Raymond W. Preiss
Professor and Chair
Department of Communication Studies
Copyright 2014. Raymond W. Preiss. All rights reserved.
Servant leadership (SL) involves a management style and personal philosophy that is rooted in the common good. Leaders following this philosophy serve organizational members, nurture their talents, build upon their skills, and make strategic decisions that benefit the company, the community, and the society.
In this entry, I discuss the Executive Servant Leadership Scale (ESLS; Reed, Vidavir-Cohen & Colwell, 2011). There are similarities and differences between this instrument and the Servant Leadership Questionnaire (SLQ) scale by Barbuto and Wheeler (2006) discussed earlier. The SLQ asks participants to consider and assess the behaviors of an organizational superior. The items in the SLQ ask for judgments about categories or groupings of behaviors and perceptions associated with servant leadership: Altruistic calling, emotional healing, wisdom, persuasive mapping, and organizational stewardship. A total of 23 items are used to measure these SL groupings.
Reed et al.’s (2011) ESLS shares qualities with the SLQ. The authors search the literature on ethical leadership, and conclude that certain leader behaviors can create an ethical climate in an organization. Four management styles were reviewed: Transformational leadership, authentic leadership, spiritual leadership, and servant leadership. Their review of each area is somewhat limited, but the comparison of the four approaches is informative. For our purpose the connections between SL and ethical leadership is fundamental. Most of the literature on this issue is anecdotal and interpretive. Empirical evidence is cited (Reed et al., 2011, p. 423), but support for specific claims about SL is not documented. Instead, the authors reason that attention should be directed at top executives, not workplace supervisors.
I have some reservations about this logic, but it is hard to deny that research is needed about the effects of SL at all levels of an organization’s hierarchy. I’ll return to this issue later. Reed and his associate make a plausible case that perceptions of executives’ SL may affect behaviors at many levels in a company. To measure this executive influence, the authors examined various scales employed to assess SL at different organizational levels (Liden, Wayne, Zhao, & Henderson, D., 2008; Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006; Page & Wong, 2000; and Ehrhart, 2004). Items from these scales were refined to address behaviors and perceptions of executives. A total of 1,522 participants (on-line learners and private college alumni) were invited to complete the items on-line. The survey was completed by 218 participants out of the 344 who attempted the survey. If you are unfamiliar with exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis, don’t be discouraged. Expert reviewers examined the results prior to publication. It is important to observe the patterns of responses. Within the exploratory factor analysis, a pattern of SL responses was located. Multiple items were associated with five categories consistent with Greenleaf’s conceptualization: Interpersonal support, community building, altruism, egalitarianism, and moral authority (Reed et al., 2011, p. 424). The Executive Servant Leadership Scale is the sum of these 25 items. If you look closely, you can see that the 25 items can be used in several ways. You could use the entire 55 items and build the ESLS by extracting only the 25 items that measure the five categories. On the other hand, you might use only the 25 items that address the five categories. It is difficult to resolve this question because few experiments have been conducted to assess the reliability and validity of either scale. I recommend that if you elect to use the 25-item scale, you arrange the items of the ESLS in the order listed on the left side of the scale. If you choose to use the 55-item scale, arrange the items in the order specified in the original manuscript (Reed et al., 2011, p. 426). The format of the scale below uses the directions provided by Vidaver-Cohen, Reed, and Colwell (2010; also presented in Reed et al., 2011, p. 424). Omit the descriptors that group items, but use these terms when you compute the subscales associated with SL. You may sum the subscales to compute a composite SL score.
Please respond to the following statements regarding your perceptions of the top executive at your current place of work. If you have no direct experience with this person, you may consider organizational policies, practices, or public communications as evidence of his/her values and beliefs. If you are not currently employed, please consider the top executive at your most recent place of employment.
My Organization’s Top Executive…
Interpersonal support (alpha =.94)
6. Recognizes when employee morale is low without asking.
7. Looks for ways to make others successful.
15. Nurtures employee leadership potential.
25. Treats all employees with dignity and respect.
29. Ensures greatest decision-making control given to employees most affected by decision.
37. Listens carefully to others.
Building community (alpha =.90)
