Can You Really Measure Servant Leadership?


As a field of study, servant leadership is in its infancy. I see this in teaching servant leadership courses at the graduate level and I see it in co-editing servant leadership’s newest academic journal, Servant Leadership: Theory & Practice.

On the Practice side, I get excited when students so authentically drip servant leadership from their very DNA that I know, “Hey, There is a servant leader who is changing lives and making the world a better place.”

On the Theory side, I get giddy-like-a-school-child when epiphanies of new angles for scientifically examining servant leadership dance in my head.

As an example from last night’s graduate class conversation, we realized an academically legitimate and relatively simple manner in which organizational-level servant leadership outcomes can be measured.

It starts with Robert Greenleaf’s well renowned “best test” of servant leadership:

“Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser,  freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?…” (R. Greenleaf, 1970)

If, indeed those served by a servant leader grow as persons and become wiser, freer, more autonomous and more likely themselves to serve, then at least the following 3 propositions can be made.

Proposition 1) Servant leadership rolls downhill. That is… if I do my job as a servant leader then I will develop servant leaders who will, in turn, develop servant leaders.

Proposition 2) Given Greenleaf’s “best test” and assuming Proposition 1 is true, then it follows that leadership succession will be more effective in organizations with a culture of servant leadership than in organizations without a culture of servant leadership. &,

Proposition 3) Given Greenleaf’s “best test” and assuming Proposition 1 is true, then it follows that leadership succession will be more effective in organizations with servant leaders in the top management team than in organizations without servant leaders in the top management team.

Difficult to administer? Absolutely. Impossible to administer? Not nearly. It would not be a difficult task for an academic to set up a study and borrow or build instruments to test the foregoing 3 propositions. Sounds publishable. Even more exciting, though…

Sounds like a small step forward in the growth of servant leadership as a field of study!

© 2014, Dr. Phil Bryant, SPHR

Dr. Bryant is an Assistant Professor of Management at Columbus State University, co-editor of Servant Leadership: Theory & Practice, and co-author of Managing Employee Turnover.

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