As feminist inquiry further informs leadership studies and women continue to rise in status, a shift of mind is on the horizon. To strive towards a world of inclusion and awareness leadership educators must address issues of gendered perception explicitly. Greenleaf’s (1970; 2003) vision of servant-leadership offers a compelling subject for discussing a leadership metanoia of gender-integration. Although numerous women have contributed essays on and research in servant- leadership there is still a considerable gap in mainstream servant-leadership literature that explicitly addresses gender issues (Barbuto & Gifford, 2010) and feminist perspectives. Applying a gender lens to servant-leadership and demonstrating its parallels to gender-holistic thinking, however, can facilitate improved framing of the paradoxical dualism of servant and leader.
The purpose of this paper is to (a) build a theoretical foundation informed through feminist scholarship for conceiving servant-leadership as a gender-integrative partnership-oriented approach to leadership and (b) present ideas that apply the concept of gender-integrative leadership principles in leadership education. In the following, two perspectives of feminism identified by Dietz (2003) are discussed in relation to servant-leadership: deconstruction feminism and difference feminism. According to Dietz, deconstruction feminism advocates for “dismantling gender’s inhibiting polarities of male and female altogether” (p. 403). Methods such as discourse analysis and deconstruction of theories, texts, and phenomena are applied to this end. Eicher-Catt’s (2005) critical feminist deconstruction of servant-leadership is exemplary of this kind of scholarly analysis. Difference feminism in contrast has the aim to “thematize a feminism rooted in the realities of women’s lives and in ways of knowing or being that flow from women’s experiences” (Dietz, 2003, p. 404).
To develop the theoretical basis of servant-leadership as gender-integrative leadership, the feminist ethic of care will be used (Gilligan, 1982; Noddings, 2003) and Eisler’s (1994) partnership model to represent the perspective of difference feminism. Implications for leadership education using the Ritch and Mengel’s (2009) Guiding Questions: Guidelines for Leadership Education Programs will be discussed and suggestions for course content will be offered.
Gender and Leadership
Leadership can generally be understood as a process and relationship that facilitates human organization by exercising various forms of influence towards the achievement of common goals (Northouse, 2007). Gender is also generally understood as a socially constructed system of organizing meaning (Dietz, 2003). In this sense, these two systems for organizing activity and organizing meaning (leadership and gender) are intertwined as are their outcomes. Based on this understanding, leadership phenomena especially merit interpretation from a feminist perspective. Johanson (2008) noted, however, that mainstream leadership theory has largely ignored gender-related aspects of power. Eisler (1994) also pointed out the failure of management literature to relate new management tenets advocating participation and nurturing leadership styles to changes in gender- linked values. For example, human organizational constructs that appear to be gender-neutral are by default attributed with masculinity (Calás & Smircich, 1991). Johanson (2008) illustrated the degree to which the term leader itself is by default strongly associated with maleness. Although predominantly feminine- attributed other-centered behaviors can be integrated into the construct of leader, femininity as an attribute can hardly be associated with the role of leader. Indeed numerous studies in the field of leadership discuss gender differences in leadership (see Eagly & Johnson’s(1990) meta-analysis). Findings, however, are inconsistent and inconclusive (Barbuto & Gifford, 2010). Using gender as an analytical category rather than a variable for analysis changes the perspective. This approach enables leadership educators to better understand the origins of gender differences and the assumptions that perpetuate systems of dominance both in thinking and in acting.
The Duality of Servant-Leadership Characteristics
In coining the term servant-leader Greenleaf created a paradox. Scholars of communication and leadership, such as Smircich and Morgan (1982), have identified the management of meaning as one of the most significant acts of leadership. Paradoxical meaning creates ambiguity that must be managed by leaders. In her deconstruction of servant-leadership Eicher-Catt (2005) asserted that the concept of servant is typically associated with subjugation whereas the concept of leader is often associated with domination. The act of serving is sometimes bound by a needs-focused attitude, whereas the act of leading, especially in traditional notions of leadership, is often driven by a results-focused attitude. Furthermore, Eicher-Catt argued that subjugation is typically gendered as feminine and domination as masculine. From a feminist perspective, it is not sufficient for leadership educators and servant-leaders to simply accept the paradox of this gendering in the servant-leader duality. Rather, such paradoxical ambiguity calls for reflection and skillful framing. Proponents of servant- leadership are therefore also challenged with managing the gendered meaning of these paradoxical ideas.
