The study of women business founders provides an opportunity to determine their unique leadership characteristics. Starting a business may be a way for women business owners to be authentic and create more people-centered businesses. Servant leadership’s gender integrative attributes where both agentic and communal behaviors are valued may be more congruent and reflective of the leadership behaviors of women entrepreneurs. Recently, the motivation of compassionate love was theorized to be an antecedent to servant leadership and, it is argued, exists in conjunction with authenticity. Thus, the purpose of this study is to investigate compassionate love, authenticity and servant leadership and determine whether they exist in the behaviors of founding female business owners.
This qualitative research study used summative content analysis of telephone interviews conducted with 12 women business owners of professional service firms in four US states to determine whether these women’s motivations, traits and behaviors were consistent with the compassionate love servant leadership model and whether authenticity was the cornerstone of servant leadership.
The analyses found that these women revealed a strong authenticity orientation as they enacted a compassionate love servant leadership style within their businesses. Themes that emerged from the study were agency, calling, humility, trust and respect, self-development, stewardship, authenticity and providing direction. The study revealed support for some of the characteristics associated with compassionate love servant leadership and two characteristics which were unique to this study.
As a qualitative study of 12 individuals, these findings may not be generalizable beyond the four US states of professional service enterprises of women business founders. Future research should test the full servant leadership model of women business owners on a larger group of business founders and the sub-themes where little support exists.
The more gender integrative style of compassionate love servant leadership may be beneficial for women owners to employ as business leaders.
This research revealed support for a variation of compassionate love servant leadership model. The resulting servant leadership model herein was a mixture of agentic and communal leadership motivations, traits and behaviors useful to women business founders. Behaviors of authenticity were found to complement compassionate love. These women were able to extend the boundaries of what it means to be a leader and incorporate behaviors associated with both their gender and leadership roles, thus expanding their ability to successfully empower and equip themselves to navigate barriers unique to women leaders.
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Are women business owners authentic servant leaders?
An explosion of women business owners has increased the need for women to define themselves based on their occupation and employment (Goldin, 2014). Part of this definition may include a mix of communal (e.g. actions focused on taking care of others) and agentic (e.g. assertiveness, control and confidence) leadership behaviors (Eagly and Johannesen-Schmidt, 2001). The use of both communal and agentic behaviors was found to be associated with servant leadership in prior research (Barbuto and Gifford, 2010). Servant leadership, coined by Greenleaf (1970), and its subsequent competing theories were synthesized into this operationalized definition: a servant leader empowers and develops others, displays humility, is authentic, accepts and direct others and is a steward who “works for the good of the whole” (van Dierendonck, 2011, p. 1232). Founding entrepreneurs were more likely to display characteristics of servant leadership than non-founders (Peterson et al., 2012). However, research in servant leadership has minimally addressed women directly or gender differences in meaningful ways. In some cases, gender is not addressed in the analysis (Bobbio et al., 2012; Huang et al., 2016; Liden et al., 2008; Peterson et al., 2012; Walumbwa et al., 2010); in others, gender was found to be salient (Dennis and Bocarnea, 2005) or labeled insignificant to the findings (De Clercq et al., 2014; Joseph and Winston, 2005; Ling et al., 2016). Albeit limited, servant leadership research which specifically addresses gender has highlighted the dominance of communal behaviors (Barbuto and Gifford, 2010; Reynolds, 2011). Moreover, theorists have argued that servant leadership may be a “gender-integrative approach to leadership” where both agentic and communal behaviors are valued and used as needed (Reynolds, 2011, p. 155).
The authors argue that servant leaders’ gender integrative attributes may be more congruent and reflective of the leadership behaviors of women entrepreneurs. New theorists have advanced that compassionate love, an antecedent to servant leadership, should be included in the leadership model (van Dierendonck and Patterson, 2015). Further, we argue that compassionate love is complemented by the strong need to be authentic on the part of women business founders. Thus, we investigate compassionate love, authenticity and servant leadership and argue their existence in the behaviors of founding female entrepreneurs. We begin by discussing compassionate love and authenticity.
Compassionate love and authenticity
Compassionate love occurs when one’s behaviors, feelings and thoughts manifest themselves in an attitude of caring, compassion, kindness and empathy toward others (Sprecher and Fehr, 2005). Doing the right thing for others, for the right reason, is one way to describe compassionate love (Winston, 2002). van Dierendonck and Patterson (2015) argue that compassionate love is a prerequisite of servant leadership because servant leaders focus on the needs of followers. The conscious decision to serve others is the focus of servant leadership and is what significantly differentiates it from other leadership theories. When an individual aligns their values and beliefs with actions, they achieve a level of authenticity.
Van Dierendonck and Rook (2010, p. 159) describe authenticity as “being true to oneself, accurately representing—privately and publicly—internal states, intentions and commitment”. The act of authenticity in leadership is a strong driver of the leader’s behavior because she or he can choose to demonstrate ethical caring. Ethical caring occurs when individuals personally decide to commit themselves to initiate active caring of others. Such leaders tend to reflect that they are other-centered or selfless (Reynolds, 2011). When a leader’s motive and behavior is selfless, they derive intrinsic satisfaction and harmony with self and others. It is the interrelatedness of being in agreement with oneself, or authentic, and in harmony with others that one is able to work from “love, kindness and compassion” or compassionate love (van Dierendonck and Patterson, 2015, p. 1233). Based on these arguments, we advance that authenticity is the cornerstone of servant leadership. When authentic, one is able to tap into the wellspring of compassionate love. Van Dierendonck and Patterson (2015), theorize a compassionate love servant leadership model.
