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Analysis of servant-leadership characteristics: Case study of a for-profit career school president

Author: Elaine M. Hiatt
Servant leadership is a challenging leadership philosophy to study empirically. The purpose of this qualitative descriptive case study was to determine if an effective leader of a for-profit career school displays the 10 servant-leader characteristics, identified by Larry R. Spears (1995) in Reflections on Leadership , according to respondents, employees of the president. The results indicated the president did not display all of the servant-leader characteristics. The research subject's leadership style, according to the results, is an amalgam of various leadership styles including situational and transactional.

v Table of Contents Acknowledgments iv List of Tables viii CHAPTER 1. INTRODUCTION 1 Introduction 1 Background 2 Statement of the Problem 7 Significance of the Study 11 Purpose 12 Rationale 13 Conceptual Framework 14 Research Questions 16 Definition of Terms 16 Assumptions and Limitations 18 Nature of the Study 18 Organization of the Remainder of the Study 19 CHAPTER 2. LITERATURE REVIEW 20 Introduction 20 Theoretical Framework 21 Relationships 21 Culture 23 Pragmatism 25 Management Versus Leadership 26

vi Examples of Servant Leadership 28 Discussion of Trait, Behavior, Situational, Transactional, and Transformational Theories Relative to Servant-Leader Theory 33 Critique of Servant Leadership 36 Summary 37 CHAPTER 3. METHODOLOGY 39 Methodology and Design of the Study 39 Population 40 Procedure 41 Data Collection 41 Data Analysis 43 Validity and Reliability 44 Ethical Considerations 45 Summary 47 CHAPTER 4. PRESENTATION AND ANALYSIS OF DATA 49 Introduction 49 Servant-Leader Characteristics Based on the Subject’s Leadership Style 51 Confirming Analysis: Evaluation of the Subject’s Leadership Style Versus Servant-Leader Characteristics 75 Synthesis: The Research Subject—Servant Leader? 77 Summary 81 CHAPTER 5. SUMMARY, CONCLUSIONS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS 82 Summary 83 Discussion of Results 84


viii List of Tables Table 1. Characteristics and Definitions of a Servant Leader 15 Table 2. Results of Servant-Leadership Characteristic Ratings 76



Introduction Leadership theory is meant to provide understanding, guidelines, and models of effective leadership to assist those in leadership positions of all levels. The study of such human behaviors and values presents its own challenges, including the perceptions, assumptions, biases, and values the researcher brings into the research situation. Attempts to note specific characteristics, behaviors, and values and then translate those into a model for effective leadership have resulted in a plethora of leadership theories including transactional, transformational, laissez-faire, participative, situational, servant, and many more. This dissertation focused on the servant-leadership model, which has been embraced in such diverse businesses as Starbucks, Monsanto, Delta Airlines, TDIndustries, Whole Foods, and Southwest Airlines. The literature, however, does not cite the reasons why these businesses chose servant leadership and the impact this leadership approach has had. The idea of service first and leadership second was first promoted by Robert Greenleaf in 1970. Within this paradigm, it may be possible to utilize many leadership strategies or styles depending on what serves best for that individual or individuals in a given situation. Thus, rather than attempting to adopt a particular set of responses to all situations, the servant leader needs only ask him- or herself, “How can I best serve in this

2 situation?” The answer and resulting behaviors, actions, and choices then meet the current need, allowing for the most effective leadership. A servant leader, that is, one who chooses to serve first with leadership developing from that service, will likely demonstrate shared underlying characteristics.

Background The desire for great leadership is not new. From Plato’s vision of the sage philosopher king who provides fatherly guidance to autocratic dictators of the ancient and modern world, humans have sought leaders and ways of leading as a means to a better world, a better life. Whittington (2004) noted that the scandals of Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and Arthur Anderson have raised people’s awareness that “perhaps the most powerful group in modern society is corporate executives” (p. 163). In today’s complex world, the need for ethical leaders at all levels of society has never been greater. In the past half century, the formal study of leadership has brought forth many leadership theories with a focus on discussion between autocratic (directive) and democratic (participatory) decision-making styles (Bass, 1985). In the 21st century, servant-leadership theory has been quietly gaining ground. Servant leadership is based on “an idea and a process that follows a path of study, reflection, practice and evaluation” (Spears, 1995, p. x). Servant leader is a term coined by Greenleaf in an essay published in 1970, “The Servant as Leader.” This seemingly paradoxical term came to him after reading Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, a story about a character named Leo who seemed to be the servant in a band of men on a mythical journey, but who turned out to be the real leader