Servant-Leadership and Transformational Leadership Characteristics
The following presents a comparison of servant-leadership and transformational leadership based on a subset of Spears’ (2002) ten servant-leader characteristics. Four characteristics of servant-leadership – foresight, conceptualization, awareness, and persuasion (Spears, 2002) – can be considered leader dimensions. Leadership trait theory defined forward-looking as one leadership trait (Northouse, 2007) and is often referred to as vision (Kouzes & Posner, 2003; Sashkin & Sashkin, 2003). Foresight in servant-leadership corresponds to this construct. Sashkin and Sashkin (2003) described cognitive capacity as an element of transformational leadership. Cognitive ability is associated with intelligence, competence, and knowledge of the business, several traits also associated with leadership (Kouzes & Posner, 2003; Northouse, 2007). The corresponding servant-leadership characteristic is conceptualization. Awareness as described by Greenleaf (1970; 2003) and Spears (2002) is also an aspect of transformational leadership and is referred to in the literature by Kouzes and Posner (2003) as assessing environmental influences. The activities of alignment (Bass, 1999) and idealized influence (Bass, 1999; Kouzes & Posner, 2003) can be associated with the servant-leadership behavior of persuasion.
Characteristics that distinguish the servant-leadership model from transformational leadership are those associated with serving. Servant-leadership brings other-centered or person-centered aspects of leadership to the foreground (Coleman, 2003; Whetstone, 2002) and makes the growth of those served its objective (Greenleaf, 1970; 2003). Six of the servant-leader characteristics described by Spears (2002) are predominantly needs-focused and other-oriented: listening, empathizing, healing, practicing stewardship (serving the needs of others), exercising commitment to the growth of people, and building community. Bass (1999) described the transformational leadership dimensions of intellectual stimulation and individual consideration. These dimensions have relational properties which can be loosely associated with the servant-leadership characteristic of commitment to the growth of followers. Transformational leadership however, tends to value organizational results over human results. Organizational goals are achieved through alignment of followers’ needs with the organizational vision. Individual growth as intended in servant-leadership is achieved through the alignment of the organizational vision with the followers’ needs. It is not the intention to imply here that transformational leaders do not engage in behaviors such as listening or building community. Rather it is to illustrate that the traditional transformational and visionary leadership models diverge from servant-leadership in focus and placement of value.
Servant-Leadership Characteristics from a Gendered Perspective
In the gender duality of feminine and masculine, relationship-oriented behaviors are traditionally associated with the communion dimension of gender (Barbuto & Gifford, 2010). In comparison, agentic behaviors are typically associated with the masculine dimension of gender and, by default, with traditional views of leadership (Coleman, 2003). Activities associated with leading as described above – foresight, conceptualization, awareness, and persuasion – and others such as inspiring, risk-taking, initiating, assertiveness, critical thought (rationality) are associated foremost with male socialization (Coleman, 2003). Needs-focused and other-centered characteristics are more strongly associated with the relationship aspects of leadership as opposed to the task aspects. Thus, from a gendered perspective, serving is predominantly associated with femininity and leading with masculinity. Indeed, caring behaviors traditionally belong to the realm of feminine socialization (Gilligan, 1982; Noddings, 2003). In servant-leadership they are listening, empathizing, healing, and fostering others’ individual growth. Integrative behaviors such as dialogue and non-violent conflict resolution also traditionally belong to the realm of feminine socialization (Eisler, 1994) while in servant-leadership they also include practicing stewardship and building community (Greenleaf, 1970; 2003; Greenleaf, 1977; 2002; Spears, 2002). It follows that the distinguishing elements of servant-leadership add more feminine- gendered behaviors to the leadership construct. As such, the servant-leadership model can serve as a driving force for generating discourse on gender integration in organizational leadership.
