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What is Leadership in the 50th Anniversary year of Servant Leadership?

Jasmine Burton discusses servant leadership with alumnus Dr. James Lemoine, Assistant Professor Organization and Human Resources at the University at Buffalo.
Dr. James Lemoine with Dr. Terry Blum

Dr. James Lemoine with Dr. Terry Blum

“What is Leadership?” Derivatives of this question have been the roots of much of Dr. James Lemoine’s research and career. In his latest TEDx Talk, he asks the audience “as a leader or someone who wants to be a leader - think about what your team or organization does. Is your cause noble and worth doing?”

He subsequently says in the talk that “there is an approach to leadership - one that shares power rather than hoarding it; one that puts others first, develops them and helps them to grow and succeed; and one that gets together with teammates to talk about [how to] make a difference in the broader world. It's called servant leadership.”

Over a fireside chat with James, he explained further that concepts such as servant leadership, ethics, and morality are all terms that everyone has an image of in their minds; however, we often don't agree on what they actually mean. When James was advised by Terry Blum, the Director of the Institute for Leadership and Social Impact (ILSI), during his PhD years at the Scheller College of Business, he actually focused his dissertation on servant leadership and recalls how difficult it was to answer the question “What is servant leadership?”

James reflected further by highlighting that 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of servant leadership. In 1970, Robert Greenleaf, a retired executive with AT&T, released an essay called The Servant as Leader which confused many people in business at the time. Fast-forward to today - where B-Corps, cooperative models, and social impact metrics are integral in many triple bottom line companies, which showcases how the world is “catching up to what Greenleaf saw 50 years ago”. James believes that the increased acceptance and popularity of servant leadership or stakeholder-centric management could be attributed to generational phenomena such as the greater expectations of organizations and new generations of managers taking over organizations. James also highlighted that in August 2019, the Business Roundtable declared that the purpose of a corporation is now no longer solely profit, as mentioned in the quote below by the CEO of Progressive Corporation.  

CEOs work to generate profits and return value to shareholders, but the best-run companies do more. They put the customer first and invest in their employees and communities. In the end, it’s the most promising way to build long-term value,” said Tricia Griffith, President, and CEO of Progressive Corporation.

This declaration has codified the inclusion of people and ethics in the value that businesses provide to the world. 

In this growing ecosystem where servant leadership is viewed in an aspirational light, there has also been some pushback. After giving over 100 presentations to various business leaders, organizations, and associations on servant leadership, James noted that he commonly hears people ask ‘how is it possible to have a sustainable organization if you're not focused on making a profit and are so concerned about the wellbeing of customers, employees, and stakeholders?’ James calls the answer to this question, the ‘Paradox of Leadership.’ “[Studies show] that companies who are less laser-focused on profits actually make more profits” because the companies’ stakeholders reciprocate goodwill, loyalty, and commitment to the organization’s success. 

Another criticism that James sometimes hears is that servant leadership is just a ‘soft concept’ and that leaders, managers, and employers cannot always be friends with their employees. James responds with the following: “There's a myth that servant leadership is about being nice, flexible, and saying yes all of the time. And while we do think of servant-leaders as kind, generous, and helpful, there's nothing in the idea of servant leadership that says that they're pushovers, or even that they're always nice. In fact, it's the opposite. Greenleaf says, [servant-leaders are] always pushing their employees for more because they want them to surpass their own limits. It is about always pushing and developing your team because you believe that they can be even more than what they are now.” 

Check out more from Jasmine’s interview with James below to read about his definition of servant leadership as well as his views on its relevance in the time of COVID-19 and as it relates to Gender Equity in business leadership. 

What is your definition of servant leadership?

Servant leadership is a humble form of influence, where the servant-leader is focused on motivating and developing followers with the end goal of benefiting all of an organization's stakeholders. Servant-leaders in for-profit businesses still prioritize profit, but they do so alongside a focus on the good of employees, customers, partners, suppliers, and the community as a whole, rather than just focusing on the bottom-line alone.

Tell us a bit about your piece “How managers and organizations can navigate the COVID-19 crisis—and come out stronger” that you penned at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and how servant leadership can play a role for leaders through this unprecedented time. 

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed like everybody was very much focused on organizational survival. Everybody was focused on ‘how do we make ends meet?’, ‘how do we pay our employees?’, ‘who do we furlough?’, and  ‘who do we lay off?’

Based on this framing, I was concerned that there were a lot of businesses and business leaders that were so focused on organizational survival and short term concerns when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, that they were forgetting the long term value and need for that ‘people-focus’ approach. 