3 without whom the band fell into disarray. The men themselves did not realize that Leo was truly the leader, but the journey was abandoned after he was no longer among them and the many seemingly small things he did went undone. Years later, one of the men on that journey met Leo again and found that he was actually the head of the Order of those who had sponsored the original journey, abandoned long ago. What this story meant to Greenleaf (1970), who recognized the country was in a leadership crisis, is best stated in his words: The great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness. Leo was actually the leader all of the time, but he was servant first because that was what he was, deep down inside. Leadership was bestowed upon a man who was by nature a servant. It was something given, or assumed, that could be taken away. His servant nature was the real man, not bestowed, not assumed, and not to be taken away. He was servant first. (p. 2)

Hesse’s novel gave focus to the idea of the servant-as-leader to Greenleaf, an idea that had been fermenting from Greenleaf’s half century of experience in the field of management research, development, and education at AT&T, as well as a second career as an influential consultant to a number of major institutions (Spears, 1995). Greenleaf continued his development of servant leadership, expanding his writings to include applications to boards of trustees, community leadership organizations, experiential education, and personal growth and transformation (Spears, 1995). Servant leadership then experienced an “unparalleled explosion of interest and practice in servant leadership in the 1990s” (Spears, 1998b, p. 10). Other noted servant- leadership authors who have acclaimed servant leadership as a concept that is in keeping with, and enhancing to, other leadership models such as total quality management,

4 learning organizations, and community building include Block, Blanchard, DePree, and Senge (Spears, 1995). Block (1993) built upon Greenleaf’s work on stewardship, noting that stewardship in organizations is based on affirming a choice for service over self-interest, requiring accountability while choosing not to control the environment around one. Block defined stewardship as a set of principles and practices that have the potential to make dramatic changes in our governing system. Block contended that economic crises are a symptom of the problem, and the answer to real reform is not more money but focus on quality, service, and participation. Block offered his vision on how to reform U.S. institutions from the servant-first perspective covering diverse aspects of organizations from human resources, pay scales, staff functions, management practices and structures, and financial practices to the emotional work of stewardship. DePree (1989) discussed the diversity of gifts that people bring to organizations, noting that “the art of leadership lies in polishing and liberating and enabling those gifts” (p. 10). DePree also believed a leader is responsible for an institution’s ethics as well as its finances. In addition, DePree promoted the idea of covenantal relationships with employees that rest on shared purpose, dignity and choice, and good communication, but the only direct guidance given is for job performance reviews and self-evaluation. Blanchard and Hodges (2003) made the point of his connection between faith and servant leadership in a more direct way than Greenleaf. While Greenleaf was certainly influenced by his Quaker faith, Blanchard and Hodges wrote explicitly of Jesus as the “greatest leadership model of all time” (p. 10). Many religious leaders have embraced servant leadership from this perspective.

5 Senge (as cited in Spears, 1995) wrote that Greenleaf’s book Servant Leader is the “singular and most useful statement on leadership that I have read in the last 20 years” (p. 217). Senge discussed Greenleaf’s legacy as giving us the “compass” (as cited in Spears, p. 240), if not the map, noting that we must desire change and understand that real change comes from inside one’s self. Many are calling for a deeper study of the meaning and application of this emerging subfield of leadership study called servant leadership. An excellent example of this deeper study is represented by the Servant Leadership Roundtable discussions at the School of Leadership Studies at Regent University (Laub, 1999). Its graduate programs and the new doctorate in organizational leadership at Indiana Wesleyan University are examples of research-focused programs with an explicit commitment to exploring the servant-leadership concept. The 10 characteristics of the servant leader identified by Spears (1995) are 1. Listening—being receptive to what the other is saying, as well as being in touch with one’s own inner voice; 2. Empathy—ability to deeply understand people and accept them as human beings with good intentions, even if there is need to reject their behaviors; 3. Healing—the need for the servant leader to heal herself, as well as assist in the healing of others, recognizing the mutual search for wholeness; 4. Awareness—making a commitment to general awareness, as well as self- awareness, enabling the Servant Leader to have an integrated viewpoint; 5. Persuasion—a way of offering hope to those who need it, to persuade others to see themselves as empowered people, and to share wisdom; 6. Conceptualization—the ability to view from a broader perspective, beyond the day-to-day realities; 7. Foresight—the ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation based on understanding the lessons of the past, the present reality, and likely consequences for the outcome of a decision; 8. Stewardship—holding the institution in trust, while maintaining openness and the use of persuasion;

