Servant Leadership: Chinese Culture and Confucianism

Servant leadership gained momentum several decades ago and has become quite a common approach to managing organizations on a global scale. An increasing number of people utilize this type of leadership style irrespective of the cultural background or the contexts they operate in. However, it is also necessary to note that servant leadership is more common for Anglo-Saxon settings, while autocratic countries are often characterized by a less favorable environment for the use of this style (Van Dierendonck & Patterson, 2016). The People’s Republic of China is one of the autocratic societies where the use of servant leadership is problematic, but, at the same time, it is possible and becoming more widespread. One of the reasons for this is the influence of Confucianism that has values consistent with the principles of servant leadership. This paper deals with the philosophies of servant leadership that are evident in the Chinese context and Confucianism, as well as some differences between these culture-based settings and the leadership style in question.

Servant Leadership and Confucianism

Confucianism is one of the oldest religions practiced these days, and it dates as far back as the sixth century B.C.E. This religion is a characteristic feature of Asian societies where it still influences people’s worldviews and behaviors (Kang, Sun, & Lyu, 2020). Confucianism is based on a system of values with five virtues as central pillars, Ren, Yi, Li, Chih, and Shin (Schenck & Waddey, 2017). These virtues form the norms of behavioral patterns and worldview peculiarities that are accepted in the corresponding societies. Ren stands for humanity and altruism, which shows that Confucian dogmas are similar to the basics of servant leadership that encompasses the empowerment of followers. According to Confucian tenets, as well as servant leadership approach, all people are capable of contributing to the society and achieving common goals (Schenck & Waddey, 2017). The virtue of Yi is related to the concept of fairness and equality as the leader should treat all people fairly and make decisions based on “group consensus” (Schenck & Waddey, 2017, p. 6). This belief is associated with such principles of servant leadership as distributive justice and employee empowerment.

Li can be seen as the virtue that makes the adoption of servant leadership problematic as it is associated with the development of strict social roles and statuses. Hierarchy and authority become highly valued in the societies developed on the basis of the Confucian philosophy (Kang et al., 2020). At that, strict hierarchies can hardly be consistent with the use of servant leadership, where followers receive a considerable amount of power. Leaders may often see their high status as the ground for exercising complete power and expect total obedience. Subordinates, on their part, are to accept the hierarchy and be satisfied with the assigned roles. Research shows that these beliefs make people unwilling to participate in decision making or take up more responsibilities if their status or role played is not characterized by the corresponding level of power (Kang et al., 2020). Chin is the virtue that describes people’s ability to learn and self-develop, which becomes one of the goals of human existence. This Confucian virtue is linked to the tenets of servant leadership as the leader, which is virtuous should facilitate followers’ self-development that inevitably leads to their empowerment.

Finally, Shin describes the value of trust that arises from people’s sincerity and a “life without deception” (Schenck & Waddey, 2017, p. 6). This Confucian virtue is closely related to the values of servant leadership, where trust is one of the key components of the relationships between the leader and subordinates. Servant leader places significant emphasis on the needs of followers who trust their leader and are committed to the established organizational goals. The trustful environment is the basis for the development of the bonds that make people willing to reach the objectives they set in collaboration with their leader and peers.

Therefore, it is possible to note that the major Confucian principles are almost completely consistent with the values of servant leadership. Confucianism, with its focus on learning, growth, development, and fairness, is fruitful ground for the use of servant leadership. The only tenet that can interfere with the effective implementation of the approach is linked to the concept of authority that contributes to the creation of hierarchies and strict roles. Leaders may become more autocratic and goal-oriented rather than follower-centered, which will make servant leadership less usable. Hierarchies tend to have a negative impact on the development of trust and innovation. Subordinates who are less empowered are reluctant to come up with innovative projects or even voice their ideas (Kang et al., 2020). However, it is necessary to note that the personality of the leader is likely to play a central role in the adoption of servant leadership. Even hierarchies and set social roles do not necessarily become barriers to followers’ empowerment. People may move up the social ladder and be encouraged to improve the entire system through the evolvement of new social (and organizational) patterns.

Servant Leadership in the Chinese Context

China, like many other Asian countries, has been largely influenced by Confucianism, which is manifested in these people’s worldviews and their cultural agenda. However, the country has also undergone different influences of diverse political, religious, social, economic aspects, so the values of Confucianism are not universal for Chinese people. Hence, the adoption of the leadership style under consideration is associated with some challenges, as well as opportunities.

On the one hand, Confucian virtues related to authority and social roles contribute to the development of a specific type of relationship between the leader and subordinates. People favorably accept autocratic leadership styles and direct instructions that are regarded as the most effective managerial approach (McCune Stein, Bell, & Ai Min, 2020). McCune Stein et al. (2020) also note that the Chinese are subjected to massive promulgation of the role of Communist leaders, which is implemented from people’s early years. Since their first days in the kindergarten, Chinese people are told about the wisdom of the Communist Party and its leaders. It is emphasized that the party and the leader know best what is necessary for the country, as well as an individual. Multiple studies show that Chinese employees have a negative attitude towards distributive justice and their empowerment. They are reluctant to participate in the decision-making process seeing it as the major prerogative of the leader or the one occupying a specific post.

On the other hand, the influence of the Confucian tradition, as well as the effects of the global culture (the impact of globalization and technological advancement), offer diverse opportunities for the implementation of servant leadership. The Chinese society (partially due to the mentioned religion) is paternalistic, which is manifested in the leader’s willingness to care for subordinates and pay attention to their needs (McCune Stein et al., 2020). This desire to meet followers’ needs is one of the primary values of a servant leader.

Moreover, the Chinese society is highly collectivist, and an organization is seen as an extension to the leader’s and employees’ families. Therefore, employees are ready and willing to contribute to achieving established goals and innovate. Followers are ready to play an active role in the development of the organization as they feel responsible for the growth and evolvement of their family, organization, and society. It has been found that servant leadership can be implemented effectively in the Chinese context because this approach leads to the creation of a trust climate (Ling, Liu, & Wu, 2017). Therefore, servant leadership has demonstrated its effectiveness although leaders may face certain challenges, while people’s attitudes are largely affected by their personalities and backgrounds.

In conclusion, it is necessary to note that the principles associated with servant leadership are consistent with the values found in Confucianism and Christianity. Some elements of the chosen religion and cultural contexts, such as the importance of authority and hierarchy, are rather opposing to the ethics of servant leadership. However, this leadership style is similar to Confucianism and the overall Chinese cultural environment in its focus on trust, benevolence, and commitment to the established goals. Hence, leaders should consider using the leadership style under consideration in Chinese companies and with Chinese employees, but they need to concentrate on the values that are consistent with Confucianism and certain culture-based tenets.


Kang, H., Sun, Q., & Lyu, L. (2020). Learning to transform through interplay between the Confucian and Western cultural heritages: A case study of school leadership development in Beijing, China. Journal of Transformative Education, 18(2), 163-182. Web.

Ling, Q., Liu, F., & Wu, X. (2017). Servant versus authentic leadership: Assessing effectiveness in China’s hospitality industry. Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, 58(1), 53-68. Web.

McCune Stein, A., Bell, C. M., & Ai Min, Y. (2020). Does “the servant as leader” translate into Chinese? A cross-cultural meta-analysis of servant leadership. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 29(3), 315-329. Web.

Schenck, A., & Waddey, M. (2017). Examining the impact of Confucian values on leadership preferences. Journal of Organizational & Educational Leadership, 3(1), 1-26.

Van Dierendonck, D., & Patterson, K. (2016). Servant leadership: Developments in theory and research. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

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