Relationship between Servant Leadership Attributes and Trust in Leaders: A Case of Sport Instructors in South Korea

Corresponding Authors:

Boyun Woo
Associate Professor
Endicott College
School of Sport Science
376 Hale Street
Beverly, MA 01915
Phone: 978-232-2431

Relationship between Servant Leadership Attributes and Trust in Leaders: A Case of Sport Instructors in South Korea

In a highly competitive fitness industry in South Korea, leaders’ role has become more important in retaining competent sport instructors for the survival of the organization. In particular, the leadership style the manager exhibits is crucial in building the sport instructors’ trust in their leaders. This quality relationship between the leader and the followers, in turn, help the competent sport instructors to stay in the organization and perform at their best. Based on Barbuto and Wheeler’s (2006) servant leadership model, the purpose of the study was to investigate the relationship between different servant leadership attributes and trust in leaders among sport instructors in South Korea. The servant leadership attributes included were altruistic calling, emotional healing, wisdom, persuasive mapping, and organizational stewardship. The data were collected from 219 certified sport instructors in South Korea during the national sport instructor certification training using a paper pencil self-administered survey method. The results of multiple regression analysis demonstrated that all the servant leadership attributes together explained 75.3% of the variance in trust in leaders. Of the five attributes studied, three attributes, altruistic calling, persuasive mapping, and organizational stewardship, had a significant association with trust in leaders. The findings of the study guide sport managers on what attributes they need to focus on to gain trust from their followers. In addition, the results of the study could serve as a vital tool to hire an effective sport manager and to develop a leadership training program for sport managers.

Keywords: servant leadership, trust, sport instructor, fitness industry

Leadership has always been an important topic in sport management literature over the past decades (Burton & Peachey, 2013). In particular, as in other fields and settings, traditional leadership styles, such as transactional and transformation leadership, have been heavily researched by many sport management scholars in association with various organizational outcomes over the years (Burton & Peachey, 2009; Doherty & Danylchuk, 1996). However, some argue that this traditional leadership approach does not grasp the entirety of organization dynamics as it solely focuses on motivating the followers to achieve organizational objectives (Stone, Russell, & Patterson, 2004). In many cases, leaders’ behaviors directed towards meeting organizational goals can fail to address individuals’ needs (Burton & Peachery, 2013). This, in turn, can be detrimental to the organization’s overall effectiveness and well-being.

As a result, the recent trend of the study shows that more scholars are moving their attention to servant leadership, which puts a heavy focus on followers’ interests and needs over the organizational needs and goals. In servant leadership, a strong emphasis is given to a shared and relational perspective, and interaction between a leader and a follower is greatly valued (Burton, Peachey, & Wells, 2017; Wang, Waldman, & Zhang, 2014). The notion is that by serving the followers first, the organizational objectives can be achieved (Burton & Peachey, 2013). According to van Dierendonck and Patterson (2010), servant leadership benefits organizations “by awakening, engaging, and developing employees, as well as (being) beneficial to followers or employees by engaging people as whole individuals with heart, mind, and spirit” (p. 5). Therefore, individual’s well-being is considered important, and by addressing the followers’ needs, goals, and aspirations, leaders enable the followers to perform at their best, and this translates into positive organizational outcomes.

Despite the increased attention to servant leadership, servant leadership research is still scarce in the sport management literature. There have been a few studies that were conducted on either intercollegiate sport, investigating servant leadership behaviors of athletic department personnel (Burton & Peachey, 2013; Burton, Peachey, & Wells, 2017; Kim, Kim, & Wells, 2017), or interscholastic sport, examining servant leadership has an effective coach behavior (Rieke, Hammermeister, & Chase, 2008). However, as Reike et al. (2008) noted, servant leadership study is greatly lacking in the sport management literature, and more research on this topic is needed in various sport settings.