6 9. Commitment to the growth of others—believing in the intrinsic value of others beyond as employees, and being committed to their personal, professional, and spiritual growth through caring, as well as tangible actions; 10. Community building—founded in developing true communication, which requires learning to listen, speaking when moved to speak and not speaking unless so moved; it is about raising one’s consciousness regarding one’s self, others, and of the group. (pp. 4–7)

Spears (1995) wrote that “after some years of carefully considering Greenleaf’s original writings” (p. 4), he identified these 10 critical characteristics of a servant leader. Spears also stressed that servant leadership is “not a ‘quick-fix’ approach, but is a long- term transformational approach to life and work, in essence, a way of being that has the potential to create positive change throughout our society” (p. 4). Effective leadership results in desired outcomes being achieved, and successful leadership requires consistent behavior from leaders, which can only be achieved through leadership qualities that have been internalized. This descriptive case study analyzed the recollected experiences that nine participants had while working under the leadership of the president and cofounder of a for-profit career school. Life-history research studies the experiences of individuals from their subjective perspective, interpreting and understanding the world around them (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2003). Emerging themes from these recollections were analyzed and compared with servant-leadership characteristics to determine whether the research subject exemplifies these characteristics. In addition, a Likert-type scale of the 10 characteristics identified by Spears (1995, 1998b) was used to compare responses by the researcher of the data from the two different instruments as a method to help eliminate bias that may result from relying on only one data-collection method (Gall et al., 2003). The compilations of responses are displayed in the appendix and Table 2.

7 Statement of the Problem The success of an organization is greatly influenced by the leadership that guides it. Leadership provides the vision, sets the overall culture, and drives the effectiveness. Leaders who fail in their personal ethics and values create chaos and have a negative impact, as seen in recent years in the Enron scandal, as well as the Watergate scandal during the Nixon presidency. The problem of a lack of pragmatic leadership theory that can meet the needs of diverse organizations with a plethora of situations remains unresolved, resulting in ineffective leadership that often leads to failure in many of today’s organizations. While there are many leadership styles and theories, to date there has not been any one theory that has demonstrated its ability to meet this challenge. Rather, there is a spectrum of theories ranging from examples of successful leaders and organizations that may be found representing many leadership theories to ineffective leaders utilizing whatever leadership model fits their own personal styles rather than the needs of those being served (the followers), with much overlap in-between. Four leadership theories that cover a range in the spectrum are trait, behavioral, situational, transactional, and transformational. Trait theory contends that the best predictors of effective leadership are the traits and dispositions with which someone is born or develops early in life (French & Raven, 1960). This approach developed from the great man theory (Northouse, 2004), which was based on the idea that leaders are exceptional people with innate qualities and destined to lead. This approach developed as a way to identify key characteristics of successful leaders. Lord, DeVader, and Allinger (1986) found the relationships between desired

8 leadership traits and leadership abilities to be weak and inconsistent. As traits did not prove to be a good predictor, researchers turned their attention to behaviors. Attention was turned to behavioral theories in McGregor’s classic 1960 book, The Human Side of Enterprise. The focus upon what leaders do rather than what leaders are like marks the essential difference between behavior theory and trait theory. The behavioral viewpoint argues that the behaviors and attributes that are developed over time are the best predictors for successful and effective leadership (Pointers & Sanchez, 1994). Because behaviors can be seen, observed, measured, and potentially copied, behavior theory was seen as more scientific (Stogdill & Coons, 1957). Although not specifically attempting to put forth a leadership theory, McGregor’s ideas on participative management were very influential on managers. Participative management allows employees to engage in decision making and other organizational activities (Moorhead & Griffin, 1989). Such activities may include goal setting, establishing work schedules, making suggestions, as well as increasing employees’ responsibilities. McGregor (1960) influenced all behavioral theories, emphasizing focus on human relationships, as well as output and performance, and drew heavily on Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs. Behaviors that may work in one situation, however, may not be useful in another. Contingency or situational theory developed to address this problem. Situational theory recognizes that traits and behaviors are important, but sees them as situation-specific (French & Raven, 1960). Major contributors to the contingency or situational school include Fiedler (1967), Blanchard and Hersey (1970), and Tannenbaum and Schmidt (1973), focusing on the environments in which leadership