Women-owned small businesses
The number of women-driven businesses continues to increase in the USA. In 2015, 29 per cent of all small businesses were owned by women (Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2015). The US government defines small business as one that is independently owned and operated, is organized for profit, is not dominant in its field and, for service organizations, has annual receipts not in excess of $2.5m to $21.5m (SBA.Gov., US, 2017). A business owner is someone who has 51 per cent or more of the equity, interest or stock in the business (SBA.Gov., US, 2017). Business ownership is a means by which society develops services and products and produces innovation. A distinctive academic field, the study of business ownership looks at the people who lead businesses and uses a behavioral lens to investigate these entities (Vecchio, 2003).
Founding a business is beneficial because “the act of starting a new venture is perceived as an authentic and intrinsically motivated undertaking by an individual” (Hmieleski et al., 2012, p. 1471). New businesses may function as a means by which owners can pursue being authentic and living a life which reflects their beliefs and values (Biggart, 1989; Cooper and Artz, 1995; Hmieleski et al., 2012). The essence of authenticity is to know, accept and remain true to one’s self (Avolio et al., 2004). When a leader is authentic, they adhere to a moral code, are honest, vulnerable (Russell and Stone, 2002) and walk their talk (Luthans and Avolio, 2003). As a professional, the leader’s role is subordinate to who they are as a person (Halpin and Croft, 1966). Authenticity as it relates to leadership has evolved over time and is considered a root concept that underlies the positive aspects of charismatic, transformational, spiritual and ethical leadership. Servant leadership is one of the ethical leadership styles (Northouse, 2016).
Northouse (2016) considers servant leadership a paradoxical concept in that when establishing an institution, a leader “starts on a course toward people-building with leadership that has a firmly established context of people first. With that, the right actions fall naturally into place” (Greenleaf, 1970, p. 31). Greenleaf (1970) who first theorized servant leadership relates that a servant leader says:
“I will go; come with me!” He initiates, provides the ideas and structures, and takes the risk of failure along with the chance of success. He says, “I will go, follow me!” when he knows that the path is uncertain, even dangerous. And, he trusts those who go with him (p. 8).
Over time, several theorists, Spears (1995); Laub (1999), Russel and Stone (2002) and Patterson (2003), have built upon Greenleaf’s (1970) servant leadership. Van Dierendonck and Patterson (2015) sought to clarify and integrate the various servant leadership models, developing a servant leadership framework, which starts with the motivation to lead of compassionate love, followed by virtuous traits and moves onto behaviors. Collectively, the motivation, traits and behaviors of the leader drive follower well-being (for this study, follower well-being was not addressed). See Figure 1, for the compassionate love servant leadership conceptual model of van Dierendonck and Patterson (2015).
Van Dierendonck and Patterson (2015) describe the power motivation behind compassionate love as “an underlying need for impact, to be strong and influential (McClelland and Burnham, 1976, p. 1244 compassionate love)” and to use power positively “to help and care for others”. This motivation to lead orientation is based upon “agapao” the Greek term for moral love, which is derived from leaders’ moral duty to recognize their employees as whole persons and tend to their needs, wants and desires (Winston, 2002). Having a spiritual orientation is also associated with the power motivation (Sendjaya et al., 2008). One demonstrates compassionate love when they are ethically motivated to assert themselves to help and benefit others.
The compassionate love motivation to lead is related to the leader’s virtuous traits of humility, gratitude, forgiveness and altruism (van Dierendonck and Patterson, 2015). Someone who is humble is not self-focused and has a balanced view of their abilities and successes, recognizes that their perspective is not the only one that matters, seeks others’ input and values their contributions. Servant leaders express gratitude by being open and appreciative of life’s bounty and the simple things it affords and model intentional forgiveness in the workplace by overcoming negative emotions, refraining from harming offenders and healing injured relationships, while promoting an open, non-invasive organizational climate where conflict is constructively addressed and leniency is shown. These virtues promote mutual trust and respect between servant leaders and their followers. Servant leaders are motivated to seek the best for others and derive pleasure from acting altruistically.
The behaviors of compassionate love servant leadership are empowerment, authenticity, stewardship and providing direction (van Dierendonck, 2011). Empowerment starts from the servant leaders’ belief in the intrinsic value of each individual and is demonstrated when the leader recognizes, acknowledges and helps individuals realize their potential (Greenleaf, 1998; Laub, 1999). Stewardship comes from the leader’s need to act as a caretaker and serve the common interest of the organization. A role model, the leader sets a good example by choosing to not focus on their self-interest or on controlling others (Block, 1993; Spears, 1995). To support a strong interpersonal relationship with their followers, servant leaders provide direction to hold individuals accountable as appropriate, tailor the work to the individual and strive to make work dynamic (van Dierendonck, 2011). The constructs of motivation, traits and behaviors characterized the compassionate love servant leadership investigated herein (van Dierendonck and Patterson, 2015).
Servant leadership research found businesses had improved organizational commitment, work engagement, work performance, trust climate, firm performance and service climate (Huang et al., 2016; Ling et al., 2016; Peterson et al., 2012). Outcomes from servant leadership were separate from the other leadership styles such as authentic and transformational; thus, servant leadership is considered a distinct leadership style (Ling et al., 2016; Peterson et al., 2012). Founder CEOs were more likely to be servant leaders than non-founders and CEO servant leaders resulted in increased firm performance and employee development (Huang et al., 2016; Peterson et al., 2012).
Gender and leadership
Women business owners may encounter expectations and norms associated with male leaders. These women may need to extend the boundaries of what it means to be a leader and incorporate behaviors associated with both their gender and leadership roles to expand the endorsement of their leadership by others (Eagly, 2007). Barbuto and Gifford (2010) found that women and men “displayed equal levels of both communal and agentic servant leadership behaviors” (p. 13). These findings contradicted prior research, which found that women and men displayed different levels of transformational and authentic leadership (Eagly and Carli, 2003; Sims et al., 2017). Hogue (2016) suggests that women may benefit from the communal aspects of servant leadership because there is more congruency between being a woman and a servant leader than a woman and other types of non-communal leadership styles. Examining other servant leadership research revealed that gender was not addressed in the analysis (Huang et al., 2016; Peterson et al., 2012), and gender was found non-significant (Ling et al., 2016). In short, the SL research is inconclusive.
