If you get much into the academic literature on servant leadership it won’t take long to hear someone state emphatically that there is not much of a research base to support the concept of servant leadership. Some will then dismiss it out of hand and determine that the approach lacks credibility and scholarly support. Actually, the research base on servant leadership is actually quite strong and growing each year.
This misconception is based on the truth that servant leadership is founded on building healthy relationships toward a servant-minded, other-oriented culture and certainly this takes time. We all know that culture change is a long-term process. However, we also know that if culture change does not take place, the organization itself may not survive. Consider the story of Doug Conant taking the helm of the Campbell’s Soup Company in the early 2000’s.
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.
Is servant leadership an approach that only works for certain types of leaders, in certain types of organizations? Or, is it limited to leaders of a particular personality within a particular organizational setting? If servant leadership only works in certain circumstances, then it is understandable why servant leadership is not more prevalent in organizations today. But, this is not the case. This is a misconception of what servant leadership is all about; a misconception that presents three distinct challenges to the acceptability of this powerful way of leading. Let’s explore each of these three challenges.