9 takes place. The leader’s ability to adapt to situations is seen as most important for success. While adaptability may be an important trait for a leader, this circles back to an individual trait as the key element for effective leadership. Burns (1978) discussed transactional leadership as being based on motivating followers with an exchange of rewards for services rendered. This does not account for internal motivation to meet transcendent goals or for higher level, self-actualization needs rather than only immediate needs in self-interest (Bass, 1985). Burns (1978) is credited with developing transformational theory, although he called it transforming theory. Bass (1985), Rost (1991), and Kouzes and Posner (2002), among others, have added to its development. Transformational theory has the ethics and morals of leaders as central components (Burns, 1978). It looks at mutual power and influence in the leader–follower relationship and identifies qualities such as passion, inspiration, trust, and commitment on the part of the leader (Association for the Study of Higher Education [ASHE], 2006). Like the previous four theories, it remains leader- focused and hierarchical in nature. Whether the characteristics of transformational leaders are transferable to other cultures is still uncertain (ASHE, 2006). Laub’s (1999) definition of servant leadership as “an understanding and practice of leadership that places the good of those led over the self-interest of the leader” (p. 83) distinguishes servant leadership from transformational leadership. A transformational leader’s motive is to provide benefit for the organization, while the motive of the servant leader is for the growth and development of the follower (Northouse, 2004). The underlying assumption is that followers will then be productive major contributors to the overall goals of the organization. Spears (1995) reported that the traditional autocratic

10 and hierarchical modes of leadership are slowly giving way to a newer model of leadership that attempts to enhance the personal growth of employees, empower individuals in decision making, and build community, while exemplifying caring and ethical behavior known as servant leadership. Existing theories do not account for how current employees want to be led. The present study examined the characteristics of one leader, compared them with the characteristics of a servant leader identified by Spears (1995, 1998b) to determine the extent to which her employees find that the research subject exhibits these characteristics, and what may be learned about the nature of leadership to assist in the continued development of pragmatic leadership theory to meet the needs of organizations in the 21st century. It is possible that no one theory can meet all needs in all situations. However, characteristics of effective leaders may shine light on what types of leaders may be needed to meet these needs. Bass (as cited in Washington, 2007) noted that servant leadership requires substantial empirical research. Validation of the 10 characteristics noted by Spears (1995) as exemplified in servant leaders provides a basis for continued research. However, all of these theories are based upon subjective observations of what individuals do or qualities they possess, analyzing these, and then establishing ways to understand those behaviors or development of qualities. This presents limitations in the pragmatic use of theory that must be recognized. Understanding behaviors and characteristics provides only a broader theoretical base of information to examine and attempt to discover methodologies for more objective research in the complex concept of leadership.

11 Significance of the Study This study contributes to the understanding of effective leaders by learning through the recalled experiences of those working with an aspiring servant leader to determine if those characteristics identified by Spears (1995, 1998b) are common characteristics to servant leaders. Further, assuming these characteristics are shared by the object of this descriptive study, this will add to the current body of knowledge as an example that may point to servant leadership by offering a theory of leadership for the new millennium. Servant-leadership theory lends itself to encompassing other theories and styles of management, including transactional and transformational, which are often seen as diametrically opposed. Greenleaf (1977) wrote extensively of Donald J. Cowling, past president of Greenleaf’s alma mater, Carleton College, as an exemplar of servant leadership, noting that he was an autocrat but that such a domineering leader was appropriate for the time and situation. Washington (2007) found servant leadership was positively related to transformational, contingent-reward, and active management-by-exception, and made suggestions of overlap between transformational and servant leadership in a study of employees from five diverse organizations in the southern United States. Washington suggested further study to “investigate how people-focused, empowerment theories (i.e., servant leadership) may possibly help to ‘complete’ organization-focused, empowerment theories (i.e., transformational leadership)” (p. 6). Such a theory would allow for great flexibility in behavior while providing effective leadership. Since this was one study of a small population, obviously much more will be needed before this can be claimed; however, it adds to the current knowledge base.

