How a discussion on Servant leaders led me back to reviewing Spiritual leaders

by | Aug 28, 2020

Recently I was a part of some conversations about Servant Leaders, where I was reminded of some readings during my MBA journey. One conversation was about the role of a Servant Leader and how they can continue to function in the COVID environment where most people are working remotely. In the other conversation, it was mentioned that Agile is becoming a religion and how the role of a Servant Leader should not be the sole focus of leaders as there will still be a need for hierarchical leadership rules to apply.

The paper in question is Spiritual Leadership: Fulfilling Whole-Self Needs at Work by Gilbert W. Fairholm from Virginia Commonwealth University. The article was initially printed from Leadership & Organization Development Journal 17, 3(1996), pp. 11- 17. Copyright 1996 Emerald Insight.

This paper struck a chord with me in that it has helped guide me for over seven years since I first read it. Although there is some mention of religion, it is not the heart of the paper. Second, it provided insight on how Command and Control management models have an impact on employee satisfaction. In one study mentioned in the article in 1994, only 25% of employees surveyed were Extremely Satisfied with their work environment. In the 2017 SHRM survey, the average score of Very Satisfied was in the low 30th percentile. In the past two decades, we can see that, although there are plenty of courses, books, and webinars on becoming a Servant Leader, we see that there is a marginal improvement in employee satisfaction. Why is that?

Fairholm brought up a term with regards to organizations that can provide some answers to those questions. “The organization (community) within which we work is becoming the most significant community.”

The association of community fits the narrative of how to view a workplace. We spend approximately 25% of our time in a given week at work. That is more than the average person would spend with outside communities like Church, Parent/Teacher, or hobby communities, for example. External organizations will have a leader that is there as a Spiritual Leader. In the general sense, a Spiritual leader is one who helps provide meaning to those they lead. In the work environment, this is seen as motivation, wanting to get up in the morning to go to work, instead of dragging themselves to work to do the required shift.

Fairholm explains why, even though management tries to use Spiritual Leadership qualities, there is little impact on employee satisfaction. “A characteristic of current leadership text is that they confuse dedication, mission, or vision with spirituality. Spirituality goes beyond these ideas and provides the underpinning necessary to make them work in our personal and professional lives.” This comment provides some clarity on why leaders fail to engage and motivate employees to follow them. The messaging they offer and how they conduct themselves is amplified through the workplace.

The Servant Leader is there to help the team succeed, help the organization grow and flourish, and do so without needing the credit. They are there, leading employees to grow and succeed with their guidance, like a Sheppard with his/her flock. With that in mind, they have very similar traits as a Spiritual leader. Fairholm provides what he calls Foundation Stones of the Spiritual Leader that are very similar to expectations with a Servant Leader.

  • Moral Leadership

  • Stewardship

  • Community

In Moral Leadership, he breaks down multiple aspects that build the reality of what it means. When you first read the opening paragraph in this section, it seems that what he is describing is more of the old Command and Control view of leadership.

Moral leaders prefer not to compromise, accommodate, or collaborate in areas where the core values are at stake. Rather they may prefer to challenge opposing ideas, rather than accommodate them’”

When I first read this passage, I had to re-read a few times as it seemed to contradict the content that led up to this point. No compromise, no accommodation, no collaboration: these ideas did not resonate. Then as I continued to read, I could see where he was leading me. He discussed building Shared Values, Vision Setting, Sharing Meaning, Enabling, influence and power Intuition, Risk Taking, Services and Transformation. Each component builds and plays a part in a Moral leader who works with the teams, builds trust, and has the teams’ success in mind above all else.

The second conversation I had about Servant leaders brought to mind the Influence and Power component. There is still a need for a leader to be the leader. Meaning, there are times when being a Servant Leader will not help get past a situation. Sometimes the Boss needs to be the Boss. Fairholm describes, in essence, that having a title alone will not make people follow. The relationship that must flourish for it to work. Yes, a label can allow a leader to give orders and push employees to work, and there are still leaders out there who do that, as seen with the low employee satisfaction scores.


As I re-read this paper, I felt, considering my actions over the past few years, that while my intentions matched the description provided, my messaging around it did not. I always used the term ‘ownership’ in regards to work and working with self-managed teams when in actuality, I had followed what Fairholm describes.

Ownership connotes possession, control and proprietorship. Stewardship connotes holding work resources in trust for a temporary period. In a stewardship organization, power is inherent in each steward to help accomplish his or her unit’s end, not just the steward’s own ends. Stewardship is a collective idea. It is by sharing equally all power that we become one, become united.”

Spiritual and Servant leaders have the same principles: sharing of power, providing empowerment to teams to get the work done and take control of how they do it.  It is about giving accountability to groups for what they need to do to get the job done.  As Fairholm describes, it is about removing the perception of hierarchal reporting lines on an organization chart. In reality, there will always be some form of reporting structure within any organization. Shared accountability does not mean there is overall accountability with the team output.  Here is where actions and messaging can differ between management and teams. One of the ways to get around this is through Moral Leadership. Working directly with the teams to have an agreement with limitations, values, and expected behaviours will enhance Stewardship.

Lastly, Community Leadership is where everything ties together. In every community, there will always be a leader to support and help those within. In a thriving community, there is collaboration and delegation among the community members to grow and succeed. Self-managed teams, employee empowerment and a fully collaborative knowledge-sharing environment that uses the agreed-upon values as a guiding principle will provide limitless possibilities. In Radical Surgery: what will tomorrow’s organizations look like? by Mitroff et al. in Academy of Management Executive, May 1994 edition, they state that command and control leadership styles are obsolete. This conclusion is over 25 years old, yet it continues to be a large part of how organizations are run. Changes are happening, and organizations are transforming into newer models to meet the needs of employees with a positive implicit benefit of meeting client needs, unfortunately, at a slow pace.

Fairholm used the term Spiritual Leadership; even if it sounds like it has religious connotations, it does not. It is more about taking the focus away from the tasks and placing them on the human aspect of the teams. It also allows for everyone to be a leader, some may not have titles or aspirations to be an official leader, yet by working together, collaborating, and sharing duties and knowledge, they will implicitly become a leader.

There is a fine line that Spiritual and Servant leaders need to straddle to avoid letting a team get out of touch with what the organization needs, or over-controlling employees to the point they leave or burn out. It is not as difficult as it seems: follow the Golden Rule – Treat others as you want to be treated. In doing that, with the three Foundation Stones, leaders will gain teams that will enjoy coming into work, trust they are looking out for what is best for the team, and provide the best possible output.

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