Deconstructing Inequity and Racial Injustice in Servant Leadership for a Just and Inclusive Future

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In this study I explore the intersection of inequality and racial injustice in servant leadership. Servant leadership is upheld as an aspirational way of leading and being in educational contexts. To date, there has been little critique of servant leadership within the context of equity, diversity, inclusion, and race. An overly-romanticized approach to servant leadership fails to consider aspects of servitude such as the subjugation of those who serve because they have no other choice; those without power or privilege. Five themes emerged from this study: a) lack of clarity and operationalization, b) potential exploitation, c) overemphasis on follower needs; d) Challenges in hierarchy and authority, and e) difficulties in performance evaluation. Recommendations for decolonizing servant leadership are included. Objectives The goal of this study was to critique servant leadership through the lenses of equity, diversity, and social justice. The research question that guided this study was: What does the extant literature reveal about critiques of servant leadership? The sub-question that further informed this work was: In what ways to scholars problematize servant leadership from the perspective of equity, diversity, and anti-racism? Theoretical Framework Servant leadership has long been considered a highly desirable approach in and beyond the field of education. The underlying tenet of this philosophical approach is one’s desire to serve others (Greenleaf, 1977, 1998, 2002a, b, 2007). In a utopian framing, one prioritizes serving one’s followers above one’s own needs or the needs of the organization, and in doing so, moves beyond self-interest (Van Dierendonck, 2010). Greenleaf’s rise to fame was enabled by endorsements from management gurus such as Covey (1994) and Senge (Bradley, 1999). Praise from the “managerial elites” (Eicher-Catt, 2005, p. 17) (most of whom have been white men) has led to an almost cult-like adoption of Greenleaf’s teachings that is nothing short of pathological (Eicher-Catt, 2005). To say one does not subscribe to the tenets of servant leadership is almost inconceivable in educational contexts because “serving and leading become almost exchangeable. Being a servant allows a person to lead; being a leader implies a person serves” (Van Dierendonck, 2010, p. 1231). Links to social justice seem to be inherently embedded in servant leadership. The “notion of servant leadership runs counter-cultural to traditional Western notions of leadership where men are heroes upholding positions of power” (Marina & Fonteneau, 2012, p. 72). Definitions and interpretations of servant leadership are vague and problematic (McLellan, 2008; Van Dierendonck, 2010) and notions of ethical or effective leadership and servant leadership have become so intertwined that any critique of servant leadership seems to be an endorsement of unethical or exploitative leadership (Bradley, 1999). In this work, I provide a conceptual critique of Greenleaf’s ideas, as well as the systemic perpetuation of a leadership approach developed by a middle-class white American male who had no lived experience as a subjugated or indentured servant. Modes of Inquiry It has been noted that “servant-leadership was not originally developed through research-based scholarship” (Reynolds, 2014, p. 52) and advocates seem to insist on an almost unwavering discipleship of Greenleaf’s ideas. As such, this inquiry was a knowledge synthesis of existing literature on servant leadership, focusing critiques and problematization of this leadership approach. Evidence Critics of servant leadership have noted that the theory of servant leadership, as it has been articulated in research and management literature, is undeniably Eurocentric, and had its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Liu, 2019; McLellan, 2008). The notion of servant leadership is co-constructed between those who lead and those who are led, which can result in either an over-dependence on the leader, or employees who question whether the manager is a “real leader” (Liu, 2019, p. 1108), particularly if the leader is not of European heritage. Feminists have noted that the notion of servant leadership is not genderless and that management and scholarly literature “that explicitly discusses women or examines feminist issues through the study of servant-leadership is rare” (Reynolds, 2014, p. 51). One feminist critic observed that servant leadership espouses and upholds patriarchal norms (Eicher-Catt, 2005). Women scholars of African heritage have astutely pointed out that Dr. Martin Luther King popularized the saying, “Anyone can be great because anyone can be a servant” (Marina & Fonteneau, 2012, p. 71). Greenleaf’s theories of leadership emerged shortly after King’s death in 1968 (Marina & Fonteneau, 2012). Given that Greenleaf and King both lived in the United States during the civil rights movement, and that Greenleaf allegedly made a point to promote women and Blacks to “non-menial positions” (Frick, 2004) it is puzzling that Greenleaf gave the nod to Hermann Hesse (1957), another white man, as the primary source of inspiration for his work. African-American scholars have pointed out that the notion of servant leadership proliferated in African-American churches during the time of slavery (Marina & Fonteneau, 2012), but the possibility of such a theoretical lineage is rarely addressed when we read about or teach the concept of servant leadership. African American perspectives of servant leadership are rarely discussed in educational leadership or theory courses. If we are to decolonize education, then including non-white, non-European perspectives is necessary. Servant leadership appeals to those with a deep sense of morality who seek to do good through their work and their life. Greenleaf