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Examination of the ten characteristics of servant leadership

The purpose of this chapter is to present and discuss the methodology that will be employed in the examination of the ten characteristics of servant leadership as applied to the life of Dr. Jim Otten, a prominent leader in proprietary higher education. The objective of this study is to draw parallels and comparisons between acceptable theories on servant leader behaviors and the professional life of Dr. Otten. In particular, this chapter details the methods and processes involved in this proposed interpretive biographical research including the research design, participant selection, instrumentation, data collection, data analysis, and ethical assurances.

Research Questions

This study aims to examine evidence that that supports the practice of servant leadership behaviors in the professional life of Dr. Otten. The purpose of this study is to contribute to the dearth of empirical literature on the phenomenon of servant leadership and in consequence, inform how the practice of servant leadership today can be incorporated in profit-driven proprietary higher education institutions. The overarching question for this study is:

How is servant leadership demonstrated in the professional life of Dr. Jim Otten as manifested by the ten characteristics 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 others, and; (j) building community?

This central question is divided into sub-questions, to wit:

How do superiors, associates and subordinates view Dr. Otten?

What organizational practices and experiences in working with or for Dr. Otten demonstrate the practice of servant leadership from the perspective of subordinates and colleagues?

Research Method and Design

This study follows the qualitative tradition as it deals with the need to “understand the meanings people have constructed… and the experiences they have in the world” (Merriam, 1998, p. 6). The qualitative approach to research makes a descriptive account of a setting, phenomenon, and people possible. Moreover, qualitative processes enable the interpretation of new insights regarding a phenomenon or a theoretical or conceptual perspective, and generates additional issues existing within a phenomenon or theory (Patton, 2002).

Shi (1997) suggests that among the research objective suitable for the qualitative research tradition include the study of the following:

1. Complete events, phenomena, or programs;

2. Developmental or transitional programs and events;

3. Attitudes, feelings, motivations, behaviors, and factors associated with the changing process;

4. Complex events with interrelated phenomena;

5. Dynamic or rapidly changing situations;

6. Relationships between research subjects and settings; and

7. Processes or how things happen rather than outcomes or what things happen. (p. 126)

Creswell (1998) suggests that when you examine the various forms of qualitative inquiry, you will not arrive at one best form because qualitative research is inherent multi-method in focus. There are five general forms of qualitative inquiry presented by Creswell (1997) that will be examined before explaining this study’s choice of qualitative method: ethnography, case study, grounded theory, phenomenology, and biography.

Ethnography aims to describe and interpret a cultural system or community through longitudinal field observations (Schram, 2006). Ethnography can be of three types: (a) classical; (b) critical; and (c) postmodern or post-structural (Grbich, 1999). This approach requires a research to immerse him or herself into the community or culture being studied.

Case study involves “…an intensive, holistic description and analysis of a bounded phenomenon” (Merriam, 1998, p. xiii). It may focus on an individual, place, phenomenon, group, culture, or country within a definite time. Yin (2003) presents the case study as an empirical inquiry that “1) investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context; and 2) copes with the technically distinctive situation in which there will be many more variables of interest than data points” (p. 13-14).

Grbich (1999) defines the phenomenological study as a description of the structures or process of experience as they present themselves without predetermined assumptions, theories, or deductions. It seeks to describe the meaning of lived experiences of a group of individuals pertaining to a concept or a particular phenomenon (Creswell, 1998).

Creswell (1998) defines grounded theory as a technique that uses analytic induction in order to develop theories that seek to explain the world. The end product is a theoretical model or law to guide action and is accomplished mainly from interviews, site visits, and analysis of information.

A biography is defined as an interpretive and analytic study of an individual analytic whose experiences are narrated to the researcher or discovered in documentary material or artifacts (Creswell, 1998). Biography can be employed to test theories regarding phenomena or events which can aid in explaining the present context. There are subgroups under biographical research namely: autobiography, oral history, life history, biographical study, classical biography, or interpretive biography.

According to Creswell (1998), choosing the most appropriate research design for qualitative research requires an alignment with the conceptual framework and the study’s perceived goals and objectives. Because this study wants to examine the existence of servant leadership characteristics that are practiced by Dr. Otten and since behaviors are shaped and formed throughout the life stages, an exploration of Dr. Otten’s servant leader behaviors requires an in-depth examination of his life experiences. To this end, a narrative approach specifically an interpretive biographical method is chosen as the study’s research design.