One of the sport settings that have not been studied up to date is the fitness industry. In particular, to the author’s knowledge, none of the studies have been conducted on sport instructors. Yet, the fitness industry is one of the biggest segment in sport industries around the world (Woo, 2016), and sport instructors’ performance and well-being greatly depend on their supervisors’ leadership behaviors. Therefore, addressing the gap in the existing body of knowledge, the current study is conducted on sport instructors in South Korea. Specifically, this study examines the impact of servant leadership attributes on perceived trust towards leaders among sport instructors in South Korea. Trust is particularly important in the case of sport instructors in South Korea where a high turnover rate has always been a serious problem (Woo & Chelladurai, 2012). The relationship leaders have with followers is often considered as an important predictor of turnover intention (Son, Kim, & Kim, 2014). Therefore, servant leadership, which emphasizes a quality relationship between the leader and followers, is linked to trust in leaders in this study.

Servant Leadership
Since Greenleaf (1970) introduced the concept of servant leadership, many researchers have embraced servant leadership as an effective style of leadership and attempted to conceptualize the construct (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006). According to Bierly, Kessler, and Christensen (2000), servant leaders are characterized as being categorically wise, using their decision making and service orientations in a way that it elicits organizational wisdom, and maximizing their knowledge and experience to make optimal and altruistic decisions. Reinke (2004) defined servant leadership as “leadership that puts the needs of others and the organization first, is characterized by openness, vision, and stewardship, and results in building community within organizations” (p.41). The central tenet of servant leadership is that the leaders put the needs and interests of others before their own. In this sense, servant leadership follows inverted pyramid model of leadership where leaders put themselves on the bottom of the pyramid and serve the followers, who are positioned higher in the hierarchy (McGee-Cooper & Trammel, 2002). When servant leadership is employed, clear job descriptions and roles are given to the followers, and the leaders act as servants to the followers guiding and supporting them so that they can successfully perform their roles (Rieke et al., 2008).

Since the concept of servant leadership was suggested, many scholars have raised a question of whether servant leadership is truly distinctive from other existing leadership styles (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006). Though some characteristics of servant leadership overlap with other forms of leadership, such as charismatic and transformational leadership, Graham (1991) argues that servant leadership is distinctive from other types of leadership and is unique on its own. In servant leadership, the heavy emphasis is put on moral development, service, and enhancement of common good (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006).

In particular, many scholars have compared servant leadership with transformational leadership (references). These scholars agree that clear distinction exists between transformational leadership and servant leadership (Burton et al., 2017; Stone, Russell, & Patterson, 2004). Although both leadership styles value personal growth of followers, the major difference is present in the focus of the context. In transformational leadership, followers’ personal growth is emphasized when it is best for the organization, which means that organizational goals can always override the followers’ goals (Burton et al., 2017). On the other hand, the priority is always given to meeting the followers’ needs and goals in servant leadership. The leaders are motivated to empower the followers in a way to help them achieve their needs rather than achieving the organization’s goals and missions (Kim, Kim, & Wells, 2017; Stone et al., 2004). In addition, different from transformational leadership, servant leadership values moral development, service, and enhancement of common good (Graham, 1991).

Attributes of Servant Leadership
Although most scholars have accepted servant leadership as a viable leadership construct, mixed viewpoints have emerged when conceptualizing servant leadership. For example, driving from Greenleaf’s (1970) work, Spears (1995) suggested 10 attributes of servant leadership, which include listening, healing, persuasion, empathy, awareness, foresight, commitment to the growth of people, community building, conceptualization, and stewardship. In addition, Farling, Stone, and Winston (1999) proposed a hierarchical model of servant leadership, which is comprised of behavioral and relational components. Page and Wong (2000) also proposed Servant Leader Profile and suggested power and pride, serving others, empowering and developing others, participatory leadership, courageous leadership, inspiring leadership, and visionary leadership as factors of servant leadership. Later on, Barbuto and Wheeler (2002) identified 11 attributes (calling, listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, growth, and community building) reflecting Spears’ (1995) 10 characteristics and Greenleaf’s (1970) fundamental philosophy on servant leadership. However, despite the numerous attempts of developing servant leadership framework, previous works have suffered from various criticisms, such as not being distinguishable from other types of leadership and not having a strong theoretical development (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006).