This study contributes to the literature by exploring gender, authenticity and compassionate love servant leadership within women business founders. Leadership was conceptualized and studied primarily with a masculine lens (Kark, 2004; Koenig et al., 2011; Luthans and Avolio, 2003). Servant leadership may be unique among leadership styles because it enables “leaders to step out of gender role norms and provide the most appropriate leadership for followers” (Barbuto and Gifford, 2010, p. 16). Thus, entrepreneurial women CEOs may display and adopt the characteristics, traits and behaviors associated with servant leadership because its gender integrative attributes may enable them to be true to who they are while leading their businesses. As principal business owners, these women could enact leadership styles as they saw appropriate, which best fit them and their employees, clients and communities. Their choices allow us to examine a leadership style unique to their authentic experience.
The purpose of this research is to provide insights into what characterizes these women’s authentic self-expression. As the study of authenticity and leadership has evolved, it has focused on a variety of quantitative instruments and corporate participants. However, a focus on women leaders of small businesses remains rare (Banks et al., 2016; Henderson and Wayne, 1982; Wooley et al., 2011). This study will expand our understanding of servant leadership and authenticity within small business owners. Furthermore, we seek to validate the elements theorized in the compassionate love servant leadership model and provide more in-depth insight than what would be collected via survey instruments. It is a way to identify by these women founders’ words and deeds the presence of the motivation, virtues and behaviors associated with compassionate love servant leadership. This study builds upon these arguments and explores the following research question:
Are women business founders compassionate love servant leaders?
Five subjects were recruited from 52 small business owners from the US Federal registry of certified small businesses who participated in one of the author’s quantitative leadership study 1 year prior and nine subjects were solicited via a snowball sample. Participation was voluntary and confidential. Of the 38 business owners contacted for this study, 12 women business founders were interviewed and their ages ranged from late 30s to early 60s: two were under 40 years of age, four were between 40 and 50 years of age, five were over 50 years of age and one did not specify. All of the women had a bachelor’s degree, seven had a master’s degree and two held doctorates. They were the business’ founder and one co-founded the business with her husband. The women’s businesses provided professional services; six were in information technology and management consulting and the remainder were in landscape architecture, transportation services, advertising and public relations, applied environmental services, dentistry and early education. The businesses had from none to 80 employees and/or self-employed contractors. Two owners indicated they chose to only use contractors as needed; four had three to five employees and more contractors as necessary; five had 30 to 85 employees; and one was not specified. The number of participants and where they were located in the USA follows: eight were in Maryland, two in South Carolina, one in North Carolina and two in Virginia (Table I).
Interviews were arranged by telephone and email. Participants received a description of the study and a formal request to consent for the interview. Interview questions were piloted and a semi-structured interview protocol was developed (Appendix). Sample interview questions include the following: Describe a critical or significant event that you feel was a catalyst to you starting your business; and It has been said that some individuals may start a business so that they can better align their personal value systems and be more authentic. Was this true or not for you? Why or why not? Interview times ranged from 35 to 63 min. Interviews were audio recorded, transcribed and text was compared to the audio recordings and researcher’s notes. Transcripts were emailed to participants for member checking. Participants were assigned a pseudonym name which began with their initial letter code to ensure confidentiality.
NVivo 10 software was used to analyze data with a combination of conventional and summative content analysis. Summative content analysis (Hsieh and Shannon, 2005) was used to explore and compare described participant behaviors to the compassionate love framework of servant leadership. Interview transcripts were reviewed multiple times to achieve immersion. Initial coding and analysis of interview transcripts was completed by the primary author. Interview questions, transcripts, codes and preliminary analysis were then shared with the secondary author for peer review and critique. Through a series of email and telephone conversations, the authors exchanged ideas about transcripts, codes and the overall direction of the analysis. Discussions led to instances of revisiting transcripts, rethinking (modifying) codes and refining emergent themes.
The interviews of twelve business owners were analyzed to determine unique themes along with those associated with the compassionate love servant leadership model (van Dierendonck and Patterson, 2015) and the resulting Authentic Servant Leadership of Women Business Owners Model is illustrated in Figure 2. A summary of the themes, illustrative quotes and participant counts are provided in Table II. Relative to the compassionate love servant leadership, the analyses found that the these participants demonstrated motivation to lead, the virtuous trait of humility, but not gratitude, forgiveness and altruism and the behaviors of authenticity, stewardship and providing direction, but not empowerment. The behavior of authenticity was the most prominent servant leadership behavior with several subthemes. Our analyses did find the women demonstrated virtuous traits and behaviors not included in the compassionate love servant leadership model, namely, the virtuous trait of trust and respect, combined to represent a single characteristic, and the behavior of self-development. To illustrate these findings, we present selected quotes from participants.
Motivation to lead
The researchers examined what motivated the participants to lead others and whether their motives were concerned with being a positive force to help others and be impactful to determine whether these women manifested compassionate love. Two themes emerged from narratives: agency and calling. Seven of the twelve women owners used their agency to support their employees and clients. India stated, “Actually having to form the vision for a business and be the one to execute that vision, and trying to employ team members that share that vision”, and Gina said, “I align my ability to execute doing the right thing at the point of need at the right time”. These women were driven to start and stay in business to ensure they were able to fulfill their desired personal goals, control what they did and direct the work of others so that their business standards were met. Through business enactment, these women demonstrated agency by having a vision, executing the vision through their work and adhering to their beliefs that they should overtly direct their own lives. Thus, these owners demonstrated moral agency.
