Analysis of Servant Leadership, an Interpretive Biography

This paper provides a review of literature on studies focused on servant leadership. It also highlights different methods used in these studies as well as the limitations in empirical research.


The crisis in leadership today has merited the reevaluation of creative concepts of leadership. In several fields including in higher education, there has been a growing emphasis to adopt the kind of leadership that produces not only organizational results but aims at making the society a better place. The servant leadership concept pioneered by Robert K. Greenleaf – which reflects a style of leadership characterized by giving service to the people you lead and to society at large – has been taught in many higher educational institutions (Beazly & Beggs, 2002). However, how this kind of leadership is perpetuated in actual practice remains “mythical” as suggested by some authors (Eicher-Catt, 2005). This leadership is considered mythical in the sense that there is insufficient empirical basis to validate the existence of servant leadership, and the question, Who exactly is a servant leader? (Youngs, 2003).

Spears (2006) endeavored to answer this question theoretically by identifying ten character traits that may be found in a servant leader: (a) listening, (b) healing (c) empathy, (d) persuasion, (e) awareness, (f) foresight, (g) conceptualization, (h) commitment to the growth of people, (i) stewardship, and (j) building community. Nevertheless, the existence of servant leadership has been considered empirically weak because of the dearth of research studies that examined how servant leadership is concretized in the real-world setting, especially as it relates to leading in organizations operating for profit. Based on these premises, this study considers it imperative to examine and validate the practice of servant leadership as exemplified by a leader in a proprietary higher educational institution.

Statement of the Problem

Despite the many articles and papers written on servant leadership, not enough empirical work has been done to establish its existence (Long, 2008). A substantial amount of literature has already been devoted to discussing servant leadership as a concept following the publication of Robert Greenleaf’s 1970 seminal work “The Servant as Leader” (Greenleaf Center, 2009). This paper maintains however that literature is lacking particularly on how servant leadership is exemplified and utilized within an actual leadership setting and how it impacts superiors, subordinates, and peers in the context of organizational goals and performance. The key intention of this study is to describe leadership not only with clearer definitions or constructs, but through meaningful narrative (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). The aim is to give empirical support to the concept of servant leadership by discovering how it is lived and experienced in the real life circumstance of a prominent leader in higher education.

The analysis of this study focuses on the Ten-Trait Servant Leadership Model developed by Spears (2006) which was presented in an effort to distinguish servant leadership from other prominent leadership styles. As outlined earlier, these traits include: (a) listening, (b) healing (c) empathy, (d) persuasion, (e) awareness, (f) foresight, (g) conceptualization, (h) commitment to the growth of people, (i) stewardship, and (j) building community (Spears, 2006).

Purpose of the Study

The goal of this study is to illustrate servant leadership as applied in the context of the proprietary higher educational institution. Many middle level colleges and university campuses across the United States are or have at one time tried to implement, a servant-like form of leadership (Beazley & Beggs, 2002). However, there are still many questions regarding the applicability of the concept of leadership: how best it can be taught in colleges, and how best it can be fostered and practiced both inside the institutions and also in other fields. The interest of this study is to provide evidence that servant leadership exists in a manner that is “understandable and experientially credible, both to the people you are studying and to others” (Maxwell, 2005, p. 24). The research question asks how servant leadership traits are exemplified by the servant leader. In order to do so, the life experiences of Dr. Jim Otten, a highly-regarded leader in proprietary higher education will be explored. The first reason being Dr. Otten’s status as a prominent and respected leader in proprietary higher education. The second reason is that proprietary higher education, like the rest of corporate America, is experiencing a leadership crisis since many of its leaders are motivated by self-interest and the drive to improve company profit margins regardless of the consequences.

A central objective of this study is to carry out a comprehensive analysis of servant leadership by examining the experiences and practices of Dr. Otten. According to Crippen (2005), the need for educational leaders to practice servant leadership has never been greater. The growing trend toward democratization in higher education also suggests the redefinition of the educational leader’s role in the context of the education system’s role in molding the prosperous and moral society. Although servant leadership has been taught and practiced in educational institutions for some time now, it is surprising that there seems to be many grey areas surrounding the whole system, especially on the practical aspect. Specifically, a mystery seems to exist within the interplay of teaching and applying servant leadership in higher education. This paper intends to unveil such mystery by conducting an interpretive biographical research on the life and leadership of Dr. Jim Otten.