Acknowledging the deficiency of the previous servant leadership frameworks, Barbuto and Wheeler (2006) conducted research using Barbuto and Wheeler’s (2002) framework, which was successful in distinguishing the servant leadership construct from other leadership types but lacked some theoretical background. Through the research, Barbuto and Wheeler (2006) concluded that there are five servant leadership attributes: altruistic calling, emotional healing, wisdom, persuasive mapping, and organizational stewardship.

First, altruistic calling refers to leaders’ demonstration of a strong desire to make a positive difference in the lives of the followers (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006). Leaders high in altruistic calling tend to put the followers’ interests before their own and work to meet the followers’ needs. This attribute exhibits a philanthropic nature of the leaders as the leaders are willing to sacrifice their own interests for the followers’ benefits (Kim et al., 2017). Second, emotional healing refers to leaders’ commitment and willingness to foster a spiritual recovery when the followers experience hardship or trauma (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006). Leaders high in emotional healing are good listeners and have a great level of empathy. According to Kim et al. (2017), this attribute encompasses characteristics of listening and empathy from Spears’ (1995) framework. Third, wisdom is described as leaders’ ability to understand the surroundings and predict the consequences. These leaders are observant across various functions and settings (Bierly et al., 2000); therefore, they are able to note the cues that can impact their followers from the environment (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006). Fourth, persuasive mapping is defined as leaders’ ability to use sound reasoning and mental frameworks. By mapping issues and conceptualizing shared goals, this skill is used to encourage the followers to act towards the common goals (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006). Finally, organizational stewardship is characterized as providing community development programs and outreach opportunities to the followers so that they can contribute to the well-being of society. The emphasis is given to ethical practices, and the leaders foster a strong community spirit in the workplace (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006).

As discussed earlier, Barbuto and Wheeler’s (2006) five attributes reflect the most widely accepted viewpoints of servant leadership by Greenleaf’s (1970) and Spears’s (1995). Moreover, Barbuto and Wheeler’s (2006) attributes address deficiencies of the previous frameworks and provide five distinctive characteristics of servant leadership that separate it from other types of leadership. Therefore, altruistic calling, emotional healing, wisdom, persuasive mapping, and organizational stewardship suggested by Barbuto and Wheeler (2006) are used as servant leadership attributes in this study.

Servant Leadership and Trust
Previous literature has revealed that servant leadership is highly associated with positive organizational outcome, such as employees’ increased organizational citizenship behavior (Luu, 2017; Walumbwa, Hartnell, & Oke, 2010), job satisfaction (Chung, Jung, Kyle, & Petrick, 2010), organizational commitment (Miao, Newman, Schwarz, & Xu, 2014), work engagement (Yang, Ming, Ma & Huo, 2017), psychological well being (Kim et al., 2017; Van Dierendonck, 2011), and organization’s ethical climate (Burton et al., 2017). The link between servant leadership and the positive organizational outcome is explained by the quality relationship between the leader and follower. According to Seto and Sarros (2016), when leaders influence the followers in a positive way, the followers tend to change their self-focus to a collective focus; therefore, contributing to the organizational effectiveness and success.

One of the most important outcomes that is directly associated with servant leadership is trust in leaders. In fact, servant leadership has been found to have the strongest impact on trust in leaders when it is compared with other forms of leadership style (Qian, Fang, & Xiaoyi, 2017). Previous literature has established that servant leadership is highly related to the followers’ trust in their leaders (Burton et al., 2017; Chan & Mak, 2014; Chatbury & Beaty, 2011; Joseph & Winston, 2005; Qian et al., 2017; Rezaei, Salehi, Shafiei, & Sabet, 2012). The notion is that through a quality relationship, leaders with servant leadership enhance the followers’ self-esteem and make them feel positive about their leaders and organizations (Seto & Sarros, 2016). The quality relationship between the leader and the follower can be established because the followers are encouraged to communicate freely with the leaders, and this parallel structure helps them feel that they are partners in the organization (Seto & Sarros, 2016). Further, the feeling of having equal power help the followers develop trust in their leaders.

