Summary of Leadership Theories With a Christian Perspective

National Association of Christian Ministers Leadership Series

A Summary of Leadership Theories: Personal, Transactional, Transformational, and Servant Leadership

By Michael Mooney, Exec. Elder



Emmanuel Mounier and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) have become authoritative figures in the servant leadership philosophy of personalism. This ideology is summarized in its emphasis on the value of human relationships through five themes:

1) the dignity of human existence;

2) the autonomy of free-will;

3) the supremacy of humans over all other creation;

4) the community of human society; 5) the need for brotherly love.

From these principals transactional, transformational, and servant leadership theories were born (Whetstone, 2002).


Transactional (Social Exchange) Theory


In a transactional model “followers act in their own self-interest” (Schafer, 2005, p. 231). This approach appeals to human needs to motivate followers (Whetstone, 2002).   The concept is that humans continually evaluate their relationships in terms of valued exchanges with the most favorable outcomes being that they receive more than they give (Locander & Luechauer, 2006). Strangely enough, this approach works in the context of servant leadership when leaders give value to their followers. “An effective transactional leader is one who makes it clear that those who give something to the organization get something in return” (Giampetro-Meyer, Brown, Browne & Kubasek, 1998, p. 1728). After all, leadership implies that people are following leaders toward common goals. In a work environment the most common goal is the transaction of money. If servant leadership dismisses the “transaction” component, then it seems to follow that such merely become servants and no longer leaders.


Transformational Theory


Transformational theory is a moral approach to leadership through the valuing of human dignity by the elevation of the self-esteems, fulfillments, and actualizations of those who follow (Whetstone, 2002).   “Transformational leaders demonstrate self-confidence, the ability to articulate a vision, a willingness to pursue the vision even if they must assume high personal risks, and an ability to promote change” (Giampetro-Meyer et al., 1998, p. 1728). Because this approach is also people-centered, there are parallels to the servant leadership model in areas such as “influence; vision; trust; respect/credibility; risk-sharing/delegation; integrity; and modeling” (Hannay, 2009, p. 4). The servant theory developed from these with the concept of positioning the needs and desires of followers above and before those of the leaders (Whetstone, 2002).     Servant leadership introduced the new wave of theory that leads by emphasizing relationships and service to others (Taylor, Martin, Hutchinson, Jinks, 2007).


Servant Leadership


By accentuating a moral focus on serving, this approach differs from many other leadership models (Mayer, Bardes, & Piccolo, 2008). The two key differences are more specifically defined by the responsibilities and personal ethics of leaders (Ehrhart, 2004). Robert Greenleaf is recognized for popularizing the term “servant leader”, a cliché originating from his private writings of professional enlargement. “The paradoxical term servant-leadership is inclusive of personal service to society regardless of position” (Crippen, 2005, p. 12). Larry Spears categorizes ten fundamental attributes of Greenleaf’s servant leadership: “listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to growth of people, and building community” (Greenleaf, 1996, p. 4). From this list two things are essential: people development, and organizational direction. Therefore, applied servant leadership is in essence the sincere respect and concern for people while implementing organizational goals (Bell & Habel, 2009, p. 18).


Personal Growth


Robert Neuschel utilized his understanding of the Judéo-Christian heritage to establish a theory of several key qualities that accompany servant leaders. He believes that such leaders should facilitate their people to perform at their highest levels of competence by helping them to find significance in their duties. This is in conjunction with leadership’s efforts to develop the whole persons (mind and soul) of others through continual growth processes. The attitude that leads this way does not see their positions of leadership as social advantages, but rather as a means of personal growth that raises everyone around them. Neuschel’s concept is that knowledge is not enough to lead others because people will not follow leaders who do not personally grow themselves.   Therefore, knowledge must translate into actions that water the seeds of growth (Tellerman, 1999). This approach concerns leaders with the notion of listening to people and empowering them to direct their own potential futures into winning situations (Nuttall, 2004).


Christian Perspective


The servant model is deeply rooted in Christian antecedents; therefore, a Christian perspective is fitting (McCuddy & Cavin, 2008). “To have a Christian perspective on servant leadership we must acknowledge the source, Jesus Christ” (Fischer, 2010, lecture). He is the epitome of service through leadership (Mar. 10:45; John 1:1-3).   Blanchard & Hodges (2006) classify four key qualities of Jesus’ life that are important to leadership: heart, head, hands, habits. The heart is descriptive of the attitude of loving like Jesus with a “heart” of service.   The head is descriptive of the action of studying and regularly evaluating personal intentions and beliefs regarding leadership. The hands are descriptive of the application of servant beliefs. Habits are descriptive of the regular practice prayer, solitude, reflection, and rest. These four qualities are visible in a comparison of Jesus’ model and Larry Spears’ attributes. Jesus: listened (Mat. 8:10), was aware (Luke 11:44), conceptualized big ideas (John 10:10), had empathy (John 11:35), healed His people (Mat. 14:14) mentored others with a commitment to their growth (Mat. 10:1), utilized others to build community (Luke 10:1), practiced stewardship (Mat. 22:21), had foresight (Mat. 12:25; John 6:64, 13:11).




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