Aurora Borealis
1 November 2013 CFA Institute Journal Review

A Systematic Literature Review of Servant Leadership Theory in Organizational Contexts (Digest Summary)

  1. Servaas Houben, CFA

The concepts behind servant leadership were formed in the 1970s and have since led to an increase in the number of articles covering this topic. But because the concept is rather abstract, it has generated multiple definitions and interpretations. By performing a systematic literature review, the authors try to extract common themes from existing literature.

What’s Inside?

The concept of servant leadership was introduced by Robert K. Greenleaf, who defined it as having vision and steering an organization toward a common goal in which the primary motive of the leaders is to serve others. Until now, little empirical testing has taken place in organizations themselves. The authors conduct a systematic literature review, which is different from a traditional literature review. They search through an electronic database using the keyword “servant leadership” and then assign different ratings of quality to each article or study they find. In the end, they conclude that there is no consensus on what servant leadership entails across cultures, but there is agreement on the attributes that are identified with servant leadership.

How Is This Research Useful to Practitioners?

The way leadership is applied in organizations is a factor in their success because it steers an organization toward a common set of goals. Hence, it is relevant for financial professionals to understand what successful leadership entails. Previous research on servant leadership was based on theory or anecdotes, and because Greenleaf described it as “a way of life,” it was unclear how to test it. The authors are the first to assess the interpretation and effects of servant leadership on organizations. Their analysis is based on an empirical study of writings about servant leadership instead of on theories or anecdotes.

Success in servant leadership is measured by looking at the growth of other people being served by the leader. The concept is described in an illustrative way without a reference to test criteria. One popular source for understanding servant leadership is Larry Spears, who developed a list of 10 characteristics for servant leadership (e.g., empathy, listening to foresight, and conceptualization). Another source is J. Laub, who assesses the strength of an organization based on his Organizational Leadership Assessment test, which looks at six key areas without considering individual leader characteristics. Laub’s six key metrics are valuing people, developing people, providing leadership, sharing leadership, promoting authenticity, and building community.

The authors find that servant leadership is defined in several ways and that no one definition seems to capture it fully. There is also not enough evidence to link servant leadership and spirituality. Finally, there is not enough research to conclusively link servant leadership with demographic characteristics, such as gender or socioeconomic factors.

How Did the Authors Conduct This Research?

The authors search electronic databases for articles linked to servant leadership. From the initial sample of 381 articles, a set of 39 articles remained after they applied filters to prevent redundancy. Articles are then grouped into focus areas, with most of the articles from the fields of leadership, education, business, and psychology. The authors then apply a “matrix methodology” to assess each publication on quantitative and qualitative attributes using a three-level scale of low, medium, and high for each attribute.

The authors determine that servant leadership appears to be culture dependent with some cultures emphasizing vision (Ghana) and others emphasizing morality (Indonesia) or authenticity (Australia). They also demonstrate that the articles are based on common research themes built around surveys for data collection and that most authors applied several data metrics.

The authors stress the need for more empirical analyses within organizations because most research so far has taken place on a theoretical and abstract level. The main limitation of their research is that the research articles are limited to those available through their university databases.

Abstractor’s Viewpoint

Leadership is a career aspiration in every organization, and many books have been written on successful leadership. But the idea of servant leadership is quite new in finance, which is usually characterized by a competitive working environment. Many investment professionals might be new to the idea of servant leadership, which makes this particular article very interesting. The broad scope of this research in different fields and cultures makes it a good introduction to this theory and very interesting for investment professionals who also aspire to become inspiring leaders in the future.

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