Following the previous theoretical framework, the purpose of this study is two folds: a) to apply five servant leadership attributes suggested by Barbuto and Wheeler (2006) in a Korean sport instructor setting, and b) to investigate how each servant leadership attribute contributes to the construct of trust in leaders among sport instructors in South Korea.

The sample for this study was sport instructors in South Korea. Total 219 certified sport instructors completed the questionnaire. Of the participants, 150 (68.5%) were male, and 66 (30.1%) were female. The age of the participants ranged between 20 and 54 with the mean age of 29.55. In addition, 96 (43.8%) participants reported that they are holding a tenured position as sport instructors whereas 105 (47.9%) reported holding a non-tenured position. Regarding the employment setting, the majority of the participants (147, 67.1%) worked for private sport center followed by public sport center (24, 11.0%), self-employed through private lessons (18, 8.2%), sport center in corporate setting (12, 5.5%), and secondary school (3, 1.4%). The monthly income of 93 participants (42.5%) was greater than $1,000 and less than $2,000; 60 participants’ (27.4%) had the monthly income of greater than $2,000 and less than $3,000; 27 (12.3%) participants had an income of greater than $3,000 and less than $4,000.

Data was collected using self-reported measurement scales. Servant leadership was measured by 23 items developed by Barbuto and Wheeler (2006). The servant leadership dimensions included in the questionnaire are altruistic calling (4 items), emotional healing (4 items), wisdom (6 items), persuasive mapping (5 items), and organizational stewardship (5 items). The construct of trust was measured by Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Moorman, and Fetter’s (1990) 6 item scale. Previous studies have demonstrated good construct reliability, internal consistency, and discriminant validity of those scales. The participants of the study were asked to identify their level of agreement with each statement in the scales using a 5-point Likert scale, which ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Demographic information on the participants, such as gender, age, job setting, and monthly income, was also collected.

Data Collection Procedure
The sample for this study was sport instructors in South Korea. In South Korea, certified sport instructors are required to attend national training. The researcher contacted one of the national training centers and received permission to conduct the research on the training participants. Before the data collection, Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval was received by the researcher’s institution to ensure the ethical research. Then, the researcher visited the national training center on the day of the training and administered a paper-pencil survey to the participants before the training session started. The purpose of the study and the participants’ rights were explained before the administration of the survey. Informed consent was given to each participant with the questionnaire. Participation in the study was voluntary, and only the instructors who are willing to participate in the study were asked to fill out the questionnaire.

Data Analysis
The data were analyzed using SPSS 24.0. The first step involved analyzing descriptive statistics to understand the characteristics of the study participants. Then, Cronbach’s alpha was computed to examine internal consistency of the scales, and the correlations between the constructs were analyzed to check the discriminant validity of the scales. Once establishing validity and reliability of the scales used in this study, composite mean scores on each scale, the mean scores, and standard deviations were calculated. Finally, multiple regression was performed to determine the contribution of servant leadership attributes to trust in leaders.

Measurement Reliability and Validity
The internal consistency of the scales was established by calculating Cronbach’s alpha coefficients for each subscale. Alpha coefficients for altruistic calling, emotional healing, wisdom, persuasive mapping, organizational stewardship, and trust were .85, .92, .89, .94, .91, and .94 respectively satisfying Nunnally and Berstein’s (1994) recommended value of .70. Cronbach’s alpha coefficient greater than .70 is considered to have an adequate internal consistency (Nunnally & Berstein, 1994). Discriminant validity was examined by calculating correlations among the studied constructs. According to Kline (2005), correlation higher than .85 indicates lack of discriminant validity between the constructs. None of the correlations between the constructs exceeded .85 confirming that all the constructs included in this study have discriminant validity. The mean and standard deviation of each subscale and scale along with correlation coefficients for all the variables are presented in Table 1.