12 Purpose The purpose of this study was to analyze servant-leadership characteristics as set forth by Spears (1995, 1998b) and compare them with the recollected experiences of the participants to determine if these characteristics are evidenced in the research subject, the president and cofounder of a for-profit career school, an effective leader. Omoh (2007) conducted a similar study of a college president and found that the subject possessed the servant-leadership characteristics as outlined by Spears, was a servant leader, and served as an example of effective leadership. This descriptive case study was used to apply the validity of the Omoh (2007) study to a different population. Had the findings been confirming, this would have strengthened the generalizability and validity (Gall et al., 2003). However, in this study, the findings did not confirm, and situational reasons for this deviation are explored in chapter 5. In both cases, additional studies shall be needed to continue and deepen understanding of the research questions. One case study carries the limitation of being too small in population to constitute generalizability. However, in practical terms, such case studies are needed to gain knowledge of how theory works in practice in the field. In addition, another approach to the issue of the generalizability of case study findings is the concept of reader/user generalizability. This term was coined by Sandra Wilson to mean it is the responsibility of each reader or user of case study research to determine the applicability of those findings to their own situations (Gall et al., 2003). Large quantitative studies cannot provide the thick data of a qualitative study and do not lend themselves well to deep insight into such a complex field of inquiry as leadership. Case studies conducted in

13 different settings over time will provide a truer picture of leadership in action to test theory.

Rationale This is a time in human history of great achievements in all aspects of life—from medical discoveries and technological advancement to untapped potential of the human mind. This is also a time fraught with challenges, many stemming from these achievements, including global warming, a widening gap between the wealthy and poor, pollution, and diminishing resources (Omoh, 2007). In education, many American students are failing to achieve even basic reading and math skills. Effective leadership is needed in all areas of the country, as well as the planet. Identifying the extent to which servant-leader characteristics are found in effective leaders helps people discover if those effective leaders so needed in this rapidly changing world are indeed putting service first, demonstrating commitment to developing the potential in those served, and meeting the goals needed for success. Omoh (2007) noted that organizations that are “poorly and ineffectively managed by visionless and unethical leaders go under easily, resulting in losses for shareholders and loss of jobs for employees” (p. 5). The subject of this research has led the organization she cofounded for the past 18 years. The question this study addressed is, “To what extent does she exemplify servant-leadership characteristics?” Therefore, the reason for this study was to determine, through analysis of participants’ recollected experiences compared with servant-leadership characteristics, whether the research

14 subject possesses these characteristics, which are useful indications of effective, genuine leadership for the 21st century.

Conceptual Framework The conceptual framework of a research study guides the researcher, helping to understand why one path to answering the research questions is chosen over other paths. In this study, the researcher adapted the instruments used by Omoh (2007), with the addition of a 5-point Likert-type scale of the 10 characteristics identified by Spears (1995, 1998b), to compare responses from the two different instruments as a method to help eliminate biases that may result from relying only on one data-collection method (Gall et al., 2003). The compilations of responses are displayed in the appendix and Table 2. The framework was founded on the idea that Spears’s (1995, 1998b) definitions of 10 characteristics of servant leadership (see Table 1) are found in genuine, credible, ethical leaders. This framework constitutes a paradigm, a contextual perspective through which one views one’s experience (Bennis & Goldsmith, 1997). This new paradigm differs from the old leadership paradigm of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which was based on the ideas that leaders were born, that good management makes for successful organizations, and belief in the importance of avoiding failure at all costs, which promoted risk avoidance and fear (Bennis & Goldsmith, 1997; Block, 1993; Hickman, 1998). Servant leadership is a paradoxical concept: that leaders are identified by the people due to their commitment to service and stewardship rather than through a hierarchical, conferred-by-position, right to lead (Greenleaf, 1970, 1976, 1977). Failures

15 are seen as feedback, allowing for creativity and experimentation without fear, and good management a natural outgrowth of service first. Greenleaf’s goal was for the development of strong, effective, caring communities in all segments of society (Greenleaf, 1970, 1977; Spears, 1998b). This study was founded in this framework and the assumption that such development is fostered by leaders exemplifying the characteristics Spears (1995, 1998b) identified and defined.