Three of the twelve owners expressed that their business was a calling and described it as a faith walk directed by a higher power to make a difference in the lives of others through their ventures. Fae’s comment illustrated this theme:
The main reason that my husband and I are in business is to service and honor the Lord. That’s the main reason. That’s one of our missions, is to advance the kingdom of God through the use of state of the art technology.
Their businesses were a vehicle through which these owners were able to nurture their spirit and find personal meaning and fulfillment. The manifestation of this orientation was when the leaders connected their businesses’ missions and visions to their personal spiritual belief systems, which were derived from their truths, values and morals. The study found that the women’ motivations to lead was based on their moral agency and was evident in the owners’ acts of agency and calling.
Evidence was found for the virtuous traits of humility along with trust and respect from participants. By actively striving to listen to understand the needs of their employees and clients and not seeking the limelight, the owners demonstrated humility. Seven of the participants’ responses were classified as humble, as illustrated by Nadia.
I don’t want to stand up in front of a room of people and spout off all this knowledge that I may have because I feel like it’s not just something I’m imparting upon people. That’s my opinion that it’s a collaborative effort to produce great work and that it’s show-boating, as standing up there, taking credit for the work of others. Even they can recognize you’re saying like it’s just yours. I just find it boastful, I’ve always found it boastful.
Like Nadia, many of the owners indicated that they sought to first understand others through mindful listening. They demonstrated their preference for humility by not dominating the discussion or being the center of attention, but rather ensuring their employees’ voices were heard along with their own.
The owners strived to treat their employees and clients well, thus creating an environment of mutual trust and respect. Eight participants’ responses were placed in this category. Olena described her interaction with her employees: “I get to employ these amazing women and treat them with the utmost respect of course”. Nadia’s response also exemplified this category:
When I go out and work with customers or clients, they have opinions and I listen to them and I try to, for the success of their project, for the work product, you’ve got to be […], not just listening but attending to what they’re saying.
Based on their responses, humility was consistent with the virtuous trait theorized in compassionate love servant leadership, while trust and respect was unique to this study.
The study found support for the theorized compassionate love servant leadership behaviors of stewardship, providing direction and authenticity. Also demonstrated was self-development behavior that was unique to this study.
Half of the participants illustrated stewardship, as these women sought to be socially responsible and make a difference. The recipients of this behavior varied; they sought to be impactful on their families, their communities, the environment, and even the security of the USA. Olena shared this example: “I wanted a career choice that would make a difference in my life as well as my child’s life. I wanted to make a difference in the community”. Beth similarly said:
I spend a decent amount of time on a project helping clients understand the environment in a different way and giving them an understanding of language, the ability to make subsequent decisions for themselves, but also for the land, the earth; after I’m gone from their project I hope I am making the world a better place by putting in that extra effort in educating the client.
The owners’ business goals transcended providing benefits to just themselves and their organization; they had a broader mission – to contribute to the greater good. This stewardship orientation was an expression of their personal and organization’s values; these owners sought to ensure that their organizations interacted with clients and others in a manner which was consistent with one of their core beliefs – the need to leave the world a better place.
The women demonstrated providing direction as they described how they sought to develop businesses which were designed to create new ways of work so that their employees would be challenged to do their best; determine the appropriate amount of structure and direction for their employees; and empower employees to act using the company’s moral values as their guide. Six of the twelve owners provided several examples of new ways they created work as exemplified by Nadia’s statement.
We didn’t have draft sample proposals all ready to go. This is fresh and new and not only did we win the work but we clearly exceeded the evaluation metrics that they had put in place for this work and we did it at a significant cost savings for them.
Pat provided another example:
I think overtime, I’ve learned how to figure out if an employee is capable of taking on a certain amount of responsibility, and that kind of stuff. I’ve become really well at delegating things.
Thus, these women sought to establish work practices that were mutually beneficial for their employees and organizations.
The most dominant behaviors found in the study were the owners needs to be to true themselves – their beliefs, desires, talents and goals. All of the owners demonstrated authentic behavior as reflected in these themes – self-awareness, ethical and moral values and fulfillment of life’s purpose.
The first authenticity theme, self-awareness, was evident in that seven of the owners were able to identify their motivations, strengths, developmental opportunities and limitations relative to business enactment and its operation. They indicated that they possessed a strong motivation to start a business and be a business owner as illustrated by India who said, “I always wanted to […] decide the clientele that I wanted to treat, to decide the people that I wanted to work with”. Seven of the women exhibited this behavior labeled by the subtheme of valued business ownership.
The second subtheme, self-motivation, was revealed in five of the owners. These women discussed what work experiences motivated and demotivated them; they sought self-employment to reduce or eliminate business practices that held little personal value to them as well as to engage in practices they enjoyed that may not have been available to them as employees. India said, “Achievement is what really motivates me and being able to say, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve done, look at what we’ve done’”. Conversely, they were also aware of what they could not tolerate and/or had little to no motivation to do, which was epitomized by Beth, who said:
I have no tolerance of filling out time sheets or counting comp time or vacation time or sick time or asking permission to go to the dentist for 2 hours.
The third subtheme, knowledge of their capabilities, found in seven of the owners’ responses, was typified by Quin, who stated:
For those people who may have had any doubts, very quickly, within about 30 days or so of working with me, they would recognize that not only could I talk the talk, I could walk it as well.
Similarly, Mia said, “I think I’m more confident, I think I’m kinder, I think I’m more aware of how to treat people”. These owners expressed the need to be true to their unique talents and apply their expertise. The owners were aware of their strengths, so, for example, they could further develop their capabilities to meet personal business challenges, enhance their personal relationships with others and better manage others’ perceptions of their abilities. In summary, eight of owners demonstrated their authenticity because they valued business ownership and were self-aware, self-motivated and knowledgeable of their capabilities.
Ethical and moral value.
