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Pointing out an approach to Leadership that would Change the World
“…it is the responsibility of organisations to re-create a sense of community, which can only be achieved by servant leaders”
“Servant leadership” has become popular in the 21st century, although the term was first coined by Robert Greenleaf in the 1960-70s. Greenleaf had a background in teaching, and his theories have since been widely applied within education. The theory is truly people-orientated, in that the goal of leaders is to serve followers (not as a means to enlisting support toward achieving the organisation’s aims). However, the altruism of each leader’s intention may be difficult to judge.
Servant leadership theory acknowledges some key inherent traits of servant leaders. It differs from other theories in that it begins “with an analysis of leader motivation” (Smith, Montagno, & Kuzmenko, 2004) – before leading, leaders must first scrutinise their motivations for doing so. Waddell proposes that servant leaders are introverted people, who tend toward self-reflection.
Traits of Servant Leaders
Sendjaya et al. claims the traits of servant leaders to be listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to growth of people and building communities. Patterson also claims that servant leaders demonstrate agapao love (familial love), act with humility, are altruistic, are visionary for their followers, are trusting, empower followers and are serving.
These traits, and the theory’s acknowledgement of the limitations of traditional position power (given to leaders by a “higher authority”), suggest a reliance on personal, “referent” power. Further, it is claimed that servant leaders must rely on their values to influence followers. However, it is inherently difficult for organisations to teach values, making servant leadership difficult to operationalise. Becoming a servant leader can be a long process.
What Servant Leaders do
Forming a part of their strong values system, is the servant leaders predilection toward social change. Greenleaf felt that society had lost a sense of community due to the growth of organisations – hindering our ability to effectively provide human services. He therefore suggests that in order to provide these services, it is the responsibility of organisations to re-create a sense of community, which can only be achieved by servant leaders. The first step in creating this sense of community is to select followers who fit the organisation’s culture. Culture is defined here as a set of shared assumptions, values and beliefs. Then once selected, organisations must be flexible and mould themselves around their followers’ abilities, instead of pushing them (as traditional organisations do) to fill the gaps found within the fixed structure.
As with distributed and situational/contingency leadership theory, roles emerge from interactions between leaders, followers and the situation, lubricating the ability of followers to self-actualise – reaching their highest potential. The servant leader aims to empower people to self-actualise and become leaders, which (as with transformational theory) has been criticised for creating opportunity for unhealthy subordinate relationships (meaning hierarchies can be difficult to enforce). However, it is claimed that servant leaders can avoid this as their “belief system says he or she is no better than those who are led” (Lee & Zemke, 1993, p. 86).
Servant leaders’ main focus is on serving followers, without this being a means to meeting organisational aims. However, it is impossible to be certain of a leader’s true intentions. Servant leaders aim to empower followers to achieve their higher order needs (toward self-actualisation) and they also seem to rely heavily on their inherent, personal power. Servant leaders also aim to create a sense of community, which is brought about by first selecting people who fit with the organisation’s culture.
Therefore it seems that servant leadership holds great applicability toward community and voluntary organisations – a statement that has been supported in the literature. Greenleaf’s interest in community seems to further support his theory’s application to community and voluntary organisations. However, if we’re to believe the following quote by leadership experts, Jackson and Parry; servant leaders may also be just who we need in charge of our governments. After-all, they’re supposed to be serving us, right?
“This kind of (genuine) leadership (within community and voluntary organisations) relationship is something that is quite special and memorable…” “…It’s something that we should aim for if we wish to secure a sustainable future for everybody on the planet: the kind of leadership that is required if we are to confront complex and massive scale issues such as global warming, poverty and the control of virulent diseases. Leaders will continue to play an important role in this relationship. We will still need leaders, but they will be different types of leaders.” (Jackson & Parry, 2011, p. 15)
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