New Research Validates Effectiveness of Servant Leadership

servant leadershipI’ve been a big advocate of servant leadership for years. If you’re not familiar with the concept, servant leadership turns the traditional organizational pyramid upside down. Instead of lording over the people he leads, a servant leader seeks to accomplish goals by serving the people he leads.

If you’re a Christian, you’ll recognize Jesus was the ultimate servant leader. He said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:43-45). Jesus went so far as to demonstrate the concept by washing his disciple’s feet, a chore reserved for servants.

So, servant leadership has been a very popular concept in Christian leadership circles for a long time. And it’s been making major inroads into corporate leadership circles in recent years as well, thanks to the work of Robert Greenleaf, Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey and others.

But does servant leadership actually work?

Up until now I would say, “Yes.” But my reasoning has been philosophical and anecdotal. Philosophically, I believe Jesus was a great leader, I strive to be like Jesus, so if he said to lead by serving and he lived that way, that’s a compelling reason for me to pursue servant leadership. Anecdotally, as I’ve led in my work, church, and community and as I’ve worked with both servant leaders and non-servant leaders, I’ve seen the effectiveness of servant leadership.

If you’re a scientist, you know philosophical and anecdotal evidence is hardly proof, but it was the best we had to work with… until now.

Bret Simmons wrote a great post summarizing the results of a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology based on the evaluation of 191 financial services teams. The study found…

[Servant] leadership was found to affect cognition-based trust, which is trust based on the belief that the leader is competent, responsible, reliable, and dependable. Servant leadership was found to predict affect-based trust, which is trust based on an emotional bond to the leader because people believe the leader genuinely cares and is concerned about their welfare…

While both were shown to significantly affect team performance, the size of the effect of team psychological safety was almost double the size of the effect of team potency. This is important to note because it was servant leadership that produced an affect-based trust in followers, and that type of trust in the leader allowed teams to reach the highest levels of performance.

So, there you have it – scientific proof that servant leadership is the best way to lead. I encourage you to read Bret’s entire blog post – Servant Leadership, Trust, And Team Performance.

Discussion

  • Do you take a servant leadership approach to leadership, viewing your role as a leader to serve the team rather than lord over it?
  • If so, where have you seen this to be effective? Got any stories?
  • What do you think of the research? Does it motivate even more you to serve others as you lead?

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