadership was controversial. First of all, it was initially opposed to the majority of existing leadership styles and the perception of leadership that was popularized in the 20th century. In the present day, contingency, situational, transactional, and other leadership styles that presuppose the dominant role of a leader remain popular; however, servant leadership introduces a genuinely unique perspective. While it is follower-focused rather than leader-focused, its ability to provide positive outcomes in practice deserves particular attention.
On the basis of the nature of servant leadership, it is possible to state that it may be regarded as one of the most difficult leadership styles. The main challenge of it is that a leader should have a natural inner desire to serve others and receive joy from it (Cho, 2020). Moreover, having power or authority, “it is often easier to require follower compliance than it is to inspire a willing acceptance of the requirements needed to meet an organizational mission and vision” (Gandolfi & Stone, 2018, p. 265). That is why regardless of its obvious benefits, servant leadership remains hardly applicable.
It goes without saying that leadership skills play an immeasurably important role in a leader’s performance. At the same time, there are specific qualities that support every leadership style. In relation to servant leadership, listening may be regarded as one of the essential characteristics of a competent leader (Heyler & Martin, 2018). Active listening, instead of a direct articulation of an organization’s vision, corporate goals, and employees’ responsibilities, allows assessing workers’ needs and demands in order to determine further actions, respond to challenges, or manage conflicts.
Acceptance and imagination are other major qualities of a servant leader. In their efforts to establish relationships on the basis of mutual trust, leaders should be empathetic and accepting in relation to subordinates’ individual peculiarities and capabilities related to a professional sphere. At the same time, servant leadership presupposes the combination of trust and accountability as inappropriate efforts that do not correspond with employees’ talents and experience are not accepted (Heyler & Martin, 2018). In addition, a leader’s imagination allows him to connect with subordinates’ experiences in order to create a shared idea that may contribute to an organization’s performance.
Another characteristic of servant leaders is foresight which implies their ability to predict possible future outcomes on the basis of the current situation. Although foresight is essential for all leaders regardless of the leadership styles they practice, in servant leadership, it becomes essential due to a leader’s responsibility to others. Staying focused on the present situation and seeing it as a part of a larger context at the same time allow a servant leader to prepare for upcoming challenges.
Another important ability includes the persuasion of others by showing followers the benefits of their thinking and motivating them to create and perform better. It requires a leader’s persistence, patience, and confidence in personal capabilities. However, when a leader persuades his subordinates, changes will be more long-lasting as subordinates will accept them as their natural way of thinking. Finally, a servant leader should possess the skill of conceptualization in order to see an organization’s vision and share it with others in a way to inspire them. All in all, there are multiple characteristics of servant leaders that should determine their behavior, including authenticity, humility, empowering others, providing direction, interpersonal acceptance, and stewardship as well.
In the present day, the use of servant leadership has become more and more widespread due to considerable changes in almost all spheres of life and their impact on people’s perception of a leader’s position. For the Gen Y population, called millennials, the choice of servant leadership may be determined by several specific factors that address people’s attitudes toward interaction with others (Karvounis, 2015). First of all, in relation to business and finances, Gen Y has been by user-centered design, “commonly defined as a design philosophy where the end-user’s needs, wants, and limitations are a focus at every stage of the development process” (Karvounis, 2015, para. 25). Moreover, in the financial sphere, Gen Y values an adviser’ ability to interpret difficult material and present it in a more comprehensive way to facilitate decision-making. Finally, millennials’ preference for personalization is closely connected with unbundling of services that contribute to more active decision-making and freedom of choice.
On the one hand, the peculiarities of Gen Y’s activities in the spheres of business and finances may be viewed as unrelated to leadership and leadership styles. On the other hand, the modern demands in these spheres form people’s attitudes not only to organizational strategies but interactions within teams as well. In this case, attention to people’s needs and demands, the significance of efficient help, and autonomy are associated with servant leadership. A leader is attentive to his subordinates’ needs and demands, helps, and respects their contribution to general productivity. In turn, with a leader’s support and serving, team members express more autonomy and initiative in decision-making.
Benefits of Servant Leadership
The efficiency of servant leadership was initially admitted by researchers being described as a comprehensive leadership approach. Incorporating the characteristics of other employee-oriented leadership types, including transformational leadership, and implying leader-member exchange, servant leadership is more efficient in the explanation of organizational, group, and individual outcomes (Heyler & Martin, 2018). Moreover, while servant leadership presupposes the absence of self-interest, it is associated with the prevention of unethical behavior.