Feminist Perspectives and Servant-Leadership
Deconstruction of Servant-Leadership
Eicher-Catt (2005) presented a poststructural feminist deconstruction of servant- leadership. She argued that the term servant-leader in and of itself implies male dominance. In her analysis, the oversimplification of the relationship between the individual components of servant and leader intensifies the gendered nature of their connotations (subjugation and domination). Eicher-Catt argued further that the conflict in terms created by pairing servant with leader inhibits any negative connotations leader may evoke, thus creating ambiguity left to be interpreted through existing gendered language categories. Instead of neutralizing leadership, as it may intend or appear to do, Eicher-Catt claimed that the term forces a perceived gender choice: At any given time, a leader must privilege one role over the other. As such, a feminist deconstruction of the term servant-leader/servant- leadership implies a manipulative use of language to perpetuate gender dominance.
Servant-leadership discourse often portrays the model as a leadership ethic (Hamilton & Bean, 2005). The conceptualization of this leadership ethic is widely attributed to Robert Greenleaf who is known to have been a devout Christian, White male, and corporate business executive. Biblical references in Greenleaf’s writings leave servant-leadership vulnerable to critique such as Eicher-Catt’s (2005) of being founded in patriarchal religious doctrine that upholds norms of male domination. Servant-leadership discourse is also characterized by Eicher- Catt as “deceptively ambiguous especially when it comes to the nature of leadership responsibility, authority, and accountability” (p. 18; emphasis added). This ambiguity, from a poststructural feminist perspective, is intended for the advancement of agendas of male-domination. The inherent danger lies in the potential for management to abuse the discourse of servant-leadership and encourage submissive behaviors in subordinates. Eicher-Catt argued that such abuse could be construed as politically motivated by executive management (predominantly males) and as an extension of the male-dominant organizational order.
For Greenleaf (1977; 2002), in the context of authentic humanity, serving and leading form an elegant and paradoxical dualism. Indeed, there are leaders who do not serve; they are leaders first. There are also those who serve and choose not to lead. In Greenleaf’s (1970; 2003) interpretation, the servant-leader is by impulse a servant-first (as a person) who makes a conscious decision to lead (take on the role of leader). Servant-leadership as an ethic of leadership certainly is vulnerable to abuse, as is any ethical doctrine or power relationship. Feminist theory offers a lens to question and revise cultural assumptions while revealing the unethical nature of the gendering of power (Kark, 2004). Poststructural interpretations of leadership and servant-leadership warn of the mixed messages the language of servant-leadership discourse may be sending. The purpose of discourse analysis and deconstruction is primarily to reveal otherwise obscure meaning in language and behavior as driven by implicit, unobtrusive power dynamics (Billing & Alvesson, 2000). Critique should awaken educators of the servant-leadership perspective to develop greater clarity of meaning in relation to gender and diversity, and thus create a heightened sense of awareness of what servant- leadership can be.
Difference Feminism: Feminist Ethic of Care and Servant-Leadership
Caring as genuine concern for people is at the core of servant-leadership (Greenleaf, 1970; 2003; Spears, 2002). Based on the emphasis servant-leadership places on ethics and on caring, a discussion of servant-leadership in the context gender merits a comparison with the feminist ethic of care. The notion that another framework for ethical reasoning based on a relational focus – an ethic of care – emerged from Gilligan’s (1982) feminist critique of the Kohlbergian universal and abstract justice model as the preferred ethical standard. Noddings’ (2003) conceptualization of the feminist ethic of care emerged from her work in moral education and shares a number of characteristics with servant-leadership. One of the central ideas of the ethic of care is personal investment and the responsibility of the individual to take initiative in active caring. Servant- leadership arises through the conscious decision to serve (Greenleaf, 1970; 2003).
Ethical caring is other-centered and places contextual awareness, community building, and commitment to the growth of others at the core of human activity (Noddings, 2003). The concept of care according to Noddings has self-care as a precondition for the ability to provide care to others. This is especially significant to a discussion of servant-leadership in relation to negative connotations of serving. Servant-leaders have the ability to postpone their own need fulfillment temporarily because they have a heightened awareness of self and a heightened awareness of context (Greenleaf, 1996). The processes of servant-leading and caring, however, do not by default imply self-sacrifice or self-denial. The sacrifices a servant-leader makes in the process of leading can only be made on the basis self-stability.
