Servant Leadership: A Comparison to Other Leadership Styles

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Servant leadership or the idea of servant leadership is becoming increasingly more popular among business communities.  The popularity began after several massive business scandals in the early 2000s.  Servant leaders possess strong ethics and integrity, attributes that business leaders believe are necessary to regain the trust of the public.  Servant leadership is similar to other leadership styles in terms of ethics and integrity.  People and their needs are the central focus of servant leaders. Different leadership styles take the needs of people into account, but they are not the focal point.  Other leadership styles consider profits first and people second.  Nonprofit organizations attract servant leaders because the values of the organization and servant leaders are similar.  Nonprofits are facing challenges securing quality leadership because for-profit agencies are recruiting servant leaders.  For-profit agencies want servant leaders to deploy their servant attributes, but they want the focus to be on profits over people.  The results have been miserable for companies and servant leaders.  External factors negatively influence the servant first attitude.  Public agencies, particularly law enforcement agencies, will not function correctly under a servant leader.  The legal system, by design, prevents servant leaders from being productive. Servant leaders are most effective when the organization and the leader develop clear boundaries and goals. Research focusing on servant leadership and its effectiveness has suggested that servant leadership may not provide the benefits that businesses are seeking.  The theory behind servant leadership excites people, but the implementation of servant leadership has not offered favorable results in many organizations.

Servant Leadership: A Comparison to Other Leadership Styles

Several business scandals in the early 2000s forced business organizations to seek leaders that possessed leadership attributes that focused on ethics and integrity.  Servant leadership, a leadership style defined by Greenleaf in the 1970s became popular because of its focus on people and integrity.  Servant leaders, or the theory of servant leadership, was a tool that was deployed to restore the public trust in business organizations.  Servant leaders are similar to other leaders, but their main focus is on people first and profits second.  Organizations, particularly nonprofits, welcomed servant leaders because their values were consistent with the benefits of the organizations.  For-profits discovered that servant leadership did not produce results that were acceptable to organizational goals.  Boards of directors and shareholders strongly impact servant leaders.  Servant leadership works well in some organizations where profits are not a significant concern.  Law enforcement, for example, is an organization where servant leaders would not be a good fit.  Servant leaders face challenges utilizing their skills by a system that should encourage people first.  Established laws and regulations govern how a law enforcement agency operates.  Leaders in law enforcement have few opportunities for discretion and putting people first.  Servant leadership is not the best leadership style; however, several components of servant leadership can be integrated into other leadership styles to make them stronger and more effective.

Servant leadership compared to other leadership styles

Servant leadership is unique and popular among many leaders.  The characteristics of a servant leader, according to Greenleaf, has a motivation to serve; they are a servant first (Greenleaf 1977).  Other leadership styles focus on being a leader first and a servant second.  The needs of the people within an organization are essential to servant leaders.  Spiritual leaders closely resemble servant leaders as the needs of the people are also crucial to spiritual leaders.  The difference between spiritual leaders and servant leaders is in the execution of plans that genuinely cater to the needs of the people within an organization.

Helping others within an organization to develop skills necessary for leadership positions is a function of a servant leader.  Other leadership styles do not necessarily help others develop the skills needed for leadership positions.  The efforts that servant leaders expend with leader development is spent on other aspects by other leadership styles.  Trust and sound ethical practices are similar among leadership styles.  Ethical leaders lead by example and set clear boundaries as to what is ethical an unethical.

Additionally, ethical leaders hold their followers accountable for their unethical behaviors without failure.  Servant leaders also hold their followers responsible for their wrong actions. However, they use ethics as a source of encouragement. Authentic leaders can lead their people to unethical behavior if the leader demonstrates unethical practices. Authentic leaders expect that their followers will mimic the action that they observe; they often do follow the leader’s example.  A key feature of authentic leaders is they are aware of how others perceive them.  Spiritual, ethical, and servant leaders are not only aware of how others see them, but they lead by example.  Employees do not report high levels of trust for authentic leaders (Sousa & Dierendonch 2015).  Polumbo 2016 argues that the true definition of a servant leader is challenging to develop.  Additionally, servant leaders may be defined by the organizations they are associated with (Polumbo 2016). The other leadership styles are not defined by associations with particular organizations.