Associated with participative leadership, servant leadership frequently leads to a high level of employee satisfaction and organizational performance due to a particular construct that presupposes the creation of safety essential for workers (Gandolfi et el., 2017). On the one hand, a leader is traditionally regarded as a morally strong and responsible individual who has the skills, competence, and experience to articulate a company’s vision, set goals, and communicate organizational needs. Serving as a role model, he ensures everyone’s commitment to job duties at the same time. However, on the other hand, psychological safety is essential for employees’ performance, especially during challenging times. For it, a leader and subordinates should create solid relationships on the basis of deep trust and respect. Thus, when a competent leader serves subordinates, he contributes to the establishment of workers’ trust, confidence in his competence, and willingness to behave in a fair and ethical way.
In addition, servant leadership is beneficial for organizational performance by the focus on a team that, in turn, consists of people whose knowledge, competence, and talents contribute to the achievement of corporate goals. While other leadership styles emphasize an exceptional role of a leader as a ruler, they frequently create a diminishing effect. In other words, some leaders tend to drain their subordinates’ capabilities and intelligence in order to attract attention to their own personalities and look smarter. At the same time, within the framework of servant leadership, efficient performance and goal achievement are perceived as a result of collective efforts when every team member, along with a leader, contributes by his capabilities.
As a matter of fact, servant leadership is frequently associated with an agency problem and an ability to reduce it in organizational settings. In the present day, the transition from entrepreneur-owned organizations to modern corporations requires hiring professional managers (agents) by shareholders (principals) for day-to-day operations (Heyler & Martin, 2018). An agency problem occurs when the desires, goals, and an attitude to risks of principals and agents are in conflict with each other or when it becomes challenging for principals to verify agents’ actions. In this case, for principals, it is necessary to monitor agents to ensure the correlation of their actions with principals’ desires.
As servant leadership presupposes putting others’ interests and needs before a leader’s ones, it may substantially reduce an agency issue. Servant leaders have humility, authenticity, and stewardship – in other words, they care about an organization’s interests, consider other people’s well-being, and act in an ethical way. In this case, when agents are servant leaders, their actions will be aligned with principals’ desires to achieve corporate goals more in comparison with self-serving leaders.
At the same time, servant leaders as agents pay particular attention to the well-being, interests, and needs of their subordinates. This attitude allows them to feel safe, motivated, and committed to their job responsibilities and achieving organizational goals. Moreover, servant leaders have the ability to persuade subordinates in a natural way, making them feel valued for their ideas, experience, and contribution to general performance. Moreover, the behavior of servant leaders may be regarded as contagious. In other words, when one person helps others and acts in an ethical way, it inspires others to do the same. In this case, the benefits of servant leadership in one area of a company may impact its other parts or departments.
Moreover, the implementation of servant leadership may be cost-efficient for an organization in two major ways. First of all, the improvement of organizational performance determined by employees’ commitment to work created by a servant leader is traditionally associated with a company’s growth and increased shareholder returns. In addition, servant leadership helps eliminate governance mechanisms that are created in order to address an agency problem. These mechanisms presuppose the system of incentives in order to ensure agents’ commitment (Heyler & Martin, 2018). In turn, as servant leadership enforces workers’ commitment through a leader’s behavior, some of these incentives become unnecessary. This allows principals to save money and invest in a company’s further development.
Critique of Servant Leadership
The critique of servant leadership has multiple perspectives – thus, it was criticized from a social perspective as anti-feminist or religious and from an organizational perspective as being intangible, soft, and ill-reflected. However, this leadership style receives major criticism due to a lack of empirical substantiation and a focus on philosophical theory (Gandolfi & Stone, 2016). In other words, while the theory of servant leadership perfectly describes its mechanism, its practical application may be impacted by the unique characteristics of people and their negative attitudes, interactions, and unethical behavior.
Nevertheless, taking into consideration certain cases of unavailability of interaction, servant leadership has great potential due to its multiple benefits incorporated in a human connection that is absent in a considerable number of leadership styles. Practicing in the areas of psychology and emotional intelligence, servant leaders may achieve positive outcomes as the understanding of others may be regarded as a key to their professional engagement (Gandolfi et al., 2017)). Regardless of the fact that servanthood may be associated with passivity and weakness, servant leadership is a style where a leader does not lose his importance. In turn, it implies a holistic approach, the promotion of collaboration on the basis of trust, service to others, and collective decision-making.
There are multiple leadership styles based on theories that view leadership from the position of three major perspectives, including leadership as a process, personality traits, or professional skills. At the same time, theorists and practitioners undertake all efforts to define the most efficient leadership types that would contribute to an organization’s development to the greatest extent. While servanthood is traditionally associated with employees and leaders are regarded as commanders, servant leadership changes this paradigm and inverts the organizational hierarchy. Described as cooperative, individualized, and personal, it presupposes that a leader acts like a servant first, putting subordinates’ needs in front of his interest. Despite its oxymoronic nature, servant leadership has multiple benefits as it motivates and inspires employees, ensures commitment to the achievement of corporate goals, and promotes ethical behavior, autonomy, and decision-making.
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