The ethic of care views individuals as fundamentally embedded in relationships (Noddings, 2003). Similarly, servant-leadership focuses on the relationship between the servant-leader and those served (Greenleaf, 1970; 2003). Ethical caring is based on interconnectedness (Gilligan, 1982), mutual obligation (Liedtka, 1996), and a commitment to mutually influencing dialogue (Noddings, 2003). One of the main characteristics of servant-leadership is the practice of participative leadership and decision making (Greenleaf, 1970; 2003). The ethic of care also favors contextualized decision making as opposed to the application of abstract universal rules and the interaction of concrete participants (Liedtka, 1996; Noddings, 2003). The importance of context and personal experience in understanding the needs of others and being able to care for them on their own terms is central to ethical caring (Noddings, 2003).
Care entails respecting the other’s autonomy and enhancing the one cared-for’s own decision making. “The essence of caring becomes a focus on acceptance of the other, both in his or her current state, and as one capable of growth” (Liedtka, 1996, p. 184). Spears (2002) interpreted the servant-leader characteristic of empathy in a similar manner. “People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirits. One assumes the good intentions of coworkers and does not reject them as people, even while refusing to accept their [poor] behavior or performance” (Spears, 2002, p. 7). In such considerations, awareness of contextual variables plays a central role in responding to others’ needs. Without the element of personal investment, proximity, and context, concerted human effort transforms into dehumanized problem-solving in an abstract dimension (Liedtka, 1996).
Toward a Gender-Holistic Leadership Model
The Partnership Model
Despite the feminist critique purporting leadership theory as an instrument of male dominance, Billing and Alvesson (2000) contended that advocating the construction of a feminine leadership theory is not a desirable objective. Romanticizing and up valuing female differences and women’s ways of leading hold the danger of reinforcing gendered assumptions and cultural structures of dominance and submission (see also Kark, 2004). A paradigm shift from an over masculinized organizational model to a femininity dominated model is also not the desired objective (Brady & Hammett, 2001). Rather the construction of a gender-integrative model of leadership such as Eisler’s (1994) partnership model, with leadership as partnership and partnership as gender equality, would be desirable. The partnership model provides an example for placing leadership and organizations within a gender-holistic framework. Eisler discussed how women – owing to traditional socialization of feminine values such as relatedness, non- violent conflict resolution, and empathy – have much to contribute to the process of transforming organizational reality. The object is not to reject traditionally typical masculine qualities of leadership (such as decisiveness, assertiveness, and risk-taking). Instead the objective is to integrate rational, care-oriented, and person-centered thinking (Whetstone, 2002). Coleman (2003) and Eisler (1994) asserted that typically masculine gendered activities remain essential elements of the leadership equation and are fundamental to a gender-holistic approach. As such, in a partnership model of organization and leadership both men and women as well as masculine and feminine traits and behaviors play an equally free, liberated, and powerful role. The challenge is to manage the tension within a context of conscious discernment and relationality.
Integration in Leadership Models and in Servant-Leadership
Selected models of leadership, conflict resolution, and people skills provide tangible examples for understanding the paradoxical and integrative character of servant-leadership. The duality of leader and servant is recognizable in the relationship and task dimensions of behavioral leadership theories (Northouse, 2007) and in the axes of concern for one’s own interests and concern for others’ interests in Thomas’ (1992) model of conflict resolution. Comparatively, the relationship-oriented, other-centered, and supportive aspects of servant-leadership – empathizing, healing, listening, commitment to others’ growth – fall into the gender categories considered to be predominantly feminine. The integration of high concern for relationships and for tasks is portrayed as desirable in behavioral models of leadership and can be associated with the servant-leader characteristic of building community. The more agentic components of servant leadership – foresight, awareness, and conceptualization, and persuasion – fall into the area Thomas (1992) labeled integrative in conflict resolution approaches. Notably, these typically masculine dimensions of servant-leadership are not consistent with leadership behaviors associated with low relationship/low concern for others. Generally, behaviors on the opposing end of the gender spectrum in relation to feminine behaviors would be associated with masculine gender. According to Northouse (2007), authoritarian leadership, laissez-faire, and impoverished management styles are more characteristic of low relationship orientation/high task orientation. Thomas (1992) described conflict resolution approaches with low concern for others as competitive and avoiding. These comparisons indicate that the fundamental behaviors of servant-leadership are not strongly associated with competitive, authoritarian, dominating, that is highly masculine leadership styles. Instead the leader behaviors of servant-leaders fall primarily into the more integrative quadrants of these taxonomies. The findings of Barbuto and Gifford (2010) also support the claim that servant-leadership allows leaders of either gender to engage in both typically masculine and feminine leadership behaviors. As such, in terms of the typical gendering of leadership dimensions, servant- leadership characteristics and behaviors appear to be gender-integrative.
