It seems that, as commerce has increasingly become globalized and businesses expand in unprecedented ways, there is an equally increasing interest on leadership, and how leaders conform to various styles of the function. Without question, the traditional model of the hierarchy, governed by autocratic leadership, has given way to more humane and ethics-based concepts, and two of the most prevalent are Spiritual Leadership Theory (SLT) and Servant Leadership, the latter as developed by Robert Greenleaf. Interestingly, however, and despite the theories as presented as unique in themselves, the reality is that they essentially reflect the same ambitions and perspectives. More exactly, and when Servant Leadership is fully explored, it becomes evident that the model is inherently “spiritual” in the sense that it is centered on human needs and feelings, which in turn goes to empowering and gratifying employees on the deepest levels. This in turn generates the employee efforts going to success. As the following then supports, SLT and Servant Leadership are inextricably connected, as both models exist to promote well-being in followers and consequently enhance all aspects of an organization.
In comparing SLT and Greenleaf’s theory, perhaps the most compelling factor is that there is very little in terms of contrast between them. Not unexpectedly, the language used to define SLT reflects commitments to the importance of emotion and aesthetic elements of human interaction within organizations: “SLT is a causal theory of spiritual leadership based on vision, altruistic love and hope/faith that is grounded in an intrinsic motivation theory” (Fry et al , 2007, p. 73). The spiritual leader seeks to accomplish organizational goals, but these are dependent upon a manifested and strong degree of commitment to the full beings of the followers, and their most deeply held needs and values. Some theory overlap is in fact inevitable with this model, as the spiritual leader likely reflects aspects of transformational and charismatic leadership.
What must be recognized, however, is that these values are more inherently incorporated within Servant Leadership, specific definitions notwithstanding. It is in fact arguable that the theories are mutually inconclusive, as in: “The values of a servant leader include having a guiding vision and purpose, loving others, trusting and empowering others, and submitting to others” (Freeman, 2011, p. 124). Even the language goes to mirroring identical concerns, just as each theory relies on similar components of caring, selflessness, and awareness of human realities beyond those of pragmatic need. In both SLT and Servant Leadership, for example, empathy is critical; the leader must “enter into” the internal experience of the followers and appreciate, on a visceral level, their most fundamental feelings and concerns. This in turn promotes the well-being of the organization itself. Empathy produces connections extremely important for the leader, followers, and the organization; the awareness that they are understood on a deep level tends to promote confidence in followers, and the ambition to perform well (Barbuto, Wheeler, 2007). If SLT emphasizes this as a spiritual component, it is nonetheless in place in Servant Leadership, and the intense similarity between the theories is reinforced.
Essentially, only a marginal difference in emphasis then separates the theories.
Examples of Contrasting Leadership Approaches
When an actual instance of Servant Leadership is noted, what emerges is how the model is in place prior to the defining of it, which in turn suggests that certain leaders have long been aware of the vast benefits it affords. For example, and as identified by Fortune Magazine, CEO Danny Wegman of Wegman’s Food Markets is maintaining traditions of Servant Leadership the family business has practiced for decades. Wegman’s does billions of dollars in business annually, yet the company’s structure consistently reflects attention to employee needs and concerns. The business offers compressed work weeks to accommodate individual employee scheduling preferences; it compensates workers for college tuition expenses; and it is as well notable that hundreds of employees visit the company’s organic farm every year (Fortune, 2015). This last reality strongly suggests a sense of connection between workers and the organization, and one likely reflecting a desire to give more of themselves to the company respecting their needs as people. In fact, Consumer Reports has named Wegman’s the best grocery chain in the U.S., and CEO Danny Wegman evidently continues the traditions of the family-owned business (Fortune, 2015). What occurs then is an exponential and mutually rewarding relationship, as employees are more motivated to return the care offered by the company.
Robert Greenleaf expresses that the leadership is wholly motivated by the natural sense that the individual wishes to serve others (Nagy, 2015). As this further supports the spiritual element within Servant Leadership, it seems that Wegman’s is committed to the practical and ethical benefits arising when respect is both offered and reciprocated, and this is a formula for success clearly embraced by CEO Danny Wegman.
Conversely, certain leaders appear to practice theories which are in fact removed from any valid theory of leadership, and instead reflect a virtually unthinking and shortsighted concern only for fiscal matters. Notoriously, United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek is perceived as having greatly damaged the company, and through what may be termed an utter disregard for employee well-being. A petition calling for his resignation currently has over 10,000 signatures, with United employees largely supporting it. The reasons are both staggering and inescapable. When United merged with Continental Airlines, Smisek went on record before Congress and insisted that no outsourcing of jobs would be done, nor would employee benefits suffer. The reality has been significantly different: “Employees found their jobs being outsourced to contractors where United could pay less and provide fewer benefits. Over 40,000 retirees had their benefits stripped” (Change.org, 2015). The outrage of United employees, “united” in this demand for Smisek’s departure, then underscores both the gross impracticality of such leadership, as well as its immense disregard for basic ethics.
Conclusion and Justification of Theory
When the above models of leadership are fully considered, a striking reality is evident; namely, that leaders who insist upon more autocratic styles actually work against the success of their organizations, and that a focus on employee well-being and individual needs generates the levels of performance necessary for success. People, it is understood, generally seek several dimensions in the workplace; they desire work which gives them a sense of purpose, employment that is interesting and allows them to develop skills and mastery over tasks, an harmonious relationship with co-workers, and work that is not in contrast to their lives, but which complements them in an integrated way (Fry et al, 2007, p. 71). The leader who provides this environment and genuinely expresses concern for employee realities then establishes the organizational foundation most likely to enhance business. This being the case, it becomes virtually irrelevant to promote SLT as opposed to Servant Leadership, and chiefly because the latter is so reflective of the values of the former. To that end, Servant Leadership is upheld here as the most effective and most ethical model of leadership, as it is hoped that organizations will increasingly accept this model as being in their best interests. Ultimately, SLT and Servant Leadership are inextricably linked, with both models existing to promote well-being in followers and consequently enhance all aspects and concerns of an organization.
- Barbuto, J. E., & Wheeler, D. W. (2002). Becoming a servant leader: Do you have what it takes?. Cooperative Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Retrieved 31 Oct. 2015 from
- Change.org. (2015). United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek must resign. Retrieved 31 Oct. 2015 from https://www.change.org/p/united-airlines-board-united-airlines-ceo- jeff-smisek-must-resign
- Fortune. (2015). “100 Best Companies to Work For.” Wegman’s Food Markets. Retrieved 31 Oct. 2015 from http://fortune.com/best-companies/wegmans-food- markets-7/
- Freeman, G. T. (2011). Spirituality and servant leadership: A conceptual model and research proposal. Emerging Leadership Journeys, 4(1), 120-140. Retrieved 31 Oct. 2015 from http://www.ilearnincambodia.net/uploads/3/1/0/9/31096741/freeman_v4i1_pp120-140rprop.pdf
- Fry, L. W., Matherly, L. L., Whittington, J. L., & Winston, B. (2007). Spiritual leadership as an integrating paradigm for servant leadership. Integrating Spirituality and Organizational Leadership, 70-82. Retrieved 31 Oct. 2015 from
- Nagy, J. (2015). Servant Leadership: Accepting and Maintaining the Call of Service. Community ToolBox. Retrieved 31 Oct. 2015 from