Servant Leadership 2.0: A Call for Strong Theory

By Berger, Travis A. | Sociological Viewpoints, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Servant Leadership 2.0: A Call for Strong Theory


Berger, Travis A., Sociological Viewpoints


Abstract

Servant leadership has made significant progress over the past four decades. In order to emerge from the fifth decade of research as a prominent leadership theory, the servant leadership academic community needs to address two critical issues: 1) the need for strong theory construction and evaluation, and 2) the use of the term servant. This article reviews the advances within servant leadership, documents the major theory construction and evaluation literature, introduces a vocabulary and criteria for theory construction and evaluation, and highlights the problematic nature of the term servant. The author argues that servant leadership scholars should focus their efforts on strong theory construction and evaluation, in addition to openly debating the use of the term servant in an academically rigorous fashion, to position servant leadership squarely within the mainstream leadership research literature.

Introduction

Major corporate scandals involving powerful and respected organizations, such as Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco have created a climate where the public is demanding transparency and corporate responsibility (Wong and Davey, 2007). The unprecedented bank failures, compounded by the current sluggish economic recovery from the Great Recession, have only further weakened the public's confidence in the business community. These public abuses of power, unethical practices, and questionable leadership styles have led to unhealthy emotions and alienation in the workforce (Sendjaya, Sarros, and Santora, 2008). Organizations have responded to this toxic environment by focusing on leadership styles that will re-engage employees (Schaufeli and Salanova, 2007). Embracing leadership styles that focus on people and that drive employee engagement is a major priority for the business community (Schaufeli and Bakker, 2010).

Servant leadership has emerged as one of the prominent leadership theories that have the potential to cultivate engaged employees by producing a positive organizational culture in a socially responsible manner (Van Dierendonck, 2011). Currently, there is not a single model or agreed upon definition of servant leadership, but there are many different conceptual models and related measurement instruments of servant leadership. Robert Greenleaf (1977) coined the term servant leadership, but he did not consciously develop a theory of servant leadership. Instead, his seminal work The Servant as Leader can be classified as a metatheory, described by Powers (2010:9) as "a framework for understanding that is g iven its contour by the orienting questions we ask, by the concepts informing our sensitivity (or our blind spots), and the axiomatic assumptions we are inclined to make." Greenleaf (1977), working during the tumultuous 1960s, reframed the focus of leadership away from the leader and moved the focus toward the interaction between the leader and follower. Greenleaf (1977:27) simply stated that people judge a servant leader by this test: "Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"

Robert Greenleaf was not a scholar by choice, which might be the reason he did not develop a theory of servant leadership. Greenleaf (2002:15) states, "early on I made a distinction between wisdom and scholarship; and the former, what works well in practice, has long been my central interest. This is not said to denigrate scholarship. It has its place, and there is a subtle interaction between the two, but they are different things." Greenleaf had a pragmatic worldview, described by Creswell (2009:6) as being "problem-centered, pluralistic, and real-world oriented." Greenleaf (2002:16) stated, "And, as it proved to be in time, it was the right choice for one like me, a student of organization-how things get done, and a pursuer of wisdom-what works well in practice." Regretfully, servant leadership went straight from a metatheory to measurement instruments and conceptual models without any serious academic consideration for theory construction. …

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