Study turns notion of business leadership on its head, but do the ideas have any legs?

By Tomás H. Lucero

The University of Illinois’ school of business says that emphasizing service to employees instead of service to yourself, the boss, as an approach to leadership, can make a business more profitable instead of making it uncompetitive, among other benefits.

The thesis is published and fleshed out in an article titled “Servant Leadership and Serving Culture: Influence on Individual and Unit Performance” in the Academy of Management Journal. The authors are Sandy Wayne, Robert Liden, Chenwei Liao and Jeremy Meuser, all University of Illinois academics, except for Liao, from Michigan State University.

The study asserts that when bosses ask how they can help employees versus how employees can help them, in a “servant” leader style, customer happiness and job performance increase, and turnover decreases. As a result of fostering trust, caring, cooperation, fairness and empathy employees feel more valued, and in turn give more back to their bosses and customers, the paper explains. Some questions that “servant” bosses ask are “Is there anything I can do to help you?” “Let me help you…” “What do you need to…?”

“Servant” style leadership, and its benefits, transforms into a culture because employees, who admire bosses, mimic them and replicate the positive reactions across a team and business. The study asserts that “servant” leadership increases teamwork, loyalty and dedication among the ranks.  

The research is based on data and surveys based on 1,000 employees of a national restaurant chain at 71 locations in 10 metropolitan areas. The researchers found that stores with “servant” leaders had higher job performance, customer satisfaction and, most importantly, higher sales.

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