Hasn’t the “Great Man or Woman” Leader Profile Been Debunked as a Myth?


Speaking to executive teams, conference attendees and individual leaders throughout 2016, we received many questions about the ideas in our book, Loneliness of Leadership. Therefore, we thought it would be worthwhile to present a series of articles that share with the wider public a sampling of the most interesting or instructive of these exchanges and past debates.

The first story we will share was presented by a graduate student in industrial psychology and organizational dynamics, who adamantly claimed that the idea of “servant leadership” was hogwash at worse and an urban legend at best. In particular, the student had not seen the term “servant leader” adopted or otherwise taken seriously by any of the classic and authoritative textbooks in organizational psychology.

There are at least two conflated issues here that need to be detangled to make sense of this apparent controversy. First, whereas the concept of servant leadership has long been rooted in philosophy and religion, the grad student correctly noted that older, formal leadership theories did not explicitly support or address the concept. However, the same can be said of many currently held scientific theories, including continental drift or human evolution. At one time, these too were controversial stances. However, servant leadership has been in the academic literature in recent decades, especially as it relates to the hospitality industry, given that this industry is grounded in the philosophy of serving others. For instance, a quick literature review of new-generation research would have revealed to the grad student a study Aethos™ and colleagues published almost a decade ago: Lange, R., & Houran, J. (2009). Perceived importance of employees’ traits in the service industry. Psychological Reports, 104(2), 567-578

Textbooks tend to be outdated, but this recent research showed indeed that HR professionals and hiring managers collectively identified attitudes, knowledge areas and skills tied to servant leadership as most pertinent, compared with basic personality traits. Further, the study cited above, combined with other research by Cornell University and Aethos, produced a profile of servant leadership that is the cornerstone of Aethos’ proprietary pre-hiring assessment called 20|20 Skills

The second issue to detangle relates to how people reason and evaluate ideas. Simply put, we caution anyone who bases a conclusion on a limited scope of information or what equates to the logical fallacy of “appealing to authority.” Such approaches would seem to have more to do with the old command-and-control leadership style versus the contemporary attitude of servant leadership. Is one leadership approach really more effective than the other? Well, famed CEO Jack Welch of GE fame says “yes” whenever he recounts his leadership career, which involved him changing from the former leadership style to the latter. And our formal research tends to agree.

In the end, what we now have is a working, general profile for successful “servant leadership,” but one that can be flexible in its expression. As a result, we argue that there is a profile that quantitatively and qualitatively defines a “great man or woman” leader, and it looks like this:


  • Self-efficacy: emotional intelligence, confidence, self-direction and reaction to stress
  • Ethical awareness: process-orientation, equity and behavioural integrity
  • Loyalty to company: sense of ownership, dedication and adherence to a company’s vision and mission
  • Service orientation: customer-centric mind-set


  • Leadership: big picture orientation, vision and goal-setting
  • Team building: collaboration, affiliation and teamwork
  • Sensitivity to diversity: appreciation for individual, cultural and ethnic differences
  • Sense of humour: optimistic mind-set and appreciation of humour as a social and stress management skill


  • Creativity: curiosity, innovation and big picture orientation
  • Problem-solving: ability to think critically and analytically

We are not alone in our views, because the link between the philosophy of servant leadership and modern leadership theory has strengthened in the 21st century. Simply review Wikipedia’s fascinating summary on servant leadership to see that the concept’s omission from traditional academia has “changed with the emergence of integrated psychological leadership theory – as represented by James Scouller’s (2011) three levels of leadership model.” This model integrates older theories while addressing their limitations by focusing on the leader’s psychology.

Most importantly, integrated psychological leadership theory emphasizes that leaders should care as much about their followers’ needs as their own, and view leadership as an act of service. We certainly hope that this attitude is not an urban legend in contemporary organizations and board rooms.