Conceptually, many agree as to what constitutes a servant leader, although many variations of these characteristics can be found in the literature. The terms "servant" and "leader" may seem contradictory, which is one of the greatest barriers to operationalizing the concept of the servant leader in modern organizations. The following will examine key literature regarding the ability to operationalize the concept of the servant leader.
What Distinguishes the Servant Leader?
The largest body of literature on the servant leader comprises those articles that attempt to define it at its most basic level. The concept of the servant leader is abstract and subjective at best. Several themes arise in an attempt to define the servant leader and their distinguishing characteristics. Lists of subjective characteristics often serve as the basis for the definition of the servant leader. Whether a person actually possesses these traits, or how many of the traits are required to make one qualify as a servant leader are often left up to the judgment of the reader. These problems with the definition of a servant leader permeate research on the topic.
The servant leader can be defined using traits, actions, or outcomes, depending on the theorist with which one tends to agree. These traits have been refined many times over the past 30 years. Many common themes and characteristics tend to repeat themselves throughout the literature. Among them, the theme of self-sacrifice is the most common reoccurring theme in the literature. The servant leader is expected to sacrifice personal or professional gain if it will benefit the group (Matterson & Irving, 2006).
All agree that the servant leader is a servant first, and a leader second (Matterson & Irving, 2006). Other traits vary according to author and topic. However, as a whole they paint the picture of the servant leader as a certain personality type with special traits such as altruism, trust, vision, credibility, appreciation for others and the means to empower them (Matterson & Irving, 2006). The servant leader has an identifiable set of characteristics. These characteristics will be used in the development of the survey instrument for this study.
Are Servant Leaders Born or Made?
The central issue of this research study is to investigate whether servant leaders are born or made. When a person graduates from college, they take an oath to give back to their community and their university, but only the true servant leader will make good on that promise (Grizzell, 2008). Somewhere in the educational process, the concept of serving others is lost in the competition for personal gain and position upon graduation. The focus tends to be on the ability to provide oneself an advantage over the others, not on succeeding for the good of the community (Grizzell, 2008). There is a disconnect in the message sent by university education and the development of the servant leader.
The educational process typically refers to the "technical" portion of the learning process. However, sufficient support exists that leaders can be made through a developmental process that allows individuals to become empowered in controlling issues that are important to them (Grizzell, 2008). This can only happen if "personal development" becomes an accepted part of the curriculum.
Greenleaf (1977) calls the desire to serve begins with a "natural" feeling that one wishes to serve. This definition suggests that one must first possess an innate feeling in order to be a leader. Although Greenleaf does not state so directly, he implies throughout his work that certain people are gifted with the qualities of the servant leader. This leads to the logical question of whether these qualities can be "taught" to those that do not naturally possess them. Greenleaf's position tends to suggest that the tendency to be a servant leader must already be present in order for those traits to be seen outwardly.
Several cultural aspects of the servant leader were found in the literature. For instance, an examination of leadership in Bedouin cultures, with their tribal roots, finds generosity and concern for others as key virtue necessary for tribal chiefs. Self-sacrifice for the sake of the tribe is embedded in Bedouin culture (Sarayrah, 2004). These values later became key concepts in Muslim traditions as well (Sarayrah, 2004).
Another example of the need for a servant leadership approach appears in first and second generation Chinese-American protestant churches. A recent study found that in order to manage the needs of followers effectively, church leadership needed to take a servant-leader approach. More aggressive styles of leadership were not culturally compatible with the Chinese culture, particularly among first genera6tion Chinese immigrants (Baldomir, 2008).
A recent study of servant leadership across cultures reveals several common themes. Large corporate scandals, including Enron and Worldcom scandals increased the importance of the topic of servant leadership (Hale & Fields, 2007). These scandals raised the demand from the public for leaders that they could trust. In a study that compared the experiences of person in Ghana with those in the United States, it was found that those in Ghana reported experiencing servant leadership behaviors significantly less than those in North America (Hale & Fields, 2007). This study also revealed that vision was associated with servant leadership more frequently for the Ghana population than for those in North America (Hale & Fields, 2007). Both populations considered service and humility to be important leadership qualities (Hale & Fields, 2007).
This group of studies concern the connection between culture and servant leadership found significant differences in leadership expectations and leadership attitudes among the various cultures. Certain cultures were found to embody the attitude of the servant leader as a basic tenet of their society. Others have only recently paid significant attention to need to foster servant leaders in their business leaders. These differences in culture support the theory that servant leadership could be learned. Culture is a learned trait, which suggests that in cultures where servant leadership is high, this trait was instilled through social learning in the culture. The existence of differences among various cultures concerning servant leadership supports the position of this research that servant leadership could be fostered through student experiences.
Service Leadership and Morality
Religion and business education seldom cross in the academic world. However, they cannot be separated when the research involves service learning. Many academic texts consider service learning to be a part of the student's moral development, further emphasizing the concept that leadership differs from management. The leader must often make moral decisions regarding the welfare of his or her charges. The service leader is more likely to make decisions that are in the best interest of those whom they serve, rather than what is best for their own personal gain. Service leadership is a desired trait in future managers, which translates into a preferred set of moral rules that must be taught and embraced by the student.
Service leadership often requires the leader to recognize the good and bad in all of their experiences. This recognition is referred to as self-transcendence. The leader deliberates and evaluates the potential benefits and harms of their actions, only then can they make a just decision on the correct action to be taken. Academic literature refers to this concept as self-transcendence (Wei, 2007). Self-transcendence and servant leadership are closely related. The servant leader must achieve self-transcendence in order to make the correct decisions for the group.
Literature regarding self-transcendence reference the need and process involved in internal changes within the student, often mentioning God's love and role in these changes (Wei, 2007). Transcendence can happen on an intellectual and on a religious level. Research indicates that student's can achieve self-transcendence through service learning experience (Wei, 2007). This research coincides with the theories and assumptions that form the basis of the proposed research.
The findings of this research indicated that the service-learning experience at a university resulted in achievement of self-transcendence in the areas of intellectual and moral conversion (Wei, 2007). These findings support the hypothesis of the proposed study and indicate that the servant learning experience results in changes within students that are consistent with the service leadership model. This study did not explore the mechanism or process of those changes, but it did indicate that they had occurred.
Gorman, Duffy, & Hefferman (1982) also explored the connection between the service learning experience and the moral development of college students. This study explored a similar topic to the proposed research. It examined whether the service learning experience would have a measurable effect on principled thinking. This study focused on Kohnberg's Moral Development Theory, particularly stages 5 and 6. This stage is important in the provision of the principles of consensus government and basic human rights. These concepts are essential for the development of social cooperation. In stage 6 of Kohlberg's theory, people are viewed as ends-in-themselves, rather than as tool for the attainment of some other good (Gorman, Duffy, & Hefferman, 1982).
The findings of this study indicated that students who engaged in community service work demonstrated an increase in…