Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

From the West to the East: Validating Servant Leadership in the Chinese Public Sector

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

From the West to the East: Validating Servant Leadership in the Chinese Public Sector

Article excerpt


With the organizational scandals and leadership crisis, interest in ethical styles of leadership is growing (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Brown, Trevino, & Harrison, 2005; Van Knippenberg, De Cremer, & Van Knippenberg, 2007). As a special type of ethical leadership, servant leadership has attracted the attention of leadership scholars and practitioners (Mayer, Bardes, & Piccolo, 2008).

A servant leader places the needs of followers before his or her personal interests (Hale & Fields, 2007; Matteson & Irving, 2006; Sendjaya & Sarros, 2002) and ensures that followers' highest priority needs are being met (Graham, 1991; Greenleaf, 1977). Servant leaders empower their followers to "grow healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants" (Greenleaf, 1977, p. 13-14). Although servant leadership shares some conceptual similarities with leader-member exchange (LMX), transformational leadership, and ethical leadership, it focuses more on promoting the interests of others (Ehrhart, 2004; Graham, 1991; Mayer et al., 2008; Walumbwa, Hartnell, & Oke, 2010). This altruistic and service orientation is prominent in servant leadership theory (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006; Dennis & Bocamea, 2005). Therefore, the theory might show a great potential in organizational leadership (van Dierendonck, 2011).

Since the term servant leadership was coined four decades ago and empirical studies began investigating this concept more than 10 years ago, several scales have been developed. Unfortunately, there is still confusion about the operationalization of servant leadership, and this confusion has given rise to huge academic and practical challenges (van Dierendonck, 2011). Clearly, servant leadership has demonstrated great potential for leadership research in both China and the West (Liden, 2012). To the best of our knowledge, only few scales were developed in China. In an overview of leadership research in Asia, Liden (2012) briefly covered some of the similarities and differences between Asian and Western leadership styles and stressed that instead of developing theories and measures unique to specific countries, such as China, the focus should be on explaining relationships between leadership and both its antecedents and outcomes. He added that the development of future scales should incorporate respondents from multiple cultural contexts.

To understand the theory of servant leadership, a reliable and valid instrument is needed (Liden, 2012; Parris & Peachey, 2013; van Dierendonck, 2011; Verdorfer & Peus, 2014). In this study, we put aside the original development of servant leadership and using the same sample, we tested simultaneously the generalizability of three measures developed in the Western society in a Chinese context. "Nothing in public administration is more important, interesting, or mysterious than leadership" (Lambright & Quinn, 2011, p. 782). Based on the literature review, the study examined the construct of servant leadership in the Chinese public sector. This article evaluated the generalizability of the construct of servant leadership observed in Western societies to a Chinese setting. We also investigated the relationships between supervisors' servant leadership and their immediate subordinates' public service motivation (PSM).

Servant Leadership

Servant leadership was introduced by Robert Greenleaf (1970) after he retired from 40 years of management work at AT&T. However, Greenleaf's thinking crystallized in the 1960s, when he read Hermann Hesse's (1956) Journey to the East in which the servant, Leo, becomes the leader through his servanthood to a group of people on a spiritual pilgrimage. After reading this story and recalling his experience with working at AT&T, Greenleaf concluded that the central meaning of the story was that the great leader first serves others, and that this simple fact is central to the leader's greatness. …

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