Present in ten of the women owners was ethical and moral value, the second authenticity theme, which comprised three subthemes: integrity, self-respect and financial parity. Quin’s quote demonstrated that she valued integrity:
One of the things that happened in federal contracting is there are some companies that believe the customer is right at all costs and there are also some companies who believe that what the customer doesn’t know isn’t going to hurt them, and those two things together just don’t fit with my personal viewpoint. I believe in quality, professionalism, honesty, and integrity, and if I am truly not able to help a customer solve a problem, I feel like I have an obligation to connect them with someone who can solve the problem as opposed to just taking their money.
She and other owners describe how they acted with integrity by adhering to their moral and ethical framework with themselves and others. These leaders sought to treat their clients and employees with integrity.
Six owners discussed self-respect, the second ethical and moral value subtheme. Selected supporting quotes include the following: “I have to wake up with myself every day, and if I allow anything anywhere in the company to have questionable ethics, it’s my fault” (Mia) and “I have fired male contractors for not following the chain of command and trying to go around me on jobs when I was the one hiring them” (Beth). They further demonstrated faithfulness to their moral and ethical values by displaying self-respect by not tolerating instances where they felt their contributions and competencies were devalued or challenged due to their gender.
Four of the women’s responses, were categorized into the third subtheme, financial parity. These owners expressed the need for equitably compensation as illustrated by Quin’s statement:
Shortly thereafter, I won a five-year contract for them, and my management just didn’t see the need to match my compensation for that. That was a deciding factor for me; I just couldn’t take it. That’s when I quit.
Similarly, Mia shared:
I was working for a very large firm, and they had asked me to go and do a project up at the Pentagon, and they wouldn’t pay me what they were paying my male equivalent. The answer the actual firm gave me, ‘Well, you’re a young woman without military experience. You’re not worth that.’ I’m like, great, well then I don’t want to go do the project.
This category was representative of the women’s perception that they were being treated inequitably based on the compensation they received relative to their contributions. They started businesses to level the playing field and seek equal pay for equal work.
Fulfillment of life’s purpose.
The third authenticity theme was fulfillment of life’s purpose and was found in one-third of the women’s responses. These quotations were illustrative: “I really wanted to literally change the world. I wanted to move earth and change the environment” (Beth), and Gina stated:
It probably gave me the ability to take a vision and a strategy that I’ve had, to be able to implement it, and to implement it in the way I felt was most efficient and it led to large success. So it was probably a good thing.
The business owners expressed that founding and operating a business was a way for them to find fulfillment and live an authentic life of meaning and purpose. They expressed that they were called to enact their businesses based on either their personal vision or direction from a higher power. For these women, starting a business was what they were meant to do in their life. In summary, the need to act with authenticity was evident in all of the women business owners as they were self-aware, adhered to their ethical and moral values and/or responded to their internal calling to start their business as a way to fulfill their life’s purpose.
The behavior of self-development, revealed in five of the narratives, was not one found in compassionate love servant leadership; however, it did emerge in this study. These narratives expressed these themes: India sought to “learn how to communicate effectively with [their] employees”, Lily related that “As the company was starting to grow and more employees were coming on board, I realized that there was a gap in my education in terms of leadership”, whereas Beth wanted to develop to meet an organizational need to perform “bigger and more complex projects”.
These owners engaged in self-development to meet personal and professional needs. Based upon feedback from others and/or personal reflection, they sought to improve their leadership and managerial abilities and thus further their capacity to serve themselves, their employees and their clients. Some owners, explicitly mentioned that they were mentored or coached along their developmental journey; for example, Helen indicated that she “talked to mentors”, and Pat specified that she was told “[…] if you want to start your own business, we support you through that process”.
The focus of this study was to determine whether women business founders demonstrated compassionate love servant leadership and manifested authenticity. This research on women business founders resulted in a theoretical model, which includes aspects of the compassionate love servant leadership model (van Dierendonck and Patterson, 2015). Moral agency, an antecedent to SL, was manifested by the women’s motivation to lead with agency and calling. The women demonstrated the virtuous traits of humility, consistent with compassionate love servant leadership, and trust and respect, unique herein. Three of the compassionate love servant leadership behaviors were revealed – stewardship, providing direction and authenticity – along with self-development, unique herein. The interpretation of these findings relative to the literature follows.
Some argue that it is a contradiction in terms to be a servant and a leader because a leader who focuses first on followers inherently puts the interest of their business concerns second, operates from a low need to exert power and defers to the greater good at the expense of their business (Andersen, 2009; van Dierendonck, 2011). Because this study’s owners were both agent and principal, these women blended both roles. This study’s participants described how they were able to successfully merge their business’ and followers’ interests, employ agency to exert their leadership and align their businesses to their personal ethos. It was agency derived from their ethos which fueled these women’s motivation to lead. The source of their ethos varied from spiritual calling, desire to right a wrong and/or desire to bring their vision to fruition.
Ultimately, it is the type of power motivation that differentiates compassionate love servant leadership from other leadership theories (van Dierendonck and Patterson, 2015). When one feels externally compelled to embark on a career to find meaning and purpose to meet the needs of others, she is responding to her calling (Duffy et al., 2011). Other theorists argue that calling functions as a motivation of servant leaders (Barbuto et al., 2014; Rachmawati and Lantu, 2014), and this study indicates that these owners acted with moral agency, a unique blend of agency and calling (Sendjaya and Pekerti, 2010). This power motiviation is consistent with agapao, or moral love (van Dierendonck and Patterson, 2015; Winston, 2002). Hence, moral agency, a variation of compassionate love, was found to be an antecedent to SL. Though there are theorectical discussions related to agency and leadership, emprical research is limited (Sendjaya and Pekerti, 2010). The one qualitative study of New Guinea women in higher education revealed the research subjects also actively exerted individual agency when they enacted leadership (McNae and Vali, 2015). Thus, evidence was found to support the idea that there is a relationship among agency, calling and leadership.