Biography is viewed as “social creation or construction” constituting “both social reality and the subjects’ worlds of knowledge and experience… constantly affirmed and transformed within the dialectical relationship between life history knowledge and experiences and patterns presented by society” (Fischer-Rosenthal, as cited in Rosenthal, 1993, p. 145). Atkinson and Delamont (2006) indicate how narratives can give powerful insight into how human experiences are organized and can enable us to structure understanding about ourselves, other people, and events. The research goals fit the objectives of interpretive biography, because my purpose is to “explain why a person behaves in a certain way [as a servant leader] and examine patterns developing in his or her life” (Atkinson & Delamont, 2006, p. 85). In so doing, the internal and external events that occur in a subject’s life will be given meaning.

Interpretive Biography

Biographical research is generally subdivided into three approaches: a) classical; b) objective hermeneutics or biographical narrative; or c) interpretive (Atkinson & Belmont, 2006). Interpretive biography and classical biography are dissimilar because the former seeks not to “unravel lived experiences but to find meaning in lived experiences” (Rosenthal, 1993, p. 19) and analyze servant leadership through life stories where “narrative segments and categories are isolated and patterns are sought” (Polkinghome, 1995). An interpretive biographical approach will be the most appropriate research design for this analysis of servant leadership.

An interpretive biography is a qualitative research design that provides information on the behavior, beliefs, attitudes, motives, collective discourses, and the development of perceptions on social moralities (Duncan, 2000). According to Norman K. Denzin (1989), a foremost authority on the interpretive biographical method, the life story of a person is not that person’s exclusive property. It can be used to give meaning to behaviors in larger social contexts and collectivities, such as societies, institutions, corporations, and academic communities.

Through an interpretive biographical research design, an examination of presence of the ten characteristics of servant leadership will be drawn with Dr. Otten, a leader in proprietary higher education, as subject. In so doing, the study’s objective of examining the development of servant leaders in higher education institutions that could corroborate or dismiss commonly held theoretical beliefs about the nature and applicability of servant leadership will be met.


Creswell (1998) states that in a biographical study, the subject needs to be an individual “who is accessible, willing to provide information, and distinctive for his accomplishments and ordinariness or who sheds light on a specific phenomenon or issue being explored” (p. 111). Strauss and Corbin (1998) suggests choosing either a “marginal person” or an “ordinary person” who exemplifies a particular population. In a biographical study, Creswell (1998) states that the individual may be someone “convenient” to study, may be a “politically important case,” or may be a “typical” case (Creswell, 1998). In this study, purposeful sampling will be used. Dr. Jim Otten was purposefully selected because he was “ordinary person” who is reputed to be among the few that practice servant leadership. Hence, this study makes a deliberate decision to study Dr. Jim Otten.

The sampling technique to be utilized in this study will the snowball sampling technique which identifies “cases of interest from people who know people who know what cases are information-rich” (Creswell, 1998, p. 119). The first “key informant” for this study will be Dr. Otten who will in turn recommend potential participants who can provide information about the professional life of the subject. For this purpose, Dr. Otten’s close associates and colleagues, subordinates who work for him, and his superiors will make up the pool of participants. The sample size will be determined using theoretical sampling, which is the sampling size fit for biographical study (Denzin, 1989). Theoretical sampling procedure allows the researcher to choose participants who can provide meaningful information about phenomena under consideration (Corbin & Strauss, 1998).

In determining the sample size, authorities in qualitative research suggest “theoretical saturation,” or a method wherein the researcher continues to expand the sample size until “until data collection (e.g. interviews) reveals no new data” (Douglas, 2003, p. 116). Depending on the scope of the research question, theoretical saturation could mean 10, 20, or 30 interviews (Corbin & Strauss, 1998). The actual sample size to reach theoretical saturation is not definite (Corbin & Strauss, 1998) but literature on studies that employed theoretical saturation indicated an average sample size of 24 (Douglas, 2003). This study targets an initial sample size of 30 participants to be interviewed for this interpretive biography.