2. Considers the effects of organizational decisions on the community.
20. Encourages a spirit of cooperation among employees.
21. Inspires organizational commitment.
45. Believes our organization has a duty to improve the community in which it operates.
46. Values diversity and individual differences in the organization.
9. Sacrifices personal benefit to meet employee needs.
11. Serves others willingly with no expectation of reward.
22. Places the interests of others before self-interest.
42. Prefers serving others to being served by others.
10. Encourages debate of his/her ideas.
13. Invites constructive criticism.
27. Displays interest in learning from employees, regardless of their level in the organization.
52. Welcomes ideas and input from employees at all levels of the organization.
Moral integrity (alpha=.95)
12. Inspires employee trust.
18. Refuses to use manipulation or deceit to achieve his/her goals.
32. Freely admits his/her mistakes.
33. Promotes transparency and honesty throughout the organization.
40. Values integrity more than profit or personal gain.
55. Models the behavior he/she expects from others in the organization.
There is much to applaud in the design of this instrument. The reliability of the groupings is very strong (the convention for acceptable reliability is .70) and the categories seem to be consistent with Greenleaf’s, Spears’, and Reed’s conceptualizations. This feature of the scale is termed face validity. The most acceptable target of the scale is to evaluate “top” executives. If you are concerned with organizational leaders that are “closer” in the hierarchy to the employee, this scale may not be for you. On the other hand, it is possible to modify the ESLS by changing the target. For example, the phrase “My Organization’s Top Executive…” might be changed to “My immediate superior…” This would allow the researcher to adapt the scale to specific needs. Taking this approach should be used cautiously, as some of the items describe behaviors that are more common among executives than among unit managers. Changing the target may alter the validity and reliability of the ESLS, so great care should always be taken if you change the phrasing of individual items or the target of the instrument. When possible (and when more appropriate instruments are available), use a previously validated scale. In future entries I will discuss validated instruments designed to target a range of organizational leaders.
If you elect to measure perceptions of executives, there is another peril to be thinking about: SL refraction. When you ask about perceptions of a “top” executive, the items may involve behaviors and perceptions that are unlikely to occur in face-to-face interactions between a subordinate and the top executive. Thus, perceptions of the top executive must necessarily be filtered through perceptions of other leaders along the chain of command. Perceptions of a strong SL executive may be altered by perceptions of less committed managers situated between the respondent and the top executive. Of course, this refraction can also be complementary as SL mid-managers can bolster perceptions of a top executive. This is a common practice, as executives select lower managers who mirror the organization’s philosophy and the executive’s management style. Researchers should consider SL refraction as they design experiments. If the CEO exhibits SL characteristics, intermediate managers and supervisors may distort this perception. On the other hand, in a flat organization the ESLS may be an appropriate and effective instrument. The executive may be easily identifiable and may be known to the participants completing the scale. SL Refraction becomes more problematic in hierarchical organizational structures. Assessments of the executive are filtered through layers of superiors that may vary in their commitment to, and expression of, SL principles. Of course, this difficulty is not unique to SL. Every leadership style that is measured by judgments of distant, front-line employees is subject to refraction.
If you are designing an experiment, I hope this review assists you in balancing strengths and limitations of the ESLS. When I searched for publications using this instrument, I was disappointed in the results. Like Barbuto and Wheeler’s (2006) SLQ, the Reed ESLS instrument has not produced many experiments. It is a recent conceptualization, and use of the ESLS may increase as it becomes well-known. Also, organizations practicing SL wish to know if their SL philosophy is diffusing uniformly throughout the units and workforce. This suggests that instruments will be needed that assess SL at all levels: Executives, managers (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006), supervisors (Liden, Wayne, Zhao, & Henderson, 2008), and workers (Ehrhart, 2004). The ESLS fills an important niche and it should be part of the SL researcher’s tool kit.
Barbuto, Jr., J. E., & Wheeler, D. W. (2006). Scale development and construct clarification of servant leadership. Group & Organization Management, 31, 300–326.
Ehrhart, M. G. (2004). Leadership and procedural justice climate as antecedents of unit-level organizational citizenship behaviors. Personnel Psychology, 57, 61–94.
Liden, R. C., Wayne, S. J., Zhao, H., & Henderson, D. (2008). Servant leadership: Development of a multidimensional measure and multi-level assessment. Leadership Quarterly, 19, 161–177.
Reed, L. L., Vidavir-Cohen, D., & Colwell, S. R. (2011). A new scale to measure executive servant leadership: Development, analysis, and implications for research. Journal of Business Ethics, 101, 415–434 doi 10.1007/s10551-010-0729-1
Vidaver-Cohen, D., Reed, L. L., & Colwell, S. R. (2010, August). Executive servant
leadership: A new scale to test if leaders dare to care. Paper presented at the meeting of the Academy of Management, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.