The motivation to start a business varies and comes from “push” and “pull” factors (Hughes, 2003; Kirkwood, 2009). The factors that push one to entrepreneurship include unemployment, negative work conditions, work-family conflict, job insecurity and the “glass ceiling” (Hughes, 2003; Kirkwood, 2009; Sullivan and Meek, 2012). Whereas the factors that pull women to become entrepreneurs involve the need to perform meaningful work, operate free from career constraints as well as their desire for autonomy, challenge, control of decision-making, family friendly work conditions and the opportunity to realize greater financial rewards (Hughes, 2003; Kirkwood, 2009; Sullivan and Meek, 2012). Thus, women owners may be motivated to start their businesses for reasons that may or may not be consistent with agapao love. Though these researchers examined the motivations of women enacting businesses, the relationship between motivation and leadership was not explored (Hughes, 2003; Kirkwood, 2009; Sullivan and Meek, 2012). Subsequent research should clarify the different motivations to lead and whether they are related to the virtues and behaviors in compassionate love servant leadership or other leadership models. The research herein established that the relationship among business enactment motivation and leadership was moral agency. Next, we discuss the findings that virtues, the next theorized component of the compassionate love servant leadership model, were an outcome of motivation to lead.
Humility along with trust and respect were revealed as virtues in this study. Greenleaf’s principle of “primus inter pares”, or first among equals, describes leaders who seek to serve others and thus humble themselves. Humility is as an attribute of several servant leadership models (Dennis and Bocarnea, 2005; Patterson, 2003; van Dierendonck, 2011; van Dierendonck and Patterson, 2015). Establishing trust between servant leaders and followers is an explicit servant leadership construct in several theoretical models (Dennis and Bocarnea, 2005; Liden et al., 2008; Patterson, 2003; Russell, 2001; Russell and Stone, 2002) and a characteristic of interpersonal acceptance in another (van Dierendonck, 2011). Trust, related to servant leadership, was found in a few empirical studies specific to servant leadership (Joseph and Winston, 2005; Sendjaya and Pekerti, 2010) and more widely in other leadership research (Hassan and Ahmed, 2011; Lee et al., 2010; Wang and Hsieh, 2013). Though not identified in particular as a construct, respect was often mentioned in conjunction with trust. It was advanced that a servant leadership has a respectful demeanor when interacting with their followers (Greenleaf, 1977; van Dierendonck, 2011). Respect was associated with the servant leadership values of humility (Dennis and Bocarnea, 2005) and appreciation of others (Russel, 2001). Therefore, this study’s finding of the virtues of humility and trust and respect is supported in the literature.
Virtuous traits were revealed to lead to these behaviors – stewardship, providing direction, authenticity and self-development. Stewardship is based upon motivational theory of which Maslow’s (1970) hierarchy of needs is one. Stewardship is manifested by those seeking to fulfill their higher order needs, including achieving their life’s purpose. The literature amply supports stewardship as a characteristic of servant leadership (Barbuto and Wheeler, 2006; Laub, 1999; Liden et al., 2008; Spears, 1995; van Dierendonck, 2011). Those studies which explicitly examined the construct of stewardship within a servant leadership framework found it related to emotional intelligence (Barbuto et al., 2014) and vitality, organizational commitment and performance (van Dierendonck and Nuijten, 2011).
Similar to stewardship, providing direction is also considered a characteristic of servant leadership (Barbuto and Wheeler, 2006; Dennis and Bocarnea, 2005; Laub, 1999; Liden et al., 2008; Spears, 1995; van Dierendonck, 2011). The description of providing direction revealed herein is similar to van Dierendonck’s (2011) proposition that servant leaders should create work designed to be dynamic and customizable to engage their associates and take advantage of their unique talents. Providing direction, introduced in 2011 by van Dierendonck, has little empirical evidence besides this study.
Key to servant leadership is its focus on “mutual leader follower development” (van Dierendonck and Patterson, 2015, p. 124). One could argue that to meet the continuous developmental and learning needs of their employees, servant leaders must also focus on their own self-development if they are to meet the ever-evolving needs of their followers (Smith et al., 2004). Furthermore, it is theorized that self-development may likely arise from the leader’s quest for self-actualization, a central motivation among followers and leaders in a servant leadership relationship (van Dierendonck 2011). Leaders’ credibility is enhanced when they demonstrate expertise and stay current with technological advances and developments in their field (Farling et al., 1999). Thus, this study’s unique finding of self-development behavior is consistent with the servant leadership literature.
Authenticity was the most pronounced servant leadership behavior and was expressed by all study participants. The women owners were self-aware of their motivations and capabilities as well as the work experiences they chose not to entertain. Moreover, the owners had clear ethical and moral boundaries for themselves and their companies, which included acting with integrity, ensuring their leadership was respected, and their desire to receive financial remuneration on par with their male counterparts. The women indicated that entrepreneurship helped them lead a life filled with meaning and purpose and, for some owners, was what they were called to do.
Authenticity is a characteristic in several servant leadership theories (Barbuto and Wheeler, 2006; Laub, 1999; Sendjaya et al., 2008; van Dierendonck, 2011; van Dierendonck and Nuijten, 2011). Wong and Davey (2007) stressed that servant leaders need to have great self knowledge of their strengths, weaknesses and blind spots; thus, they must be self aware, the first theme associated with authenticity revealed herein. Additionally, Wong and Davey (2007) indicate that servant leaders need great character because their actions are principle-centered and purpose-driven. This theory of servant leadership (Wong and Davey, 2007) compliments the subthemes found herein: valuing business ownership, self-motivation and knowledge of their capabilities. Authenticity within servant leadership research was associated with vitality, engagement, job satisfaction and organizational commitment (van Dierendonck and Nuijten, 2011), continuance commitment (Bobbio et al., 2012) and trust (Sendjaya and Pekerti, 2010).