Research Questions

This study aims to examine evidence that supports the practice of servant leadership behaviors in the professional life of Dr. Otten. The purpose of this study is to contribute to the dearth of empirical literature on the phenomenon of servant leadership and in consequence, inform how the practice of servant leadership today can be incorporated in profit-driven proprietary higher education institutions. The overarching question for this study is:

What is the evidence that the following ten characteristics (behaviors) of servant leadership: (a) listening, (b) healing (c) empathy, (d) persuasion, (e) awareness, (f) foresight, (g) conceptualization, (h) commitment to the growth of people, (i) stewardship, and (j) building community, exemplify the professional life of Dr. Jim Otten?

This central question is divided into sub-questions, to wit:

Q1. How do superiors, associates and subordinates view Dr. Otten?

Q2. What organizational practices and experiences in working with or for Dr. Otten demonstrate the practice of servant leadership from the perspective of subordinates and colleagues?

Definition of Key Terms

This section provides definitions of unique terms and constructs that will be used in the ensuing discussion of the study.

Leader. A leader is defined as a person who commands, guides, directs, and influences others (American Heritage Dictionary, 2006).

Leadership. The term leadership refers to a “process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” (Chemers, 2002, p. 14).

Servant Leadership. Servant leadership is a leadership style and philosophy characterized by choosing to serve first and from there, lead so that capability and service expands among persons or organizations (Greenleaf Center, 2009).

Servant Leader. A servant leader is an individual who practices servant leadership and possesses ten characteristics which include “listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community” (Spears, 2006, p. 11).

Listening. Listening is the leadership trait defined as “to listen receptively to what is being said (and not said)… coupled with regular periods of reflection” (Spears, 2002, p. 4). Listening is a tool for problem solving and a means of developing emotional connections and communication with followers.

Empathy. This trait refers to “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner” (Merriam Webster, 2003).

Healing. As a characteristic of servant leadership, healing is important in transforming and integrating one’s self with others and healing their broken spirits and emotional hurts (Poon, 2006).

Awareness. Awareness means “opening wide the doors of perception so as to enable one to get more of what is available of sensory experience and other signals from the environment than people usually take in” (Greenleaf Center, 2009, n.p.).

Persuasion. Persuasion is a trait characterized by consensus-building rather than coercion in order to influence outcomes of the organization (Spears, 2004).

Conceptualization. This is the desire or the act of “dreaming great dreams” and having “the ability to look at a problem from a conceptualizing perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities” (Spears & Lawrence, 2002, p. 21).

Foresight. Foresight means the “human anticipation of the course of events” (Merriam Webster, 2003). This trait refers to the ability to consider present events in relation to the past and from this comparison, project future events.

Stewardship. Stewardship is a trait that considers serving to other’s needs as its top priority (McCuddy & Cavin, n.d.).

Commitment to the growth of people. Commitment refers to the trait of a servant leader characterized by the selfless devotion to the nurturing of others personally, professionally, and spiritually (Jablonski, 2006).

Building community. This trait refers to the ability of the leader in building community not through mass movements but through individual efforts in helping a particular community-based organization or group (Greenleaf Center, 2009).

Brief Review of the Literature

The impact of leadership on organizational effectiveness is a widely-accepted assumption in leadership research and studies. However, the focus on leadership today has not merely focused on the notion of getting things done, but the behaviors and processes in which organizational outcomes were achieved and how leadership must be weighed in order to better the outcomes of the community as a whole.

Crucial to the definition of effective leadership is behavior. Haycock (2010) recognized that the multi-faceted notion of leadership makes it a challenging job to recognize and identify who are considered strong leaders and who are not. Given the fact that there are more than 300 definitions on leadership, Haycock (2010) suggested that effective leadership can only take place by practicing “appropriate behaviors” (p. 44). Since leadership is essentially social influence, leaders need to possess self-evaluative behaviors and involve others in the leadership process. Rather than being born with leader potential, the effective leader takes time to develop and learn proper behaviors and hopefully create a good legacy in the process.

Leadership and Education Reform

Studies have also suggested that effective leadership is situational and dependent of several contextual factors. This means that reform in education must be considered in consideration of culture, place, and needs of the population it serves.

Budge (2010) explored the challenge of education reform in the rural context. Her article explored how the community and the school itself feel about standards-based reform required by federal education policy. School and community leaders revealed that the challenge of reform has required them to balance local needs with federal mandate. However, chief amongst their concern was the welfare of students and how best to serve them and their personal assessments combined point to the belief that standards-based policy must not dictate how the educational enterprise must be improved. Rather, a “critical-place consciousness” which contextualizes standards-based reform to suit the unique needs of the community. In this manner, teachers and educators are not predisposed to maintain the status quo by merely managing educational challenges, but to come up with educational practices that contribute to a better educative experience for students.

