Combination of leadership styles means success

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Servant leaders are just as effective as transformational leaders. New research by Associate Professor Dirk van Dierendonck of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) shows that combining transformational and servant leadership benefits organisations the most. A mix of the two will generate more commitment to the organisation among employees and will get them more engaged and enthusiastic about their work – even in times of a crisis.

When thinking of a typical and effective leader, usually a charismatic leader who grabs the spotlight comes to mind. The transformational leader, who wants to make employees perform beyond their expectations, was long thought to be most effective, especially in unstable times. But Dirk van Dierendonck’s research suggests that servant leaders, who put the needs of the individual before the organisation, are just as effective as transformational leaders. And most importantly, his findings show that the combination of both is what works best.

After studying around 600 people, Van Dierendonck found that employees are more committed and engaged when combining these two leadership styles, because using just one is one-sided. Organisations are made up of all kinds of people who respond to different leadership styles. Combining the two styles enables leaders to engage everyone within the organisation. This will create more commitment to the organisation and as a result, employees will be more engaged and enthusiastic about their work. 

“If you combine servant and transformational leadership your employees will be happier.”

Even in unstable times the combination of the leadership styles still works best. Because in a crisis, organisations still need the perspectives of the transformational leader, and the individual attention of the servant leader. Van Dierendock’s research suggests that the servant leader does not appear to be at a special disadvantage in an uncertain environment, as other studies stated. Employees appear to care less about the style of leadership than the substance: evidence that the person at the top is aware of the challenges the organisation faces and is taking action. Tough times generally reduce the level of engagement, but good servant leadership or good transformational leadership can mitigate the lower degree of connection employees feel with the organisation.

The study demonstrates that although the sources of a servant leader’s popularity are different than those of a transformational leader, the underlying behaviours of each leadership style complement one another in achieving employee engagement.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is ranked among Europe’s top 10 business schools for education and among the top three for research. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who carry their innovative mindset into a sustainable future thanks to a first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes. RSM also has offices in the Amsterdam Zuidas business district and in Taipei, Taiwan. www.rsm.nl

For more information about RSM or on this release, please contact Ramses Singeling, Media Officer on +31 10 408 2028 or by email at singeling@rsm.nl.

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Read the entire RSM Discovery magazine article on this research below:

Exploring the differentials between servant and transformational leadership

Academic and managerial opinion has been divided for years over the respective merits of servant leadership and transformational leadership styles. However, a new study suggests that one can be just as effective as the other.

By Dirk van Dierendonck and Daan Stam

Traditionally, the transformational leader has attracted the most attention in the media and the business schools – the charismatic, visionary individual who puts the needs of the organization ahead of the needs of the individual.

In the 1970s, a few scholars identified another type of leader who proceeded in the exact opposite way, yet still succeeded: the servant leader, a humble person who puts the needs of the individual ahead of the organisation and lets the employees take the lead.

Even today, however, transformational leaders get most of the glory, and servant leaders tend to be seen more as caretakers for mature organizations in stable markets. To find out whether this prejudice is justified, we undertook some empirical research with three of our students at RSM – Pieter Boersma, Ninotchka de Windt, and Jorrit Alkema.

The three studies we conducted demonstrated that although the sources of a servant leader’s popularity are different than those of a transformational leader, the underlying behaviours of each leadership style complement one another in achieving employee engagement.

Which is better?

Transformational leaders encourage their followers to perform beyond expectations: they emphasise collective values and needs rather than the values and needs of the individual. Employees like them because they offer an inspiring vision and are inclined to present themselves as a role model. Charisma is a primary tool of the trade for the transformational leader, who is seen as the centre of a process driving greater organisational effectiveness.

Servant leaders, on the other hand, focus on developing employees to their fullest potential. They rely on one-on-one communication to achieve their goals. Servant leaders attribute success to their followers rather than themselves.

Which is better? Scholars have found theoretical advantages in either kind of leadership, but some have speculated that a servant leader is more suited to an organisation focused on preserving the status quo, while a transformational leader makes a better captain when the world is in flux. Before our three studies, however, no one had actually tried to prove this assertion empirically.

In our studies, we focused on the impact of servant leaders and transformational leaders on the emotional factor that matters most to the enterprise in the end: the employees’ level of commitment to the organisation.

We conducted two experimental surveys and one field study to try to understand more about the impact of each kind of leadership. For the first study, 184 people from one of the co-authors’ networks took a paper-and-pen test and were asked to imagine they were employees working for a transformational leader in a period of an uncertain business environment. For the second, 200 employees working in a hospital (mostly nurses and doctors) also took a hypothetical survey in which we asked them what it would be like to work for either a servant leader, a laissez-faire leader, or a transactional leader. For the final study, we talked to 200 people employed as support staff for a major university and asked them to compare the levels of engagement they would feel working for a transformational leader versus a servant leader.

Among our findings:

     

  • Respondents considered leaders who show transformational qualities to be more effective, while leaders who demonstrate servant qualities are better at fulfilling the needs of their followers.
  • However, neither kind of leadership has a special effect on organisational commitment: both kinds correlate to the strength of organisational commitment. 
  • This is not a feature of all kinds of leadership. We found levels of engagement to be lower for followers of either transactional leaders (leaders who focus mostly on concentrating on the task at hand) or laissez-faire leaders (leaders who leave their followers alone and shirk making decisions).
  • We could not prove that servant leaders have a greater impact on the degree of engagement in stable times than in uncertain times. Nor did we find that an uncertain environment enhances transformational leaders’ effectiveness. In both cases, tough times reduce the level of engagement, but good servant leadership or good transformational leadership can mitigate the lower degree of connection employees feel with the organisation.
  •  

 

Conclusions

For most executives, our conclusion is good news: whether you’re able to summon up your inner Churchill or not when you face your next crisis may not matter. Our work suggests that the servant leader does not appear to be at a special disadvantage in an uncertain environment, as other scholars have asserted. Employees appear to care less about the style of leadership than the substance, ie, they require evidence that the person at the top is aware of the challenges the organisation faces and is taking action.

This article is based on the paper "Same difference? Exploring the differential mechanisms linking servant leadership and transformational leadership to follower outcomes", written by Dirk van Dierendonck, Daan Stam, Pieter Boersma, Ninotchka de Windt, and Jorrit Alkema. It has been published in "The Leadership Quarterly", Volume 25, Issue 3, June 2014, Pages 544–562. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2013.11.014

Dirk van Dierendonck is Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Department of Organisation and Personnel Management, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. Email: dvandierendonck@rsm.nl

Daan Stam is Associate Professor of Innovation Management, Department of Technology and Operations Management, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. Email: dstam@rsm.nl

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