The primary instrument to be employed for this interpretive biographical research is a semi-structured interview guide containing open-ended questions. The semi-structured interview provides flexibility so that I can be free to engage the participant in conversation in a natural and casual manner and in so doing, gain more insight into the experiences and characteristics of Dr. Otten. Fontana and Frey (1994) express that the semi-structured interview is “more honest, morally sound, and reliable, because it treats the respondent as an equal, allows him or her to express personal feelings, and therefore presents a more realistic picture than can be uncovered using traditional interview methods” (p. 371). Conversely, the highly-structured interview is rigid and vulnerable to the possibility of extracting information and reaction based on the interviewer’s worldview (Merriam, 1998). The instrument will cover the skills, leadership style, and characteristics of Dr. Otten. Participant’s demographic profiles will be collected.


Aside from the interviews, documents and archival information will be gathered to substantiate the information provided on Dr. Otten. Documents such as curriculum vita, academic records, correspondence, and public and private documents will aid in establishing significant aspects of Dr. Otten’s personality and life. These documents will ultimately aid in answering the research question of whether or not Dr. Otten possesses the ten behavioral characteristics of a servant leader.


Several types of materials will be used in order to produce a chain of evidence for the purposes of cross-referencing data (Yin, 2003). I will use the following materials during the course of the study: (a) Tape recorder featuring a multidirectional microphone; (b) Pencil and pen; (c) Highlighters for manual coding purposes; (d) Coding sheet for content analysis; (e) Software for compilation, organization, and analysis of data; (f) World Wide Web for e-mailing purposes; (g) Interview protocol; and (i) Coding protocol.


Before data collection can proceed, approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) will be sought to establish the study’s adherence to ethical guidelines in research work. Primary data will be obtained from interviews which will be conducted. Secondary data will be obtained from field notes and other documents which are germane to the proposed investigation.

Several procedures will be undertaken to ensure the validity and credibility of the study. These are member checking, triangulation, and peer debriefing.

Member checking. This is a method that could help in providing credibility and critique to a research investigation (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Member checking involves the review of the interview transcripts by the participant so that when irregularities and errors are detected, clarifications can be made and changes done.

Triangulation. Triangulation is the comparison of multiple forms of evidence related to the focus of a research investigation. Triangulation establishes convergence of meaning and diminishes the bias borne out of “individual methods,” which are cancelled out in the process (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002. This study will use handwritten field notes aside from the transcripts of the interviews to note significant points that could be of use for further investigation. To corroborate data from informant interviews, other sources such as document and artifacts related to the personal history and professional life of the subject will be used to enhance the validity of the results.

Peer debriefing. Another procedure useful to establish inter-rater reliability is peer debriefing. Qualitative research experts encourage the use of debriefing to “enhance truth value, credibility, or validity of qualitative research” (Merriam, 1998, p. 56). At the beginning of data collection and data analysis, I will meet regularly with two (2) impartial colleagues who will critically review the interview protocol and coding protocol for content analysis and review the methods employed in my dissertation.

Data Collection, Processing, and Analysis

Data Collection

Prior to data collection or any form of communication with the participants, the researcher will obtain approval to conduct the study from North Central University Institutional Review Board (IRB). For participation in the study, the researcher will personally contact Dr. Jim Otten and seek his assistance in recommending and contacting purposefully selected participants for the study. With Dr. Otten’s initial referrals, potential participants will be contacted through phone or email in order to secure their permission to participate in the study. If such persons agree to participate, the researcher will immediately build rapport by letting them know the purposes of the study, procedures, and what to expect in exchange for their participation (Patton, 2002).

The initial contact for this study will be Dr. Jim Otten. He will recommend individuals who would best contribute to an understanding of his professional life and leadership. Participants will be provided a consent form to which they will indicate their approval or participation to be involved in the study. After acceptance of involvement and before the interview proper, the researcher will provide participants with an initial copy of the interview that will contain only core questions to help them prepare and guarantee that substantial information and insight about Dr. Otten will be collected. This technique will also reduce the probability of arranging follow-up interviews to fill missing gaps in information.

Interviews will be conducted at a comfortable and pre-arranged location proximate to the interviewee’s location. At the beginning of each interview, the researcher will review the consent form and ensure that he or she understands its contents and implications. It will also be made clear that the participant can inform the researcher to stop the interview if desired.

