Servant Leadership: Does Religion Belong in the Workplace?

I’m just going to say it.  I don’t like the concept of Servant Leadership. It gives me the willies.

Servant Leadership suggests that a leader is willing to undertake the lowliest of positions to serve others, over the desire to be in a formal leadership position. One leads others in accordance with moral principles. The focus in Servant Leadership is on the needs of the followers, not on achieving organizational objectives. The underlying assumption is that if one can effectively enable followers, the organization will achieve its’ objectives organically.

According to a recent study by Sen Sendjaya, James Sarros and Joseph Santora, there are six behaviours in Servant Leadership. Voluntary subordination is the first, where the leader is a servant and expresses acts of service. Second, the leader shows her authentic self.  That is, she demonstrates humility, accountability, security and vulnerability. Next the leader demonstrates “covenental relationships”, where he accepts his followers, is available to them, treats them with equality and is collaborative in his approach. Next is moral responsibility, that is moral reasoning and action. Fifth is transcendental spirituality, including religiousness, interconnectedness, a sense of mission and wholeness.  Finally, the leader shows transforming influence, that is vision, modeling, mentoring, trust and empowerment.

Let me say that there is a lot to like in this model. I’ve got no beefs with the authentic self, covenental relationships and transforming influence. In fact, I rather admire these facets of leadership.

Where this model comes off the rails for me is in three areas: voluntary subordination, moral responsibility and transcendent spirituality.  For thousands of years women and various minority groups were the “servants” of others.  They sacrificed much and never had a voice in their own lives, never mind the life of their community. The idea of sacrificial leadership makes me a bit anxious, because often the ones making the sacrifices are the ones who benefit the least from these sacrifices.  And there is a social and cultural expectation that some people are expected to sacrifice more than others.

I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of moral reasoning. It’s not that I don’t want people to be ethical, to do right by others.  And having strong organizational values is critical to organizational success. However, often “moral values” have been used by one group or another to judge, subjugate or dominate a particular minority group. If I was born in Afghanistan 40 years ago, it might be considered “immoral” for me to get an education.

Finally, I’m uncomfortable with transcendental spirituality.  Specifically the idea of religiousness.  When we imbue religiousness in an organization, we immediately limit who can participate, or be employed at that organization. While this approach can strengthen the culture of an organization, it can also weaken it, by making it less open to diverse opinions, and less aware of changes in values or culture external to the organization.  It also makes the organization exclusionary to people who don’t fit.  This can sometimes translate into intolerance.

Perhaps my small l liberal, secular, westernized approach to both community organizations and business is the driving force behind my profound discomfort with the introduction of religious and moral factors in the workplace. I personally prefer to keep my faith as a private matter.

That said, I like that the leader as hero model is inconsistent with Servant Leadership. Perhaps true leadership is about placing your followers ahead of yourself, your needs and your objectives. It is about equality, acceptance and collaboration.

Source: Sendjay, Sen, Sarros, James, and Santora, Joeseph.  “Defining and Measuring Servant Leadership Behaviour in Organizations”. Journal of Management Studies. 45:2 March 2008.


Categories: Leadership

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7 replies »

  1. While I can understand the logic behind your perspective, I can’t completely agree with it.

    I don’t think one study from one perspective can constitute a complete and definitive explanation of anything. I also don’t see how spirituality and religion can automatically be equated with one another.

    Ethics can be used to judge others as equally as moral reasoning has been used in the past. The poor use of something doesn’t automatically mean that something is intrinsically wrong or bad, just misused.

    Serving the needs of others isn’t “voluntary subordination”. Businesses serve the needs of their customers. That doesn’t make a business subordinate to their customer base. It means they are willing to make sacrifices to meet the needs of their customer base.

    Like I said, I generically understand your logic, but I think it’s the popular terms that have been associated with Servant Leadership that have created a not so savory filter for many people.

  2. Thanks for the comments, I do think they are valid. Just so you know the concept of voluntary subordination doesn’t come from me or from popular press, but from an academic study of Servant Leadership. Ditto the idea that religiousness is an element of spirituality. I hope that you caught the idea that I’m not against Servant Leadership, but I do believe that there are elements of Servant Leadership that could be misused, hence my discomfort with the approach.

    I actually like a great deal about the idea of servant leadership, especially the ideas of authenticity, transformation and covental relationships. I’m not against ethics per se, as I believe that any organization has a responsibility to be concerned about the general welfare of the community. I’m just uncomfortable with the potential risks that overt morality might engender.

    Thanks for taking the time to write your comments. I appreciate your fair and even handed challenge.

  3. I have had to read this many times before commenting because something was amiss. I believe what I found was that your response to Servant Leadership left out the Leadership and was stated only from the view of the Servant, (Victim). If Servant Leadership encompasses the traits described above then those under that leadership style would seem to only benefit. If abused then you have reason to fear, but isn’t that true of ALL leadership styles. I would suggest that personal biases played a part in your response and perhaps there may be good reason. A basically sound leadership style can only be corrupted if you involve the human equation. Give a human a little power and watch how quickly he/she will abuse it. Would your response be different if that bias were turned off? I guess that would be like trusting Jim Jones saying “Trust me. It’s only lemonade!”

  4. This is interesting — Iapprecate what you have written… I suppose that the red falgs you raise are potential pitfalls. That said, there are pitfalls in every model of leadership and indee people can use all approaches to take advantage of another or even subjegate another.

    Authentic Servant Leadership is really about finding room for the leader to show by example the way forward. I cannot seperate myself from the religious realm and believe that no baptised Christian should either. I also don’t belive the she should impose her religion on another. But she should always allow the covenental relationship she has with God guide her decisions.

    I ramble too — simply put —- for me I find this model of leadership has more integrity for the church leader. We folow one who on this night (Holy thursday) called us to be servants of all.

    I love the opportunity for learning that your blog offers me.

  5. I think subverting the concepts of leadership towards service, particularly what is clearly an attempted religious hijacking of basic leadership is a problem that is rightly called to the carpet by the author.

    One role of a leader is to ensure that everybody works together on the matter at hand and contributes their best. If that means checking religion at the door, then that’s what it takes. If you cannot comply by leaving ideas of divisiveness out of the work team, meeting room or other organization, then you do not belong at the adult table.

    Leaders ensure success through engineered solutions to situations that arise. They use their position to make others on the team successful and encourage those to do the same. They change by example and, most importantly, they change themselves. They do not put down the anchor of religion and call for service or submission nor do they call such an anchor wings.

    Religion has no place on the work team. We have better concepts and we must use these and leave ridiculous Bronze Age ideas buried in the past where they belong.

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