Culture & Servant Leadership: The Impact of Situational Strength.

AuthorSengupta, Shayani


The topic of leadership has been at the center of scholarly attention for a long time (Alvesson, 2019; Newman et al., 2018). The study of leadership is of utmost importance because of the crucial position of the leaders in organizations as well as societies. Researchers have proposed several typologies of leadership, out of which transformational and transactional leadership have attracted significant scholarly attention. However, over the past few decades, other conceptualizations of leadership, such as ethical leadership, servant leadership and spiritual leadership have also been studied b y researchers (van Dierendonck & Patterson, 2015). They differ from the traditional forms of leadership in the force that drives the leader to lead (Patterson et al., 2004). While in servant leadership, a major motive of the leader is to satisfy the psychological needs of the followers, in the case of transformational leadership, it is to attain higher leader effectiveness (van Dierendonck et al., 2014).

Owing to the emphasis on followers, servant leaders are known to be humble, ethical and have been found to sacrifice their self-interest for the sake of development of the followers (Banks et al., 2018; Liu, 2019; Pekerti & Sendjaya, 2010; van Dierendonck et al., 2014). Such a selfless form of leadership has overall been empirically found to have a positive association with performance (Chiniara & Bentein, 2018, 2016). However, some researchers have expressed concern regarding the impact of culture on the appropriateness of servant leadership (Eva, 2018). This concern, in general, stems from the fact that the style of a servant leader might not be in congruence with some cultures. For instance, in a highly individualistic culture, a servant leader might be perceived to be lacking competency. Most South Asian countries have a high-power distance, which essentially means that subordinates are likely to rate a coercive leader positively. This stems from deeply engrained beliefs about the relationship between a leader and a follower. In high power distance societies, the chain of command is very strict, and leaders expect obedience from followers. Subordinates also believe that it is polite and courteous to obey leaders and follow their commands. Therefore, an effective leader in such cultures is one who wears the badge of command and instructs followers to work in a certain way.

There exist mixed findings in the literature regarding the effectiveness of servant leadership (Liu, 2017; Pekerti & Sendjaya, 2010). A plausible explanation for such differences may be cultural factors. Further, a systematic literature review on servant leadership has expressed the need to explore whether cultural factors like uncertainty avoidance and power distance have a role to play in the perceived effectiveness of a servant leader (Eva, 2018).

The impact of cultural factors on the perceived effectiveness of servant leadership may be explained with the help of several theoretical frameworks, like the situational strength theory. The situational strength theory posits that the characteristics of a situation have the potential to moderate human behavior and response towards it (Rauthmann et al., 2018). Situational strength has been defined as "implicit or explicit cues provided by external entities regarding the desirability of potential behaviors" (Meyer et al., 2010). Cultural factors have been proposed to act as cues that influence the situational strength in a variety of social situations (Cooper & Withey, 2009; Meyer et al., 2010; Rauthmann et al., 2018), including leadership (Eva, 2018). The influence of situational strength on leadership effectiveness and organizational culture has been studied earlier (Masood et al., 2006).

National cultural factors have been found to influence how individuals in a society behave at large (Swoboda & Batton, 2019). It has been studied in literature as a factor that has the potential to influence all facets of life. Impacts of national culture have been studied in contexts like family structure, display of emotions, sense of privacy, tendency to multi-task and a lot more. Thus, there is ample reason to believe that national culture would impact the perceived effectiveness of a leader. This is because individuals gauge the appropriateness of any social behavior based on their underlying assumptions and beliefs about the same.

Since leadership is a social phenomenon wherein the perceived effectiveness of the leader by the followers is of utmost importance, it is important to explore the factors that lead to perceptions of leader effectiveness among the followers and which factors lead to perceived lack of effectiveness. National cultural factors are likely to influence situational strength and in turn, the perceptions towards the leadership style of the leader. Therefore, this paper explored the possible role of national cultural factors in the effectiveness of servant leadership concerning the situational strength.

Literature Review

In order to explore the impact of culture on servant leadership, we have drawn from Hofstede's dimensions of national culture. The two dimensions whose impacts have been considered in this paper are power distance and uncertainty avoidance. (Hofstede, 1984).

Power Distance: This dimension focuses on the distribution of power in society. On one end of the continuum, the general norm is to consult the subordinates while making an important business decision; while on the other end, obedience and respect are expected from the subordinates. The former scenario is more likely in cultures with low power distance while the latter is more likely in cultures with high power distance. Power distance also has implications for social values like respect for the elderly and the meaning of the status difference. Leadership styles might also differ based on power distance of the country.

Uncertainty Avoidance: This refers to the extent to which the members of a society feel comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity in their lives. A culture with strong uncertainty avoidance has an emotional need for formal rules and regulations. Any deviance from the given rules would result in a lot of anxiety and stress for the members. A country with weak uncertainty avoidance would view uncertainty as a part of their day-to-day life or perhaps even as a challenge. Uncertainty avoidance together with power distance may be an important determinant of organizational structure. For instance, if the country has a high power distance and also strong uncertainty avoidance, organizations would be highly centralized and structured. In countries that have low power distance and weak uncertainty avoidance, decentralized and informal structures are more likely. Other implications of uncertainty avoidance may be found in the type of planning used, the meaning and importance of time and appeal for precision. Uncertainty avoidance also affects the emotional expressions of individuals. In countries with weak uncertainty avoidance, direct emotional expressions and communication are likely to be appreciated. Further, countries with strong uncertainty avoidance have lesser tolerance for deviant behavior.

Servant Leadership

The concept of a servant leader was proposed for the first time in 1977 by Greenleaf (Liu, 2017; Spears, 1996). A servant leader is one who is humble and spiritual (van Dierendonck et al., 2014). Such leaders push their followers towards realizing their full potential (Eva, 2018). Organizational goals are pursued by fostering the development of the employee s in this kind of leadership (Chiniara & Bentein, 2018). They have been...

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