When is Servant Leadership Appropriate?

Servant leadership has often been ill-defined. Practitioners and theorists alike tend to lump a number of positive traits and behaviors together to form this amalgamation called servant leadership.

Jon Aarum Andersen (2009) Lilllehammer University College, in Norway detailed his reasons to doubt the veracity of people who claim the mantle of servant leadership. He points out that we lack a generally accepted definition of or instruments for measuring servant-leadership. Because of these shortcomings we don’t know how to make a distinction between leaders who are servant-leaders and those who are not. Can leaders be servant-leaders to different degrees? What is the scale of servant leadership? What is it compared to? It is hard to verify the positive effects of servant-leadership on organizational outcomes. Some studies have shown negative effects of servant-leadership on organizational effectiveness.

Liden, Wayne, Zhao and Henderson in their 2008 study based research by Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006; Page & Wong, 2000 and Spears & Lawrence, 2002 developed a taxonomy of servant leader behavior:

  • Emotional healing—the act of showing sensitivity to others' personal concerns

  • Creating value for the community—a conscious, genuine concern for helping the community

  • Conceptual skills—possessing the knowledge of the organization and tasks at hand so as to be in a position to effectively support and assist others, especially immediate followers

  • Empowering—encouraging and facilitating others, especially immediate followers, in identifying and solving problems, as well as determining when and how to complete work tasks

  • Helping subordinates grow and succeed—demonstrating genuine concern for others' career growth and development by providing support and mentoring

  • Putting subordinates first—using actions and words to make it clear to others (especially immediate followers) that satisfying their work needs is a priority (Supervisors who practice this principle will often break from their own work to assist subordinates with problems they are facing with their assigned duties.)

  • Behaving ethically—interacting openly, fairly, and honestly with others

  • Relationships—the act of making a genuine effort to know, understand, and support others in the organization, with an emphasis on building long-term relationships with immediate followers

  • Servanthood—a way of being marked by one's self-categorization and desire to be characterized by others as someone who serves others first, even when self-sacrifice is required

Look at Dave Ramsey and many other Christian business men. They are servant leaders as long as the perception of them as servant leaders helps them out. They jettison “Servant-Leaderhood” when necessary OR attach to “Servant-Leaderness” attributes that are not compatible with a coherent definition. It is very hard to be consistent servant leader.

In some cases you had better consult with your HR department and legal counsel. Servant leadership may assign arbitrary standards to performance. Jesus espoused servant leadership well before it was en vogue. He said, “Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matthew 20:15-16)” Do you provide bonuses to friends or family based on personal preference? This is great when it comes to grace and mercy. But, is this the best way to run your operation?

This is not to say that Servant Leaders don’t exist. Many leaders should aspire to serve more people to a greater degree. In many cases the damage done by self-interested leaders is much greater that any action servant leaders do or don’t take, by orders of magnitude. But, servant leadership is not some magic pill. And there is a reason for that. Servant leaders are not the best leaders in every situation or for every kind work or organization.

  • Sergeants cannot be servant leaders, at least not all the time.

  • CEOs should not be servant leaders, at least not all the time.

  • Parents cannot always be servant leaders, at least not all the time.

Don’t be a Servant Leader IF you have:

  • Extermetly high profit motive or profit standards. (This means you need a cut throat mentality to deal with reality. You can’t define massive layoffs as servant leadership. You can demonstrate that it makes sense).

  • Work that needs authoritative direction. (For example, many medical or emergency response fields require command and control. Of course military leadership is the prime example of directive leadership. This should not be construed as servant leadership.)

  • Necessary hierarchical structures for clear roles and decision making. (Military action and bases run on a unity of command and direct reporting structure for the chain of command. This structure is not designed for servant leadership nor does an operational mission focused culture promote serving others.)

  • Upper management has explicit expectations of midlevel management that includes performance that is contrary to servant leadership. (Going against the grain of culture is typically foolish. Martyrdom and servant leadership are not identical – even though there is a distinct overlap.)

  • Competing loyalties. To the extent you serve one person you will diminish your contribution to the other. You can only do so much, and promising to be in two places at once is usually a bad idea. ("No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Luke 16:13)."

  • Requirements for discipline or training that go beyond professional development. In some cases you need to be stern and withhold customary assistance or even guidance as a way of testing and stretching your charges. This is not servant leadership, but it is effective coaching and parenting in many cases. Just don’t conflate the two or both become watered-down.

If you want to be a servant leader, that is a good calling. You will be tested by these challenges. And by the grace of God you will be able to stand up to the temptation to fold when convenient. Even if this costs you in the short-term it will build character and experience and wisdom for your life. And that is the real measure of servant leadership: do you believe in a standard of success that goes beyond the typical measurements in many organizations?


Andersen, J. A. (2009). When a servant-leader comes knocking…. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 30(1), 4–15.

Barbuto, J., & Wheeler, D. (2006). Scale development and construct clarification of servant leadership. Group & Organization Management, 31,300−326.

Liden, R. C., Wayne, S. J., Zhao, H., & Henderson, D. (2008). Servant leadership: Development of a multidimensional measure and multi-level assessment. The Leadership Quarterly, 19(2), 161–177.

Page, D., & Wong, P. T. P. (2000). A conceptual framework for measuring servant leadership. In S. Adjibolooso (Ed.), The human factor in shaping the course of history and development (pp. 69−110). Washington, DC: American University Press.

Spears, L. C., & Lawrence, M. (2002). Focus on leadership: Servant-leadership for the 21st century. New York: John Wiley & Sons.


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