Descriptions of authentic servant leaders include Sendjaya and Pekerti’s (2010) use of the term “authentic self”, or someone who is truthful and transparent with others, and van Dierendonck’s (2011) who describe servant leaders as being true to one’s self and acting with integrity. In short, these theorists’ explanation of servant leadership authenticity parallels the second authenticity theme in this study: ethical and moral value. Behaving ethically is a servant leadership foundation put forward by many theorists (Jaramillo et al., 2009; Liden et al., 2008; Sendjaya et al., 2008). The need for servant leaders to be ethical and moral directly addresses the first of three subthemes, integrity. Self-respect, the second subtheme, reflects the servant leaders duty to treat their employees with unconditional dignity and respect (Sendjaya and Pekerti, 2010; Wong and Davey, 2007; van Dierendonck and Patterson, 2015), and reciprocally, we argue, treat themselves with self-respect. The third subtheme, financial parity, may have its roots in van Dierendonck’s (2011) assertion that servant leaders view increasing their organization’s value as a moral imperative. Moreover, women in one qualitative study indicated that they sought self-employment out of their desire to “receive income based on merit” (p. 5) and “earn more money” (p. 6) than they could working for someone else (Mulder et al., 2007). In brief, the literature supports the second authenticity theme, ethical and moral values and the three subthemes, namely, integrity, self-respect and financial parity.
The third authenticity theme, fulfillment of life’s purpose, is consistent with van Dierendonck (2011, p. 1236), who said to be authentic, is to be “about a way of life that has cumulativeness and purpose as a whole” and to be self-actualized. Two empirical studies indirectly support this finding and theory that fulfillment of life purpose is related to servant leadership (Mayer et al., 2008; Neubert et al., 2008).
Practical implications, limitations and future research
Practical implications of these findings are twofold. First, our findings are a basis for encouraging more women to become business owners. The collective expressions of agency, calling, stewardship, authenticity and self-development are markers of business ownership found in business and entrepreneurship literature (Denison et al., 2004; Miller and Collier, 2010). The examples participants expressed may inspire other women with shared organizational experiences (e.g. desire for service with integrity, concerns over financial parity, gaps in leadership education) and fulfillment aspirations (e.g. decide how and who you want to serve, develop value-centered business practices, make a difference in specific communities) to strongly consider or completely pivot to business ownership as a way of marrying intrinsic communal and agency traits. In part, this study provides a similar empowerment ideology seen in previous research regarding business owner and entrepreneur reflections (Miller and Collier, 2010) about self, career and vision (Ruvio et al., 2010). The findings reinforce the idea that motivations of compassionate love and virtue are valuable springboards for business ownership and entrepreneurship. Women who identify with the individual and collective accounts of compassionate love, servant leadership and authenticity described in this study may also find a path to self-development and fulfillment of life’s purpose that changes their personal trajectories and that of those for whom they are stewards. These are all building blocks that can be leveraged by career mentors, executive coaches, professional development organizations, venture capitalists and entrepreneurship incubators to assist women interested in moving into business ownership.
Second, these findings address a foundational resilience that propels women to success, in general, and particularly in business. What we learn in this study about women business owners’ compassionate love, servant leadership and authenticity aligns with previous research regarding the pivotal role business owners play in developing organizational norms (Rousseau,1990), systems to reinforce those norms (Schein, 2004) and organizational problem solving strategies (Madu, 2012). Intentionality in these areas (compassionate love, servant leadership and authenticity) strengthens the management persona and business prowess – both are important to women’s success as business owners. These findings accentuate the importance of operating from core self-awareness as a critical element in business success and growth. It is observed in other studies of business owner behaviors (Bann, 2007; Fail, 2010; Williams, 2011; Zimmerman, 2008). It is an entrepreneurial mantra that drives success throughout the business lifecycle (Denison et al., 2004). From a practical perspective, women leaders should be encouraged to adopt the more gender integrative style of servant leadership to lead their business concerns.
As a qualitative study, this research helps prove some components while disproving others theorized in the compassionate love servant leadership model; thus, these findings suggest a one size fits all version of servant leadership may not equally benefit all leaders. Gender, along with other characteristics, e.g. business ownership, may be variables that drive the need for different versions of compassionate love servant leadership including the one revealed herein. These findings affirm that servant leadership is valuable in theory and practice and should be promoted as a viable leadership practice for founding business executives.
Relative to its limitation, based on 12 women business founders from four US states, these findings may not be generalizable. Future research should test the full servant leadership model of women business owners on a larger group of business founders and its subthemes where little support exists, namely, moral agency, trust and respect, and self-development. Furthermore, researchers should explore the intersection of gender, authenticity and servant leadership within women and men business founders.
The model’s attributes of moral agency, authenticity, providing direction and self-development can be characterized as agentic qualities, those where the leader asserts, directs and acts self-assured (Eagly and Johannesen-Schmidt, 2001), whereas communal qualities, those concerned with the welfare of others, include humility and stewardship (Eagly and Johannesen-Schmidt, 2001). Thus, the servant leadership model herein is a mixture of agentic and communal leadership motivations, traits and behaviors useful to women business founders. Thus, we advance that women effectively use an integrative gender servant leadership model to express the continuum of communal and agentic attitudes and behaviors they need to lead their businesses. These women demonstrated that they were able to extend the boundaries of what it means to be a leader and incorporate behaviors associated with both their gender and leadership roles, thus expanding the endorsement of their leadership motivations, virtues and behaviors by others (Eagly, 2007). The servant leadership model herein reflects women’s ability to successfully empower and equip themselves to navigate barriers unique to women leaders. These women used a variation of compassionate love servant leadership to achieve business goals and to enable them to be true to themselves and meet the needs of their employees, customers and the broader community.