Table 1. Characteristics and Definitions of a Servant Leader Characteristic Definition Listening Act of full attention to hearing others speak, without inner commentary or straying thoughts; being fully present


Ability to feel another ’ s emotional state, to walk in another ’ s shoes


Holding the space with compassion, enabling another to heal their own

emotional/psychological wounds


State of being requiring being present to what is without judgment


Ability to persuade other s of their own self - empowerment


Visioning; being able to help create and hold the vision to provide

g uidance; a broader view than day-to-day realities


Intuition; inner ability to utilize past experiences as well as future possibilities that provides an internal knowing


Holding the responsibility and accountability for maintaining, growing, and facilitating the path of an entity

Commitment to growth

of others

Service; desiring above all else to facilitat e the personal growth of others

Community building

Working to establish, maintain, and grow external and internal communities for the welfare of all concerned; recognizing our interconnectedness; fostering communication

Note. The information in the table was compiled from Reflections on Leadership, by L. C. Spears (Ed.), 1995, New York: Wiley.

16 Research Questions The following research questions guided this study: 1. What are participants’ recollected experiences, perceptions, perspectives, and understanding of the leadership style of the research subject?

2. What evidence exists that the declared 10 characteristics (behaviors) of servant leadership—(a) listening, (b) empathy, (c) healing, (d) awareness, (e) persuasion, (f) conceptualization, (g) foresight, (h) stewardship, (i) commitment to the growth of people, and (j) building community—are exemplified in the leadership style of the research subject?

Definition of Terms The following are some basic terms with definitions to ensure a common understanding as well as ease of reference. Authentic leadership. Leadership that has been bestowed by collaborators due to recognition of the authenticity and merit of the one designated by the group as leader; also, the leader who displays genuineness as exemplified in the 10 characteristics identified by Spears (1995, 1998b). Awareness. State of being requiring being present to what is without judgment (Spears, 1995). Case study. A research strategy utilized in qualitative research in which the researcher explores in depth a subject (Creswell, 2003). In this study, the case study served to allow for an in-depth inquiry into the recalled experiences of participants utilizing descriptive research methods for the purpose of comparing the analyzed thick data with servant-leadership characteristics to ascertain whether and to what extent the research subject possesses these characteristics.

17 Commitment of growth in others. Service; desiring above all else to facilitate the personal growth of others (Spears, 1995). Community building. Working to establish, maintain, and grow external and internal communities for the welfare of all concerned; recognizing people’s interconnectedness; fostering communication (Spears, 1995). Conceptualization. Visioning; being able to help create and hold the vision to provide guidance; a broader view than day-to-day realities (Spears, 1995). Empathy. Ability to feel/understand another’s emotional state, to walk in another’s shoes (Spears, 1995). Foresight. Inner ability to utilize past experiences as well as future possibilities that provide an internal knowing; intuition (Spears, 1995). Healing. Holding the space with compassion; enabling another to heal his or her own emotional/psychological wounds (Spears, 1995). Leadership. The process of persuasion or example by which a leader induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers (Gardner, 1990). Listening. Act of full attention to hearing others speak, without inner commentary or straying thoughts; being fully present (Spears, 1995). Persuasion. Ability to help others discover the benefit to them in what is being proposed (Spears, 1995). Servant leadership. Theory of leadership founded by Greenleaf based on an individual’s innate desire to serve first, followed by conscious choice to aspire to lead through service and commitment to the growth of those served (Greenleaf, 1970).

Full document contains 117 pages
Abstract: Servant leadership is a challenging leadership philosophy to study empirically. The purpose of this qualitative descriptive case study was to determine if an effective leader of a for-profit career school displays the 10 servant-leader characteristics, identified by Larry R. Spears (1995) in Reflections on Leadership , according to respondents, employees of the president. The results indicated the president did not display all of the servant-leader characteristics. The research subject's leadership style, according to the results, is an amalgam of various leadership styles including situational and transactional.