This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center

Servant leadership and ethics of care both stress the value of interpersonal relationships, listening to others, and empathy, all of which are critical to public relations practice. However, these two concepts have received limited attention in public relations scholarship.

In response to a call by the Arthur W. Page Center for research in this area, we conducted 32 interviews with public relations leaders and have presented our preliminary findings at the International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC) in March 2022 and International Communication Association (ICA) annual conference in May 2022.

Eva and colleagues (2019) described servant leadership as “an other-oriented approach to leadership manifested through one-on-one prioritizing of follower individual needs and interests, and outward reorienting of their concern for self towards the concern for others within the organization and the larger community” (p. 114). Some of the characteristics associated with servant-leaders include listening, empathy, emotional healing, self-awareness, use of persuasion rather than positional authority, and commitment to the growth of others and community building (Patterson, 2003; Russell & Stone, 2002; Spears, 2005).

Similarly, ethics of care refers to a moral perspective that involves a concern for others, particularly those who are impacted by decisions. Ethics of care stresses that self and others are interdependent. Gilligan (1987) wrote that “detachment, whether from self or from others, is morally problematic, since it breeds moral blindness or indifference – a failure to discern or respond to need” (p. 24).

The sample for our study included 21 women and 11 men with an average of 25 years of experience in public relations and communication. The participants represented 16 states and a variety of sectors, including higher education, government/military, nonprofit, energy, public relations firms, franchising, retail and tourism, religious organizations, consultancies, health and safety, and financial services.

What We Learned

The majority of the participants (n=26) said they consider themselves as servant leaders or aspire to lead in that manner (n=6). Some of the characteristics that public relations leaders associated with servant leadership included “service before self,” empathy, caring, a commitment to growing and motivating others, a focus on what leaders can do for their employees, and listening. We were able to find similar perspectives about servant leadership among men and women as well as people of color and different religious backgrounds. In addition, we found servant leadership being practiced in various settings.

Listening was an essential component of servant leadership. The public relations leaders discussed how they actively seek feedback from their employees before making major decisions and request feedback regarding their own performance.

The leaders varied in their motivation for practicing servant leadership. For some, it was motivated by experiences with bad leaders. For others, servant leadership is connected to their religious or personal values.

To assess their commitment to servant leadership, the leaders were asked about their top priorities as a leader, their personal virtues and specific times that they had exhibited those virtues.

Through the leaders’ specific examples, there was evidence of an ethics of care moral perspective. While business objectives and the organization’s mission were high priorities, leaders were genuinely concerned about their employees’ health, wellbeing, satisfaction, and personal growth, and they considered and weighed the impact of their decisions on their employees.

Although this study did not measure the specific outcomes of servant leadership, there was some evidence that leaders perceived that the way they treat their employees would result in desirable relationship outcomes such as trust, respect, employee satisfaction, and retention.

Implications for Practice

While there is not one leadership style that is perfect for every situation, there are some desirable elements of servant leadership that public relations leaders should consider adopting:

  1. A willingness to listen. Servant leaders welcome and encourage feedback from their employees before making significant decisions and regarding their own performance as a leader.
  2. Servant leaders focus on building trusting relationships with their employees, which can result in loyalty, commitment and better job performance.
  3. Servant leaders invest in the professional development of their team members, which keeps their skills current and results in employee engagement and commitment.

Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Baylor University, where she teaches courses in advertising and public relations. Her research focused on ethics, internal communication and public relations leadership.

Juan Meng, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Georgia, where she teaches courses including public relations campaigns, research, PR leadership and ethics, and global PR. Her research focuses on leadership in public relations, measurement, trust, employee engagement, and reputation management.

Additional Resources

Eva, N., Robin, M., Sendjaya, S., van Dierendonck, D., & Liden, R.C. (2019). Servant Leadership: A systematic review and call for future research, The Leadership Quarterly, 30, 111-132.

Gilligan, C. (1987). Moral orientation and moral development. In E. Kittay, & D. Meyers (Eds.), Women and Moral Theory (pp. 19-33). Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Patterson, K.A. (2003). Servant leadership: A theoretical model. (Doctoral Dissertation). Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA.

Russell, R.F., & Stone, A.G. (2002). A review of servant leadership attributes: Developing a practical model. Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, 23(3/4), 145-157.

Spears, L.C., (2005). The understanding and practice of servant leadership. Retrieved April 19, 2021 from https://www.regent.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/spears_practice.pdf

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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