Table 1

Multiple Regression
To examine the impact of servant leadership attributes on trust in leaders, the data were analyzed using simultaneous multiple regression. Before the analysis, the assumptions of regression analysis were checked. The results demonstrated that none of the assumptions was violated for the given dataset. The recommended sample size for multiple regression is 15 to 20 per independent variable included in the study (Hair, Anderson, Tatham, & Black, 1998). The total number of participants for the current study was 219, which greatly exceeds the sample size required for the analysis. The normality of the data was examined using skewness and kurtosis, and the results indicated that none of the variables violated the assumption of univariate normality. Finally, Durbin-Watson value, tolerance, and variance inflation factor revealed that multicollinearity was not present between the independent variables.

Once checking the assumptions of regression analysis, trust in leaders was regressed on the five attributes of servant leadership. For the overall model, F = 132.41 and was highly significant with p < .001. The results demonstrated that servant leadership attributes all together explained 75.3% of the total variance (R2 = .759, adjusted R2 = .753) in perceived trust toward the leaders among sport instructors in South Korea. Regarding the individual attributes of the servant leadership, altruistic calling, persuasive mapping, and organizational stewardship had a significant influence on trust (p < .001). However, it was revealed that emotional healing and wisdom did not significantly contribute to trust towards leaders. The result of simultaneous multiple regression analysis is presented in Table 2. Table 2

The purpose of this study was to examine the applicability of five servant leadership attributes suggested by Barbuto and Wheeler (2006) in the South Korean sport instructor setting and to investigate the relationship between servant leadership attributes and trust in leaders among South Korean sport instructors. The findings suggested that three of the five attributes of servant leadership (i.e., altruistic calling, persuasive mapping, and organizational stewardship) contributed significantly in explaining trust in leader among sport instructors in South Korea. Of the three significant attributes, altruistic calling had the most significant impact on trust in leaders followed by persuasive mapping and organizational stewardship. It was also revealed that emotional healing and wisdom were not significant predictors of trust in leaders among South Korean sport instructors.

As supported by the previous literature, altrustic calling, persuasive mapping, and organizational stewardship were significant predictors of trust in leaders. This relationsihp can be explained by social exchange theory suggested by Blau (1964). That is, when leaders demonstrate servant leadership, the followers reciprocate by trusting the leaders (Chan & Mak, 2011). Of the five servant leadership attributes, altruistic calling contributed to trust in leaders most significantly among sport instructors in South Korea. According to Barbuto and Wheller (2006), leaders with high altruistic calling address the followers’ needs before organizational needs. In fact, the key element of altruistic calling is allowing the followers to have autonomy at work by empowering them, and this leads to higher level of trust in their leaders (Krog & Govender, 2015).

The importance of persuasive mapping and organizational stewardship may be due to the collectivistic nature of Koreans. According to Hofstede (1980), Korean people have a strong orientation toward collectivism. As individuals with collectivistic orientation view themselves as interdependent with one another, social framwork is strong, and this leads to the members in the society to value group goals over personal goals (Wasti, 2003). Therefore, persuasive mapping may be an important role of leaders among collectivistic individuals. When leaders demonstrate the ability to use sound reasoning to conceptualize shared goals, it enables the followers to work for common goals, and it helps to build their trust in the leaders. Similary, leaders with strong organizational stewardship provides the followers with the opportunity to contribute to the well-being of society through community development and outreach programs (Barbuto & Wheeler, 2006). This also aligns with the collectivists’ valuable view of working towards common goals. As a result, when the followers acknowledge their leaders’ effort to contribute to the society, their trust in leaders may increase.

However, different from the expectation, emotional healing and wisdom did not predict trust in leaders among the sample of sport instructors in South Korea. This is different from Gutierrez-Wirsching, Mayfield, Mayfield, and Wang’s (2014) view that emotional healing leads to satisfaciton and trust with the leader. The collectivistic orientation of Korean sport instructors may have had an adverse impact on this relationship. In collectivistic cultures, it is expected that one takes care of the other members of a group as self is interdependent of the others (Wasti, 2003). In this sense, it is possible that helping an in group member going through hardship is viewed as the norm; therefore, not contributing much to building trust in leaders.