himself said, “My good society will have strong individualism amidst community.” (2007, p. 83) But when one is living as a servant to another, one’s individualism does not actually matter that much. What matters is following orders, undertaking tasks such that they are performed to the expectations of one’s employer, and being obedient. What matters when one is a servant is not that one be individual, but that one be invisible. Greenleaf talks about the noble aspects of serving but seems not to recognize there is a societal divide between those whose titles deem them to be part of an elite class and those whose life of servitude means that even if they act in ways which seem noble, they themselves will never be part of the nobility. Greenleaf’s apparent obliviousness to the subjugation of those who actually live as servants has been noted by others (Bradley, 1999; Eicher-Catt, 2005), but his oversight has been largely absent from general discourse about servant leadership. Results The results of this inquiry showed five (5) interconnected critiques of servant leadership through the lens of equity, diversity, and anti-racism in the extant literature. Collectively, these themes provide insights to the research question that guided this study: What does the extant literature reveal about critiques of servant leadership? Theme #1: Lack of Clarity and Operationalization One of the significant criticisms of servant leadership is its lack of precise definition and operationalization. The conceptual ambiguity of servant leadership makes it challenging to implement consistently across various organizational contexts (Sendjaya and Sarros, 2002). Without a clear and standardized framework, the application of servant leadership principles may vary widely, leading to confusion and potential ineffectiveness. Theme #2: Potential Exploitation The emphasis on serving others could potentially lead to followers' exploitation by unscrupulous leaders. Servant leadership may inadvertently create a power dynamic that enables manipulative leaders to exploit the goodwill and selflessness of their followers (Liu, 2019; Marina & Fonteneau, 2012). This exploitation can harm followers' well-being and undermine the authenticity of servant leadership's intentions. Theme #3: Overemphasis on Follower Needs An overemphasis on followers’ needs, which could neglect the organization's broader goals and objectives. Servant leaders may prioritize short-term follower satisfaction at the expense of long-term organizational success (Spears, 2010). This singular focus on individual needs may hinder effective decision-making and impede the pursuit of strategic goals. It may also be antithetical to decolonial and equity-focused approaches to organizational leadership. Theme #4: Challenges in Hierarchy and Authority The emphasis in servant leadership on empowering followers and fostering collaboration can present challenges in hierarchical organizational structures. Ehrhart (2004) argues that traditional hierarchical systems may not readily accommodate the principles of servant leadership, leading to clashes between leadership styles and organizational structures. Theme #5: Difficulties in Performance Evaluation The emphasis on serving others and promoting their growth can pose challenges in evaluating the performance of servant leaders. Traditional performance metrics and evaluation methods may not adequately capture the intangible aspects of servant leadership, making it difficult to assess a leader's effectiveness (Liden et al., 2014). This could create circumstances that lead the perpetuation and marginalization of racialized or other marginalized individuals within an organization. The sub-question that further informed this work – In what ways to scholars problematize servant leadership from the perspective of equity, diversity, and anti-racism? – was addressed in more nuanced and indirect ways in the literature. Results of this study showed that more intentional critiques of servant leadership are merited, particularly from those who study class, poverty, and decolonization. Promoting leadership approaches such as servant leadership without critiquing underlying inequities and racial injustices lived experience of servitude and subjugation can lead to a perpetuation of colonialism and colonial values. Although servant leadership carries several positive aspects, its conceptual ambiguity, potential for exploitation, and challenges in implementation raise valid concerns. Addressing these critiques is essential for refining the theory and making it more applicable and effective in various organizational settings. Future research could also focus on providing a clearer framework for servant leadership and exploring ways to mitigate its potential pitfalls while harnessing its positive aspects. Significance As Ruha Benjamin (2022) reminds us, “for those who want to construct a different social reality that is grounded in justice and joy, we can’t only critique the world as it is. We have to build the world as it should be to make justice irresistible” (p. 11). By deconstructing the underlying biases and systemic inequalities in the leadership theories we espouse and teach our students, we can begin to reconceptualize how leadership can be a powerful force for promoting equity and inclusion in diverse workplaces and communities. The time has come to dismantle discriminatory practices, as well as theoretical fossilizations that persist in educational contexts to cultivate a more just and compassionate leadership approach that empowers all individuals, regardless of their racial or cultural background. Cite as: Eaton, S. E. (2024, Apri 11-14). Deconstructing Inequity and Racial Injustice in Servant Leadership for a Just and Inclusive Future American Educational Research Association (AERA) 2024, Philadelphia, USA.
servant leadership, servant leader, equity, diversity, inclusion, discrimination, racism, educational leadership