From Hierarchies of Domination to Partnership
Eisler (1994) noted that social movements throughout history have challenged structures of domination in pursuit of social justice. Gender-egalitarian societies conceptualize power as “focused primarily on the capacity to give, sustain, nurture, and illuminate life” (p. 35). These premises are also echoed in servant- leadership and its commitment to social justice (Greenleaf, 1977; 2002). Current trends in organizational theory also challenge the nature of leadership and power as manifested in structures of domination. One of the most distinguishing tenets of servant-leadership is the challenge it poses to positional power. Greenleaf pointed out that the weaknesses of leadership and organization are the result of power and responsibility being concentrated at the top of hierarchies and ultimately in one person. Hierarchies and power-dominance dynamics create the illusion of independence (individualism) while coercing dependence (non- differentiation) through the transfer of responsibility to great men. Instead, Greenleaf (1970; 2003) proposed a deromanticizing of leadership and a leveling of hierarchies. In this way, servant-leadership serves the purpose of feminist and postmodern movements in organizational theory by virtue of the challenge the model poses to traditional hierarchical models of leadership.
Disparities in power are an inevitable condition of social interaction. Power itself is a neutral construct until applied with some intent. Within the context of care power carries with it connotations such as strength, virtue, energy, potency, and ability, and thus constitutes empowerment and shared power (Brady & Hammett, 1999; Liedtka, 1996). In other words, a differentiation is made “between power as controlling others and empowerment as controlling oneself” (Liedtka, 1996, p. 195). Indeed, servant-leadership advocates models of power-sharing and empowerment in its central tenets of commitment to the growth of people and the primus inter pares leadership ideal (Greenleaf, 1977; 2002).
The fact that male-dominated spheres of management are adopting leadership styles of caring, compassion, and community according to Eisler (1994) can be attributed to the rising status of women and, as a consequence, traditionally feminine values. The leader facets of the servant-leader – awareness, conceptualization, persuasion, and foresight – are congruent with other models of leadership and, as Greenleaf (1970; 2003) conceptualized them, diverge from typically negative masculine associations with hierarchy, competition, or coercive power. The servant facet is defined not through placating or self-degrading forms of self-sacrifice or self-denial, but, as Spears (2002) noted, through listening, healing, stewardship, fostering personal growth, and building community.
Leading in servant-leadership has less to do with domination and more to do with role-modeling, conscious initiative, and creating an environment of opportunity for followers to grow and thrive (Kouzes & Posner, 2003). Serving has less to do with coerced subservience and more to do with humble, empowered, ethical activism. As such, servant and leader are compatible. The challenge lies in managing the meaning of the terms servant and leader.
Implications for Leadership Education
Leadership students and educators can benefit from the integration of feminist and gender-conscious perspectives in teaching about servant-leadership and leadership in general. The preceding discussion outlined some ways in which servant- leadership challenges gender role stereotypes in leadership. Barbuto and Gifford’s (2010) study of gender dimensions of servant-leadership shows how servant- leadership contradicts typically gendered perspectives of leadership and provides an empirical foundation for a discussion. Eicher-Catt’s (2005) feminist deconstruction provides a starting point for examining servant-leadership discourse from a critical standpoint of gender. From the deconstruction feminist perspective servant-leadership augments gender polarization and male dominance in organizations. Noddings’ (2003) care perspective of morality provides an ethical and education-based framework for discussing servant-leadership. Eisler’s (1994) partnership model presents a compelling argument for servant-leadership at the level of organization and community grounded in a paradigm shift from a culture that predominantly values masculinity to a culture of acceptance and integration of feminine and masculine. From this perspective of difference feminist, servant-leadership integrates gender-polarized leadership characteristics of agency and communion and neutralizes discourses of dominance and hierarchy. Further investigation of servant-leadership with gender as a category of analysis is needed to provide a stronger research base for servant-leadership as gender-integrative. One approach might be to explore correlations of servant- leadership constructs and gender identity that transcend biological gender. Another might be a case study of gender attitudes in a servant-led organization.