There are a lot of people who have written criticisms about the use of servant leadership in a crisis context because they believe that a people-focus distracts from the more immediate concern of financial sustainability. These skeptics argue that because the business leader would so focused on all the different organizational stakeholders in a servant leadership model, they would not be focused on the bottom line and the organization’s survival through the crisis. 

I always thought that was a silly criticism because if all you're paying attention to as a leader is the bottom line, your customers and employees are going to notice your lack of focus on them, and you as the business leader are not positioning yourself to survive in the short term or the long term. It's all connected. 

I have been working on research over the past few months with my colleague Chad Hartnell from Georgia State University through which we have found the opposite of this criticism to be true. We have found that servant leadership is particularly suited for crisis context because when people are struggling, they need that further level of support to cope and prosper. We ran quantitative statistical analyses on employees’ hard contributions to organizational finances, and we found consistent evidence that the employees led by people-focused servant-leaders were generating more money for the business, not less. And there are few more enduring and supportive forms of leadership than servant leadership. (Lemoine and Hartnell are currently preparing to submit this research for publication)

Tell us more about the importance of your newly published article that you coauthored with ILSI’s Terry Blum entitled “servant leadership, leader gender, and team gender role: Testing a female advantage in a cascading model of performance of that topic”. 

So there is a psychological bias in all of our heads called “think leader, think male” which is tied to an academic perspective called implicit leadership theory. And it basically states that in all of our heads, we have a mental image, usually subconscious, of what a leader is supposed to look like. And for most of us, when we just think of a leader in our head, we think of a man. The reason for this is the socialization of gender norms, where society tends to stereotype men as bold, independent leaders and women as more caring, helpful nurturers. I also think this is because most widely recognized leaders on the global stage - from real-life politicians to the cartoons you watch on TV - are male. Society has for centuries positioned and favored men as the leaders, which can impact women's perceived effectiveness when it comes to traditional leadership. 

And this is because whatever you subconsciously believe a leader should look like, whenever you encounter someone who claims to be a leader, you subconsciously compare them to that stereotype. According to the theory, the more that person matches the stereotype, the more easily people follow their lead. The more that person doesn’t match the stereotype, the more people tend to resist them. So the fact that there is this implicit bias in favor of men in traditional leadership means that men and women alike have judged women more harshly than they should when they are in leadership roles. 

There is a lot of evidence showing that men and women have the same level of leadership skills. There's no reason why men should be more successful as leaders than women, and no aptitude difference that says men should get promoted into leadership roles more than women. Men are not inherently better leaders, it's just that men match these subconscious stereotypes that the majority of people internalized. 

This is the theory that Terry and I had in mind when we were conducting the research for our recent publication. We were responding to the decades of research that says that men, unfortunately, have an unfair advantage in traditional leadership because they fit the socialized gender norms of the prototypical independent, assertive, task-focused leader. But when we think of a servant-leader, that's more rooted in caring about the stakeholders, empathizing with the community, and being compassionate towards employees and their growth. We see that these underlying leadership characteristics match society’s female stereotypes, rather than the male ones. Based on this, Terry and I hypothesized that, contrary to pretty much every other form of leadership that's been studied, women - not men - would have the advantage as servant-leaders. That is, because servant leadership matches those female stereotypes rather than the masculine ones, women might be more effective at it than men. 

Through our research, we tested our hypotheses in seven different organizations, and our findings aligned well with what we expected. We found that although both men and women are effective when using servant leadership, women have an advantage in that they seem to make more credible role-models. The followers of servant-leaders start to act like servant-leaders themselves, even when they’re not in a leadership role, and as a result, they perform at measurably higher levels. It should be noted that Terry and I are not saying that these societal gender norms or implicit biases are a good thing, nor do we hope that they will be around for a long time. The purpose of this research was to showcase through evidence that in our currently gendered reality, servant leadership is a style of business leadership in which women have the advantage to be the most effective leaders. This is a good thing, not least because ultimately research indicates that servant leadership may be one of the most effective leadership styles. Overall, this indicates that organizations that fail to promote women into leadership roles are likely missing out on some of their most effective potential leaders.

As a Georgia Tech and ILSI alumnus himself, James says “the world is a better place because the Scheller College of Business exists. Its true social impact focus and ethos through ILSI makes the college itself a humble servant-leader within the business school space.” ILSI is grateful for all of the incredible work that James has and continues to do! For more information on James' latest research, you can follow him here

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