Doscher and Normore (2008) stressed that leaders in higher education have a moral responsibility in five domains, in their capacity as a “human being, public servant, educator, educational administrator, and educational leader” (p. 8). Many outcomes of the school are dependent upon their leadership. As such, whatever relationships they foster, programs they recommend, and the judgments they make have a long-term impact on the school and its students. Hence, it becomes incumbent upon educational leaders to always seek decisions which best serve the students’ interest and lead with justice and forms of nurturing. This allows the leader to forge cooperation with various stakeholders of the school and help them achieve their full academic potential.

Servant Leadership

The practice of servant leadership has become more popular in light of the recent global events attributed to a leadership crisis. As a leadership style, it has been practiced in several organizations and various fields of endeavor including the educational sector.

The servant leader is commonly perceived as one who puts the interests of others first before his own. The oft-cited example is Jesus Christ. Other identified servant leaders in history have included Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama (Jablonski, 2006). These servant leaders are considered to be “servants first,” denying themselves willingly to promote the greater end for mankind.

Attempts to apply the servant leader concept to modern organizational structures have been made in order to guide leaders on how they could practice servant leadership in the real-life organizational setting. Spears (2006) defined the servant leader by identifying the different traits and behaviors practiced. These traits include (not necessarily in the following order): “1. Listening, 2. Empathy, 3. Healing, 4. Awareness, 5. Persuasion, 6. Conceptualization, 7. Foresight, 8. Stewardship, 9. Commitment to the growth of people and 10. Building community” (p. 18).

In many fields, there has been increasing recognition of the viability of servant leadership to address the paucity of strong and inspiring leadership. Analyses of servant leadership from the perspective of the church and personal service sector have significant implications for educational leadership.

Servant Leadership in Action

Freeman (2004) recognized the importance of servant leadership given the enormity of social problems in the world today. Writing on the institutional practices of Livingstone College, Freeman pointed out that the crop of servant leaders is thinning, hence, the responsibility falls upon educational institutions to produce the succeeding generation of black servant leaders who will possess emotional empathy, philanthropic responsiveness, content, spiritual fortitude, and intellectual astuteness. He pointed out that the servant leader’s goal is to “improve the human condition” and that a servant leader is one who “sacrifice[s] personal comfort and welfare to improve the plight of others, and who gave unselfishly of themselves to uplift the poor, the destitute, and the oppressed” ( p. 7).

In an article, McClellan (2007) based the servant leadership theory on a classroom setting and through the transformation of lives of students who were taught by a servant-teacher, proofs that the advantages of servant leadership can also be extended to the academic circles. He stated that servant leaders are motivated by a deep love for others and the deep, abiding will to help others realize their potential. Some of the characteristics of the servant leaders that the author highlights in the journal articles include commitment to the growth of people under their leadership, foresight, conceptualization and awareness. McClellan (2007) further indicated that servant leaders are good listeners, empathizers and relationship healers. They are also skillful at stewardship and persuasion.

Wayne (2009) attempted to explain the declining popularity and relevance of the church by examining the challenges in leadership and leadership education. Working under the framework of servant leadership, Wayne found that trust of parishioners on church leadership accounted for greater church attendance. On the whole, the participants felt that religious leaders did not exemplify service to their satisfaction. The study’s implications for educational institutions are significant. According to Wayne, educational decline is also attributed to a failure of leadership and that in order to decrease the turnover rate among educators, academic institutions also need to practice servant leadership and establish academic programs to produce the next crop of competent servant leaders.

Long (2008) investigated the practice of servant leadership in the personal service industry particularly in the funerary business. Leadership in the funerary business was found to be associated with servant leader traits. Performing a dual role as a businessman and a community servant, funeral directors practice their craft with “agape, love, humility, altruism, vision, trust, empowerment and service” (p. 80). Moreover, servant leadership was also exemplified by its positive appraisal by the community, a loyal and multi-generational following, and its status as a prominent cultural beacon in the community.

Jones, Ovando, and High (2009) studied the leadership practices of female middle school principals and found that the practice of servant leadership existed in various forms. The study found that leadership in the middle school level was reported to involve sacrifice and facing enormous challenges. The job of a woman principal is sacrificial because it requires women to give up many things such as family time, well-being, health, deciding to forego children, or delaying career advancement. Moreover, it was also defined by the participants to be challenging because of the difficult work-life balancing act and the fact that as women, they are expected to work harder and prove more to be recognized as leaders. Lastly, leadership as practiced by women principals tended to be “more collaborative and nurturing” compared to their male peers.