In the following offers an outline of more specific implications for leadership programs and course content.
Ritch and Mengel (2009) described guidelines for the design and review processes of leadership programs which resulted from a collaborative project sponsored by the International Leadership Association. The component of outcomes and assessment is applied here as a framework for illustrating the adoption of servant-leadership in the context of gender. The overarching guiding question is, “What are the intended outcomes of the leadership education program and how are they assessed and used to ensure continuous quality improvement” (Ritch & Mengel, 2009, p. 220)? The desired outcome of the preceding discussion concerning the gendered nature of leadership as exemplified through servant- leadership is to strive for a more gender-integrative and partnership-oriented approach to leadership and organizational processes. The explicit valuing and encouragement of both culturally feminine and masculine behaviors grounded in the principles of servant-leadership can be integrated into the conceptual framework of leadership education programs. Implications at an institutional level might include the conscious examination of leadership competencies and proficiencies identified in the conceptual framework as desired outcomes and an assessment of whether and how both feminine and masculine values are applied in decision-making processes. On a program level, the process might include an examination of gender context in the faculty and student body and a strategy to assess its impact on program content, learning processes in the classroom, as well as organizational learning.
On the student level the desired outcomes identified in the conceptual framework can be applied to address how to assess students’ grasp of gender-integrative values and servant-leadership principles through coursework, class participation, and class projects. This level is closer to the course content and the application of gender-integrative servant-leadership can be informed through research. For example, conclusions from a study by Fischer, Overland, and Adams (2010) indicated that there are gender differences in the leadership attitudes of incoming first-year college students about hierarchical thinking as compared to systemic thinking. Fischer et al. concluded that effective leadership manages the tension between hierarchical (typically masculine) and systemic (typically feminine) approaches to leadership. Servant-leadership can serve as an example of a gender- integrative approach that explicitly seeks to manage this tension. In this example, the impact of course content can be assessed using the same instrument used by Fischer et al. – Leadership Attitudes and Beliefs Scale. The goal would be to affect some change in beliefs about hierarchical thinking and systemic thinking that indicate an (overall increased) integration of the two in both female and male students.
Some further suggestions for course content are to use trait and behavior theories, for example in Northouse (2007), together with Spears’ (2002) characteristics of servant-leadership to generate discourse on the gendering of leadership. Gendered cultural perceptions of leadership and can be further illuminated by analyzing scenarios using gender as a variable. For example, Nahavandi (2006) presented a case study of Bill Gates and Mary Kay Ash as two very different and highly effective business leaders. The class can consider the implications for Microsoft and Mary Kay Cosmetics if these two leaders were switched or if they led one or the other company in partnership. When presented with these various perspectives, students have the opportunity to think critically about servant- leadership, gender issues, and context in leadership and organizations.
This paper advocates the development of leadership education that strives for an integrative humanistic approach to organizational life. Gender-integrative models of leadership and organization such as servant-leadership (as proposed here) and the partnership model call for the equal valuation of complementary dualities and qualities, activities, and behaviors typically associated with femininity or masculinity. As women’s experience continues to gain legitimacy in the realm of organizational leadership this dynamic can evoke in the larger human context a growing population of men who are able to respect, embrace, and adopt traditionally feminine leader behaviors. The first step towards transformation is awareness: a call to action for explicit discussion of gendered reality within and through leadership education. Greenleaf (1970; 2003) offered a luminous caveat when he wrote “Awareness is not a giver of solace – it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener” (p. 56). The issue of gender in relationships, education, and work should awaken and disturb leadership educators and servant- leaders of today and tomorrow. It remains the task of leadership educators to provide foresight and practice intentionally gender-integrative dialogue in institutional decision-making processes, program design, and the classroom. By informing servant-leadership through feminist perspectives leadership educators can access a useful resource for developing critical thought as well as gender- integrative leaders and organizations for the future.
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