Servant Leadership in Nonprofit and For-profit Organizations

Scholars are consistent in claiming that leadership is a critical success factor in nonprofit organizations (Palumbo 2016).  Servant leaders’ values are compatible with the values established for nonprofits.  Servant leaders sometimes experience challenges while leading a nonprofit.  Allen, Bruce, Tatone & Crowson 2018 concluded in a study of empowerment and commitment that servant leaders must actively make their opinions known to others within the organization.  Leader’s opinions serve as the driving force to move the organization forward (Allen et al. 2018).  Allen et al., 2018 described a meeting that occurred during their research where the members participating in the meeting could not agree because they were continually asking themselves what the leader’s opinion was on the issues they were attempting to address.  Some of the participants expressed their desires for the leader to give them some insight into what direction to take.  Allen et al., 2018 concluded that leaders have to provide some guidance or an initial action plan to move nonprofit organizations forward towards their set goals.

For-profit organizations could benefit from servant leadership in some aspects.  Profits before people tend to be the main focus of for-profit organizations.  Servant leaders would have difficulty putting people before profits.  Shareholders sometimes dictate how organizational leadership operate a for-profit company. Profits and company performances are the main focus before the needs of the people within the organization.  Profits before people contradict servant leadership practices.  Combining servant leadership with other leadership styles could be beneficial to for-profit organizations.  Servant leaders must have the ability to set boundaries while still being mindful of the opinions of others.  Setting boundaries and giving directions is beneficial in for-profit organizations.  Some organizations will not benefit from servant leadership, no matter how it is modified.

Effectiveness of Servant Leadership in Law Enforcement

Law enforcement by design builds on an established chain-of-command.  The leaders are trained to make decisions, and the followers, or subordinates are trained to comply with the directions given to them by their leaders.  Many decisions made are based solely on established laws and guidelines.  The legal system can hinder the discretionary power of law enforcement leaders.  Servant leadership would not be effective in law enforcement, as most decisions do not allow leaders to value the opinions of others.  Law enforcement does not put people first and laws second.  Laws are focused on first, and people are second.  There are, however, some aspects of servant leadership that could benefit law enforcement,  If leaders would step outside their comfort zone and rely on their faith to guide them some aspects of law enforcement would be better.  Leaders often are concerned with how the general public views them rather than the people that they lead.

Effectiveness of Servant Leadership in My Current Leadership Role

Servant leadership could be useful in my leadership role.  I chose to become a leader but did not feel that I had a duty to serve.  Some of the characteristics of a servant leader were already present in my leadership style without me realizing.  While conducting research, I performed a self-evaluation of my leadership style.  I realized that I was already maintaining an environment based on trust and helping others to develop the skills necessary for leadership.  Valuing the opinions of others and putting people first are attributes that I do not possess.  Implementing all the characteristics of servant leadership into my current leadership style will not be beneficial.  Some outsides influences have prevented servant leadership from becoming an active part of my leadership style.  Those outside influences include senior leaders, departmental leadership guidelines and standards, and the legal system as a whole.


  • Allen, S. W. (2018). Exploring a model of servant leadership, empowerment, and commitment in nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 29, 123-140.Doi: 10.1002/nml.21311
  • Brown, M. T. (2006). Ethical Leadership: A Review and future directions. The Leadership Quarterly, 17,  595-616.   Doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2006.10.004
  • Greenleaf, R.K. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness.
  •  New York, NY: Paulist Press.
  • Liu, Y. (2018). Linking authentic leadership to subordinate behaviors. Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, 39(2), 218-233.
  • Phipps, K. (2011). Spirituality and Strategic Leadership: The Influence of Spiritual Beliefs on Strategic Decision Making. Journal of Business Ethics, 106,  177-189.  Doi: 10.1007/s10551-011-0988-5
  • Polumbo, R. (2016). Challenging Servant Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector. Journal of Nonprofit Education and Leadership, 6(2),  81-98.  Doi: 10.18666/jnel-2016-v6-i2-6824
  • Sousa, M. D. (2015). Servan Leadership and the Effect of the Interaction Between Humility, Action, and Hierarchical Power on Follower Engagement. Journal of Business Ethics, 141, 13-25.
  •  Doi: 10.1007/s10551-015-2725-y

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