Also, according to Manz (1998), wisdom is an important servant leadership characteristic as wise leaders gain the followers’ trust by empowering them. However, this notion was not supported in this study. According to Krog and Govender (2015), followers could be intimidated by their leaders’ wisdom. That is, when the leaders possess a great level of wisdom, the followers become afraid of speaking their opinions, and this leads to weakened empowerment and further decreased level of trust in the leaders. This maybe the reason why wisdom did not contribute to trust in leaders among sport instructors in this study.

The current study has several limitations. First of all, the participants of the study were recruited using convenience sampling, which typically suffers from generalizability issues. Due to the utilization of convenience sampling, it is possible that the sport instructors included in this study does not accurately represent the entire sport instructor population in South Korea. In particular, this study sample only included those who have the national certificate. Therefore, the results cannot be generalized to the entire sport instructors in South Korea. Secondly, the current study examined only five servant leadership attributes suggested by Barbuto and Wheeler (2006). However, it is possible that those five attributes do not comprehensively grasp the entire characteristics of servant leadership. Lastly, this study used a self-administered survey method. Therefore, the trustworthy of the data depends on the willingness of the participants to provide accurate information.

Addressing the limitations mentioned above, future studies should replicate the current study using a more representative sample so that the results can be generalized to the larger group. In addition, future researchers should include other servant leadership attributes to examine if there are other important attributes that contribute to explaining variance in trust in leaders among sport instructors. Also, future research should examine other outcome variables, such as organizational citizenship behavior and job satisfaction, as previous researchers indicated that they are greatly influenced by the level of servant leadership the leaders exhibit (Chung et al., 2010; Luu, 2017; Walumbwa et al., 2010). Finally, cross cultural studies comparing the impact of servant leadership attributes on various work related outcomes between different cultures will add great value to the existing body of knowledge in the sport management literature.

This study revealed that servant leadership attributes of altruistic calling, persuasive mapping, and organizational stewardship have a significant impact on South Korean sport instructors’ trust in their leaders. The results of the study have both theoretical and practical significance. From a theoretical standpoint, this study is the first attempt to apply Barbuto and Wheeler’s (2006) five servant leadership attributes in the South Korean sport instructor setting and to examine the relationship between different servant leadership attributes and trust in leaders. Therefore, the results of the study add to the existing body of knowledge in the sport management literature. From a practical standpoint, these study results provide a valuable guide to sport managers working in the fitness industry in South Korea. The fitness industry in South Korea is highly competitive, and recruiting and retaining competent sport instructors are vital to the survival of the organizations. This study revealed three servant leadership attributes that have a significant impact on the sport instructors’ trust in their leaders. By understanding these attributes, sport managers will be able to develop strategies that can build the sport instructors’ trust in them so that the improved relationship quality can help the competent sport instructors remain in the organization enhancing the overall performance of the business.

The findings of this study provide guides to sport managers in the fitness industry in South Korea. In the organizational environment where the competition is high, and the employees’ turnover rate is high, retaining competent employees and enabling them to work at their best are critical for the survival of the organization. One of the factors that impact employees’ willingness to stay in the organization and perform at their best is their trust in leaders. This study indicated that servant leadership has a significantly positive impact on the sport instructors’ trust in their leaders. In particular, the current study revealed that servant leadership attributes of altruistic calling, persuasive mapping, and organizational stewardship are important in building trust in leaders. That is, sport managers who are trusted by the sport instructors always put the followers’ needs and interest before their own; they have the ability to persuade the followers with sound reasoning so that they can work towards the common goals; and they provide community development and outreach programs to the followers so they can contribute to the society.

Sport managers in the fitness industry can utilize the results of this study in various ways. First, this information can be a useful tool in the hiring process. When the upper administration hires a sport manager who will oversee the sport instructors, they can focus on finding candidates who possess these three servant leadership attributes. In addition, they can develop a training program which emphasizes and fosters these significant attributes for the sport managers. Similarly, the findings of this study suggest guidance to sport managers on what they need to do to gain trust from their followers. Sport managers who want to gain trust from their followers should focus on being equipped with these servant leadership attributes and exhibit these characteristics to the followers.


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