Servant Leadership – a secular perspective

For a couple of years now the Church of England initiative Renewal and Reform has sparked passionate debate as new elements are launched.  The argument is particularly intense where the programme seeks to apply some secular insights into leadership and management to the church.

To over-simplify the positions being taken

– Supporters welcome the approach whilst stressing its missional and biblical basis.

– Opponents criticise the approach for its apparent focus on numbers and acceptance of secular thinking on leadership and management without testing that versus theology.

Given this backstory I was interested when I came across this LSE Business review blog post “Putting servant leadership to the test and doing away with scepticism” by Mitchell Neubert and Emily Hunter.In the post – and the research paper it links to – they conclude that:
“When leaders are other-centred, concerned about the team and the community, employees respond in kind”,and,

“For leaders working in more structured environments, servant leadership can be a welcome complement to formal procedures.”

In their post they expand on these observations.

“Employees don’t typically take advantage of the servant leader and disengage from their work, on the contrary.  Employees who see and experience the other-centred and humble service of servant leaders respond in kind, helping others and engaging to make the workplace better for everyone.  The best servant leaders aren’t passive nor are they people pleasers who let employees mount a mutiny that steers a course of compliancy.  Instead, servant leaders work diligently, with a gentle but determined hand, to steer a course that benefits their employees and demonstrates concern for the needs of those their organisation serves and impacts.”

They came to these conclusions following an initial study among people from a variety of organisations in which they compared servant leadership to a form of directive leadership.In a follow-up study they looked at the same issue in a large retail chain environment.And in their most recent study they extended the findings from these initial studies to a large, multi-hospital healthcare system.In summary their observations on servant leaders from these studies were that they:

  • were more likely to develop a mindset in employees that led to creativity and collaboration;
  • lead to their employees tending to exert extra effort in their jobs to improve their work and help one another;
  • and their other-oriented behavour contribute to a work environment of service to others leading to more engagement and sales behavour and decreased thoughts of leaving the organisation ;
  • were more likely, but of course not exclusively, to be the thoughtful introvert instead of the gregarious extravert;
  • – in a healthcare setting-
    • encouraged creativity, (not of the kind that would be reckless disregard for policy), but of the kind that finds solutions to novel problems not spelled out in a policy;
    • contributed to a work environment in which nurses were more satisfied with their shifts, which in turn was related to patients who felt well-treated by nurses, were more satisfied with their pain management, and would be willing to recommend the hospital to others;
    • were not restricted by necessary structure, instead it seems to have enabled them to focus on other needs of employees. For employees, structure seemed to save them from expending energy wondering or worrying about how to do their work and, instead, it allowed them to heed the example of their leader and look for ways to enhance their service to others.

Given the debate on secular thinking on leadership I mentioned at the top of this post – and the current thinking about entreprenneurial leadership styles in the church – this research seemed to be of interest to those ministering in a rural setting……….. where engagement and involvement of the whole church in service and mission is an absolute essential.

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