Compared to the more established leadership styles, servant leadership is a more vague and mysterious concept. While there have been attempts to outline similarities in the behaviors of known servant leaders, not enough empirical work has been done to concretize the servant-leader in actual leadership practice. The literature presented indicates that the examination of how servant leadership is practiced is most suitable in personal service and religious professions such as in the funerary business or in the church. How the servant leader in proprietary higher education relates with his or her subordinates and what contributions are made by the servant leader in organizational outcomes remains to be seen. This study intends to contribute to the lack of literature on the subject.

Research Method

This study proposes the use of qualitative processes and measurements in order to answer its central research question: What is the evidence that the following ten characteristics (behaviors) of servant leadership: (a) listening, (b) healing (c) empathy, (d) persuasion, (e) awareness, (f) foresight, (g) conceptualization, (h) commitment to the growth of people, (i) stewardship, and (j) building community, exemplify the professional life of Dr. Jim Otten? To answer this research problem, a qualitative interpretive biography is proposed.

Qualitative processes enable the interpretation of new insights regarding a phenomenon or a theoretical or conceptual perspective, and generate additional issues existing within a phenomenon or theory (Patton, 2002). Moreover, the research goals fit the objectives of interpretive biography, because my purpose is to “explain why a person behaves in a certain way [as a servant leader] and examine patterns developing in his or her life” (Atkinson & Delamont, 2006, p. 85).


The goal of this study is to analyze servant leadership by examining the life and leadership experiences of Dr. Otten. Based on his accomplishments throughout his career, which will come from interviews, we can begin to collect tangible examples of how Servant Leaders have a positive impact on the business of proprietary higher education. Interview data collection and evaluation will be based on themes and categorized responses. Audiotaped interviews will be conducted with the express permission of the participant and data transcribed to prepare for data processing. Data will be subjected to content analysis to derive themes and patterns out of the narrative text (Krippendorf, 2004). The themes identified will serve as backbone to the interpretation of the phenomenon [servant leadership] which the researcher tries to understand (Krippendorf, 2004).

To address the possible threats to validity to this proposed interpretive biography, methods to establish credibility, dependability, and integrity for this proposed analysis of servant leadership will be undertaken (Golafshani, 2003).

Triangulation. Triangulation is a strategy which seeks to strengthen the study with the use of multiple data sources, methods, or approaches (Patton, 2002). For this particular study, this researcher proposes the use of multiple sources and multiple methods to triangulate data. Informant interviews will come from among Dr. Otten’s peers, colleagues, and subordinates. Moreover, data from interviews will be triangulated with field notes and other research artifacts such as professional records, curriculum vita, personal correspondences, academic records, news clippings, and the personal interview of Dr. Jim Otten.

Member checks. This method is a way of confirming findings and verifying the accuracy of data by allowing participants to review the transcripts (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). For this particular study, transcripts of interviews will be sent to each participant for verification and clarification.

Inter-rater reliability. Also called peer debriefing, this is a useful strategy to obtain independent verification from a person other than the researcher during the data analysis period (Creswell, 2009). For this study, the researcher will retain two (2) peer debriefers who will be graduate students skilled in qualitative methodology to critique the data analysis portion of the study.

Inter-rater coding agreement. Coding agreement allows researchers functioning independently to agree on categories used, categorization of data segments, and interpretations derived from examining categorized data segments (Harris, 2003). To this end, a coding protocol and an overview of the theoretical constructs and concepts on servant leadership will be developed by the researcher to aid the dependable conduct of the content analysis phase.

Dependability audit. This is a strategy that allows independent examiners to track the steps and the research decisions made throughout the study (Byrne, 2006). This requires the researcher to produce documentation by keeping a journal, storing primary data, research reports, memos, field notes, and communication with raters or debriefers.


The proposed study will follow the qualitative tradition and apply the interpretive biographical approach in analyzing servant leadership. Through audiotaped interviews from multiple informants or sources and the evaluation of other research artifacts such as curriculum vita, publications, professional documents, correspondences, and personal interview with Dr. Otten, the study hopes to establish evidence of the practice of servant leadership. More importantly, the interviews will be helpful in obtaining meaningful information on how the practice of servant leadership is experienced by peers and subordinates and how it influences the entire organization. The significance of this study lies in the intriguing and inspiring concept of applying servant leadership to the profit sector such as proprietary higher education. By examining how servant leadership is evidenced in the real-life practice and experience of Dr. Otten, as well as those who work with him and for him, a powerful case for applying servant leadership in the profit sector can be established.

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