Research Papers

Servant Leadership, Optimal Experience, and Meaningful Life

Optimal experience – also known as Flow – was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975 in his research study of joy, creativity, and the total involvement with life. Optimal experience is about focused attention and control of consciousness. Likewise, servant leadership is a conscious choice which aspires one to lead (Greenleaf, 1970). After a close examination of the philosophy of servant leadership by Greenleaf (1970), the attributes and behaviors of servant leaders by Laub (1999), Russell and Stone (2002), Patterson (2003), Keith (2008), Spears (2010), and Sipe and Frick (2015), it is argued that the work of a servant leader meets most if not all of the prescriptions of the flow model as listed by Csikszentmihalyi (1990). In the state of flow, a servant leader’s personal identity (i.e. the concept of self) and social identity (i.e. the concept of self based on perceived membership in a relevant social group) is also consolidated. A practical implication of this conceptual discussion is that a servant leader, who serves the betterment of others and the greater good of the society, should create an environment for others to experience flow. When the cumulated works of a servant leader fit together into a unified optimal experience, he/she finds fulfillment and lives a meaningful life. This is an example of the power and promise of servant leadership as posed by Greenleaf (1970).

Servant Leadership Supports Wellness Development in Adolescents

This empirical study explored the connection between servant leadership practice and servant leaders’ wellness development. Learners aged 15 to 18 of a Hong Kong school have participated in various service-oriented extracurricular programs for several years. They completed an online questionnaire and their reflections were analyzed thematically. The results showed that practice of servant leadership in adolescent promoted their spiritual, occupational, intellectual, social and emotional wellness. Hence, while serving others, the servant leader is benefited in this process. Servant leadership brings betterment for both the servant leader and the followers.

Servant Leadership Cultivates Grit and Growth Mindset in Learners

A servant leader has a growth mindset, and makes a conscious effort to develop self effectiveness in areas of listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and community building. These are the characteristics of a servant leader as identified by Spears (2010). Empirical studies from Hays (2008) and Chan (2015) provided examples of these ten attributes in action, in the context of tertiary and secondary classrooms respectively. Servant leadership takes a developmental approach in meeting diverse learners’ needs. It does not put its emphasis on the talents of individuals but focuses on learning as a journey. Learners’ potential is actualized through effort and stamina, which is also known as grit, “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly, 2007, p.1087). It is argued that a servant leader is a learner and models a growth mindset. The practice of servant leadership in a learning community creates a supportive, respectful and demanding environment, which is conducive to cultivating learners with a growth mindset and grit.

Cultivating Servant Leaders in Secondary Schooling

This empirical study explored learners’ experiences of a service learning co-curricular program. Learners aged 15 to 17 of a Hong Kong international school were interviewed in three semi-structured focus groups. These qualitative data were analyzed thematically, and reveal that these participants had opportunities to develop servant leadership traits through their service learning process. It is argued that secondary schools can be a suitable training ground to cultivate servant leaders. The servant leader traits as listed by Spears (2010) are good components of a character education program. A servant leadership training framework is presented with three stages: serving, leading, and building community. Through this framework, youth serve through empathetic listening and action. They lead with intentionality and pursue a growth mindset. They make plans and persuade others into building community. Through discussion, practice, and reflection, service learning is a pathway to cultivate servant leaders in secondary schooling.

Learners’ Perceptions of Servant-Leadership In Classrooms

The term “servant-leadership” was coined by Robert Greenleaf (1970) through his collection of essays titled The Servant as Leader. His message is that the best leader is first a servant. Beazley (2003) described servant-leadership as an art, a calling, a way of being, and a philosophy of life. Hence, it is not modern theory of leadership and management technique but rather the process of serving, and the development of the led, who are being served. Omoh (2007) considered that the results of servant-leadership include follower-empowerment as well as mutual trust and collaboration between the servant-leader and the led. More specifically, Hays (2008) argued that the applications of servant-leadership principles can “make a profound difference on the impact of learning and in the learning experience of both students and teachers” (p.113). The researcher agrees with Hays that the belief of servant-leadership is in alignment with the purpose of education in school. The researcher’s position is that those teachers, who choose to be servant-leaders, serve the needs of learners in classrooms, and in partnership with learners, create a learner-centered community operating with servant-leadership principles. This study seeks to explore the application of servant-leadership in meeting the cognitive, social, individual and motivational needs of learners in classrooms of a Hong Kong school.