Misconception #4: Servant Leadership is Too Religious, Too Christian, and Too Western

This is the 5th in a series on the topic of Misconception and Objections to Servant Leadership. Why, after all these years, is servant leadership not more practiced? Why is this powerful approach so easily dismissed as being irrelevant or impractical to day to day organizational life? This series explores the common misconceptions that often result in leaders ignoring a way of leading that can bring their organizations greater health and higher performance.

Misconception #4: Servant Leadership is Too Religious, Too Christian, and Too Western

As a value-laden and virtuous philosophy of leadership, it is no surprise that servant leadership is sometimes dismissed as an approach that applies only to those of deep religious faith. Those who have studied Robert Greenleaf’s writings are aware of his Quaker roots and one can certainly discern the moral foundation underlying his view of leading as a servant. However, Greenleaf did not promote servant leadership from a religious or Christian view. He saw it as a necessary antidote to the oppressive power-over tactics of leaders and the failed outcome of flawed autocratic ways of leading through fear and intimidation. He knew there must be another way for leaders and their organizations to be find health and success.

So, though servant leadership clearly shares concepts from religious faith and Christian belief (like love, service, forgiveness) this way of leading also applies outside of the realm of faith to work in all types and kinds of organizations. Think of this as you might view the universal concept of love. Clearly, love is deeply connected to religious and Christian belief and yet love is a universal concept applicable to those of faith or to those with no faith. Servant leadership, like love, works because it is true to the human condition and true to what people respond to in their leaders.

But, is servant leadership too Western and therefore not applicable to other cultures? To address this question, I would like to introduce the Global Leadership & Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) studies; an extensive multi-year research project that collected data from 62 different countries representing all regions of the world. This study asked leaders and workers within these various cultures to speak to their preferred leadership styles (Autonomous, Self-Protective, Charismatic/Value-Based, Team-Oriented, Humane-Oriented or Participative). It probably is no surprise that different cultures preferred different emphases on leadership as represented by these six styles. However, something very interesting was also revealed.

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The Globe studies also identified a set of universal leadership attributes that included the following positive characteristics of leaders:

  • Trustworthy
  • Honest
  • Encouraging
  • Dependable
  • Team Builder
  • Positive
  • Just (Northouse, 2018, p. 8)

In addition to these positive attributes, the study also identified universal negative attributes; characteristics that people worldwide do not want in their leaders:

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  • Ruthless
  • Dictatorial
  • Non-cooperative
  • Egocentric (Northouse, 2018, p. 8)

Clearly, servant leadership values as represented in these lists transcend culture and country boundaries. (Laub, 2018)

Servant leadership is a way of leading that puts the well-being of the led above the self-interest of the leader. It promotes the positive leader qualities listed above and rejects the negative qualities; ones shared by cultures and faiths throughout the world. Servant leadership is based on universal qualities that, though rooted in faith traditions, transcend sectarian limits and apply within all cultural environments. Servant leadership, like love, is a universal concept that people respond to because it calls out the best of who they are and provides the greatest opportunity for personal empowerment, growth and organizational success.

Your fellow servant,


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