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  • 2021O'ConnorPhD

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An Interpretive Study into the Manifestation of Servant Leadership in Relation to Corporate Social Responsibility

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

  • Nathan O'Connor
Publication date22/10/2021
Number of pages204
Awarding Institution
Award date22/10/2021
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This study seeks to develop understanding into servant leadership, exploring the construct’s manifestation in the context of three organisations’ respective activities relating to corporate social responsibility (CSR). The construct of servant leadership is in its formative stages and there are therefore several limitations in current understanding. Limitations include a lack of definitional and conceptual agreement, no objective measurement tool, and concerns relating to the distribution of power within the approach, such as how individuals can lead and serve simultaneously; critiques have therefore been raised with regards servant leadership’s positioning as a post-heroic approach.
As servant leadership receives increased attention from both scholars and practitioners, so too has CSR with the relationship between organisations and society experiencing intense scrutiny, potentially due to corporate irresponsibility; this has revealed the importance of leadership’s role in
CSR-related activities.

This research adopts an interpretive approach to further explore leadership as a process, which encompasses the importance of followers and context. Data were collected from participants in three organisations located in the NW of England over a three-month period and included managers, non-managers and Managing Directors. In addition, overt observations and field notes as well as
secondary data sources including organisation-published literature, company documentation, and photographs were compiled. Data analysis comprised a combination of thematic, semiotic, and document analysis. There were three findings. First, formal and informal organisational structures are utilised concurrently within the manifestation of servant leadership as a process. These
structures are significant with regards establishing, developing and contributing towards communities both internal and external to one’s organisation. Second, formal and informal channels of communication are used simultaneously within the process of servant leadership. This contributes to the development of high-quality, dyadic relationships in the interest of valuing agents as individuals with personal needs and requirements. Third, the process of servant leadership resonates with both post-heroic approaches to leadership as well as critical leadership studies. It encompasses a participatory, collectivist attitude assimilated to post-heroic approaches but resonates with critical
leadership studies particularly through the notion of empowerment. Future research is therefore encouraged into this dialogue.

This research makes three theoretical contributions. First, conceptual insights are derived into
servant leadership, including its cyclical nature through the characteristic of stewardship, as well as the notion of community both internal and external to respective organisations. Second, insights into power and influence are developed with a focus on the empowerment of individuals. This contributes towards understanding how servant leadership as a process contends with paradoxical expectations of leaders in contemporary society, such as leading from a position of servility. Third, insights into the nature of relationships within servant leadership are made, in particular the leaderfollower relationship. Of significance are the instilling of ownership and responsibility in employees
through fostering autonomy, establishing trust, practising inclusivity, and increasing unity.

This research also provides two practical contributions. First, the content of leadership development programmes could be enhanced to include focus on those behaviours which promote servant leadership. This has a range of benefits including at the individual level for both servant leader and follower as well as at the organisational level by promoting a culture in which CSR can flourish.
Second, this research provides insights for practising leaders in the interest of developing highquality, dyadic relationships within their organisations that can facilitate a positive organisational culture.