How Is Servant Leadership Taught in Online Classrooms?

servant leadership

Servant leadership is a concept that is emerging in the quest for effective business and organizational leadership, but can it be taught, and can it be taught online? To answer those questions, it is important to understand what the term means, and what is different in this type of leadership model. Looking at courses included in leadership degree programs and at courses featured in serving-leading programs can illustrate several differences.

What is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is a distinct theory of leadership that focuses on the needs of the individual. Servant leaders develop a desire to serve others first, and then to direct them.

The idea began in a 1970 essay by Robert K. Greenleaf. According to Greenleaf, this style of leadership is a conscious decision that must be made. By putting the needs of the individuals first, power struggles are avoided. One of his essays says, “Caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a great society is built.” He notes that caring used to be something that was done on an individual basis, but it now has been taken over by organizations. That means developing regulations and standards that are conducive to the welfare of the majority, but the individual is often overlooked. Traditionally, the term is used by religious organizations but is lately seeping into business language.

Is It Teachable?

There are ten concepts involved in this style of leadership. They are:

  • Listening
  • Empathy
  • Healing
  • Awareness
  • Persuasion
  • Conceptualization
  • Foresight
  • Stewardship
  • Commitment to people
  • Community-building

Of these, conceptualization, persuasion and active listening are components of most business leadership programs. They are taught as communication skills, and effective communication certainly is teachable. Awareness and community building are part of the organizational psychology courses many leadership programs feature. Healing is another aspect of the psychology of leading because it involves understanding how and when to intervene in helping someone else.

Empathy and commitment to others may not be as teachable because they seem to be character traits. A Forbes Magazine article says some businesses use the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument to help managers understand which of four modes of thinking they employ: analytical, sequential, interpersonal and imaginative. This can lead to self-awareness which is used to make the conscious decision spoken of by Greenleaf to put others first.

Is It Teachable Through Distance Learning?

The question is, can this leadership model be taught in a computerized format. Part of the problem seems to be that learning servant leadership requires practice and role-play. Conflict resolution, for example, necessitates representing two conflicting views. This could possibly be accomplished through an Internet discussion group, or through video courses. Communication is a viable online course, and both written and spoken communication can be edifying and supportive. The empathy component is a harder issue. Part of the success of this type of leadership in organizations is knowing how and when to give negative feedback, but that involves understanding the frailties of others and how to frame information so that it doesn’t impact them harmfully. That is empathy. Commitment to people is another stumbling block in teaching the concept of this kind of leadership; although the leader may understand the issue, he must make the decision to care by relinquishing power.

Industry is taking the servant leadership concept seriously. Corporate trainers stress that it is not something that can be used exclusively; there are issues that call for other leadership models. Still, the fact that corporations are sending their management to these programs, or requiring them to take the programs through distance learning, indicates they believe it is an effective tool. Whether Servant Leadership can be effectively taught online depends upon whether people believe they can learn to be caring and empathetic through Internet courses.

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