Business Psychology

Article No. 359
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Servant Leadership

Research reveals when and how servant leadership works.

Do you know people who are more responsive to other people's needs than to their own? Parents of elementary-age children come to mind, racing down the street to the school bus stop, bathrobes flapping in the chilly breeze and slippers slapping slick sidewalks on a frosty fall morning with a forgotten lunch box carried at arm's length. Of course they're cold, but the needs of the child are more important. This action illustrates an approach to leadership that is both ancient and modern called servant leadership. It was the subject of a recent study by Robert Liden, from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Simply put, servant leaders are alert to and responsive to the needs of others, especially employees and customers. Their attention is focused outward, and their priorities place their own needs below the needs of others. In the workplace, a servant leader would notice, for example, an employee who was falling ill and would send that person home even if it meant that the leader must fill in and stay late to complete management tasks that were neglected.

In ancient Palestine, servant leadership was a startlingly new concept when Jesus first introduced it to his bewildered disciples. They had slowly begun to regard Jesus as a new Messiah, and Jewish tradition led them to expect the Messiah to become a political/military leader. They wanted to join in and become junior Messiahs. Jesus told them that any of them who would lead the others must become a servant to them all, and he bent down and washed all their feet to show them how to lead as a servant.

Today, an evolving body of research helps to explain when, why, and how servant leadership works. Professor Liden has made the most recent contribution. He studied the emergence, efficacy, and influences of servant leadership in 71 restaurants located in 10 metropolitan areas.

In Liden's research, servant leadership emerged in highly interdependent work groups. Restaurant managers revealed servant leadership when they shifted their attention to the needs of others and shifted their priorities to place their own needs at a lower level than employees and customers. When this happened, employees noticed and reacted strongly. First, they shifted their own attention and priorities so that serving others became the rule for everyone in the work group rather than the exception. They copied the leader's behavior. Liden called what emerged a serving culture, where both leaders and employees shared an outward focus and a responsiveness reflecting shifted priorities.

Second, this serving culture stimulated employees to work together to carry out all the duties needed to make their restaurants great places to enjoy good food. Their customer service reflected a servant leadership philosophy, and it was excellent. Employees who worked in these restaurants personally identified with the group and felt fulfilled when the restaurants did well, and they became much more creative in responding to needs customers presented.

Finally, Liden discovered that the emergence of this serving culture was the most important result of servant leadership. It was this shift in focus and priorities in the entire work group that had such a profound impact on individual employees and such a positive impact on objective business measures of restaurant success.

Servant leadership begins simply: a change of focus and of priorities. Liden found that, like a seed, servant leadership slowly emerges into a strikingly successful way to come together, produce a useful product/service, and fulfill the needs of employees and customers. In highly interdependent work settings, we should try it.

Reference: Liden, Robert, Sandy Wayne, Chenwei Liao, and Jeremy Meuser (2014) Servant Leadership and Serving Culture: Influence on Individual and Unit Performance. Academy of Management Journal, 57(5), 1434-1452.

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Keywords: Leadership and Serving culture. Consult Subject Index for related research.

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