Compassionate love servant leadership conceptual model (van Dierendonck and Patterson, 2015)
|Degree (s) Obtained|
|Pseudonyms||State||Age||Bachelors||Masters||Doctorate||Business/industry||No of employees|
|Chloe||MD||>50||x||x||IT/ Management Consulting||30-85|
|Fae||MD||Not specified||x||IT/ Management Consulting||1*|
|Gina||MD||40-50||x||x||IT/ Management Consulting||2-5|
|Lily||MD||>50||x||Applied environmental science||30-85|
|Mia||VA||>50||x||x||IT/ Management Consulting||30-85|
|Nadia||MD||40-50||x||Advertising/ Public relations||30-85|
|Pat||MD||40-50||x||x||x||IT/ Management Consulting||30-85|
|Quin||MD||40-50||x||x||IT/ Management Consulting||2-5|
Contingent contractors used as needed
Authentic servant leadership of women business owners model
|Theme, illustrative quote and participant counts|
|Theme||Illustrative quote||Participant counts|
|Motivation to lead||7 of 12|
|Moral agency||7 of 12|
|Agency||“Actually having to form the vision for a business and be the one to execute that vision, and trying to employ team members that share that vision” (India)||5 of 12|
|Calling||“The main reason that my husband and I are in business is to service and honor the Lord. That’s the main reason. That’s one of our missions, is to advance the kingdom of God through the use of state of the art technology” (Fae)||3 of 12|
|Virtuous traits||7 of 12|
|Humility||“I don’t want to stand up in front of a room of people and spout off all this knowledge that I may have because I feel like it’s not just something I’m imparting upon people. That’s my opinion that it’s a collaborative effort to produce great work and that it’s show-boating, as standing up there, taking credit for the work of others. Even they can recognize them you’re saying like it’s just yours. I just find it boastful, I’ve always found it boastful” (Nadia)||7 of 12|
|Trust and respect||“When I go out and work with customers or clients, they have opinions and I listen to them and I try to, for the success of their project, for the work product, you’ve got to be …, not just listening but attending to what they’re saying” (Helen)||8 of 12|
|Behaviors||12 of 12|
|Stewardship||“I wanted a career choice that would make a difference in my life as well as my child’s life. I wanted to make a difference in the community” (Olena)||6 of 12|
|Providing direction||“We didn’t have draft sample proposals all ready to go. This is fresh and new and not only did we win the work but we clearly exceeded the evaluation metrics that the guard had put in place for this work and we did it at a significant cost savings for them” (Nadia)||9 of 12|
|Authenticity||12 of 12|
|Self-aware||8 of 12|
|Valued business ownership||“I always wanted to … decide the clientele that I wanted to treat, to decide the people that I wanted to work with.” (India)||7 of 12|
|Self-motivation||“Achievement is what really motivates me and being able to say, ‘hey, this is what we’ve done, look at what we’ve done.” (India)||5 of 12|
|Knowledge of their capabilities||“I think I’m more confident, I think I’m kinder, I think I’m more aware of how to treat people” (Mia)||7 of 12|
|Ethical and moral value||10 of 12|
|Integrity||“One of the things that happened in federal contracting is there are some companies that believe the customer is right at all costs and there are also some companies who believe that what the customer doesn’t know isn’t going to hurt them and those two things together just don’t fit with my personal viewpoint. I believe in quality and professionalism and honesty and integrity and if I am truly not able to help a customer solve a problem I feel like I have an obligation to connect them with someone who can solve the problem as opposed to just taking their money” (Quin)||4 of 12|
|Self-respect||“I have fired male contractors for not following the chain of command and trying to go around me on jobs when I was the one hiring them” (Beth)||6 of 12|
|Financial parity||“I was working for a very large firm and they had asked me to go and do a project up at the Pentagon and they wouldn’t pay me what they were paying my male equivalent. The answer the actual firm gave me, well, you’re a young woman without military experience. You’re not worth that” (Mia)||3 of 12|
|Fulfillment of life’s purpose||“I really wanted to literally change the world. I wanted to move earth and change the environment” (Beth)||4 of 12|
|Self-development||“... learn how to communicate effectively with [their] employees” (India)||5 of 12|
Appendix. Semi-structured interview protocol
I’m going to begin by asking you to share a little bit about yourself, your business and your associates.
Please tell me a little bit about yourself and your role;
Also tell us a little about your business; and
Describe who are your direct reports/associates. In your current business, how many employees do you have and 1099 associates?
For the purposes of this research, I’d like you to focus on these three time periods relative to your business life. I’m going to ask you a few questions about each period. You’ll also be asked to give each time period a title. The three time periods are:
Before you started your business;
When you started your business; and
Recent, within the past one to two years.
The questions are going to focus on you, your business and your business associates. I’m going to ask you several questions that will ask you to talk about yourself as a leader and as a woman/man.
Let’s begin by talking about the period before you started your business.
(4) What did you do before you started your business?
(5) For you, what were the advantages of being a leader and a woman/man during the period before starting your business?
(6) Were there disadvantages of being a leader and a woman/man before starting your business?
(7) How did others view your ability to lead others as a woman/man?
(8) Describe a critical or significant event that you feel was a catalyst to you starting your business.
(9) How did this catalyst influence how you felt as a woman/man leader?
When you started your business
(10) Why did you start your own business?
(11) It has been said that some individuals may start a business so that they can better align their personal value systems and be more authentic. Was this true or not for you? Why or why not?
Your business today
(12) Think about why you are in business today. Describe a recent critical or significant event that typifies why you continue to be a business owner today.
(13) As a leader, how has being a woman/man helped or hindered you in your business?
(14) Overall, has leading a small business changed how you view yourself as a leader and a woman/man? Why or why not?
Thank you for participating in this study.
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