Other data will be collected through documents, professional records, curriculum vita, archival materials, and other pertinent materials which could be used to triangulate information from the interviews and to verify the information on the life of Dr. Otten. These materials will be collected from Dr. Otten himself and through library resources and newspaper articles.

Data Processing

Since qualitative research amasses huge amounts of raw data, there is a need to preserve it in an organized and timely fashion (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Merriam, 1998). Merriam (1998) recommends doing the analysis simultaneously with data collection in order to save time. It is anticipated a single interview will last for one hour at the minimum while the transcription process could entail two full days in a single interview. Time-consuming data collection processes are expected and accepted in this study to guarantee high quality. Time will be allotted for reflective processes for the researcher in “pondering the impressions, deliberating recollections and [is] sometimes precoded but continuously interpreted, on first sighting and again and again” (Merriam, 1998, p. 242). Data will be organized to aid data analysis. The transcribed interviews, summaries, field notes, and excerpts from artifacts and documents will be kept in a research journal.

Data Analysis

Data will be subjected to content analysis, which is “a deductive process that involves looking for specific instances of narrative data to fit or illustrate a predetermined content areas or themes” (Norwood, 2002, p. 45). A theme is a phrase which captures the fundamental significance or meaning of a select component of the narrative text (Krippendorf, 2004). The theme serves as backbone to the interpretation of the phenomenon that a researcher tries to understand (Krippendorf, 2004). Following the content analysis guide by Neuendorf (2002), this study follows the nine-step process of content analysis:

1. Theory and Rationale. This study will use Spears’ (1998) Ten Characteristics of Servant Leaders Model to indicate the important content of interest for this study.

2. Conceptualization. There will be ten (10) variables to be used for this study: a) listening; (b) empathy; (c) healing; (d) awareness; (e) persuasion; (f) conceptualization; (g) foresight; (h) stewardship; (i) commitment to the growth of others, and; (j) building community (Spears, 1998). Definitions will be established using relevant literature from Spears and Greenleaf (1970).

3. Operationalization. The researcher will use an a priori coding scheme. There will be predetermined categories based on identified theory to be used for analysis. Two (2) colleagues will critique and agree on the categories before coding can be applied to the data (Weber, 1990).

4. Coding. Human coding will be used for this study. Hence, a coding protocol that contains a full explanation of the variables measured (10 characteristics of servant leaders) will be used. A coding sheet will also be needed.

5. Sampling. Recording units for coding will be defined syntactically, that is, transcripts of the interviews will be coded by sentences, phrases or paragraphs (Weber, 1990). For this study, sampling units will be defined by sentences.

6. Reliability. This study will use inter-rater reliability or the measurement of percentage of agreement among raters. The number of cases coded similarly by the two raters will be added and then divided by the total number of coded cases.

7. Coding: qualitative analysis computer software called nVivo will be used in coding themes embedded in transcripts.

8. Final reliability. Pearson r values will be computed for each variable to establish final reliability figures (Weber, 1990).

9. Tabulation and reporting. A Pareto chart will be used in order to display the coding occurrence for each of the ten (10) variables analyzed in the study. A Pareto chart will allow the researcher to view individual and cumulative frequencies of coding occurrences (Veney, 2003).

As earlier stated, a number of procedures will be undertaken to establish validity and reliability of the results namely member checking, triangulation, and peer debriefing.

Methodological Assumptions, Limitations and Delimitations

This interpretive biography makes several assumptions. First, I assume that subjective information derived from the participants is linked to reality. Second, there are several assumptions inherent in the nature of biographical research. Biographies assume the following: “(1) the existence of others, (2) the influence and importance of gender and class, (3) family beginnings, (4) starting points, (5) know and knowing authors and observers, (6) objective life markers, (7) real persons with real lives, (8) turning point experiences, and (9) truthful statements distinguished from fiction” (Denzin, 1989, p. 17). Third, participants of this study are assumed to have presented information voluntarily.

Ethical Assurances

Prior to data collection, approval will be obtained from the University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). Confidentiality concerns and anxiety over disclosure of information revealed will be considered. The study will not use any names or any identifying information during the audiotaping and transcription process. Names inadvertently revealed during the interview will be edited out of interview transcripts. In place of real names, pseudonyms will be used. Recorded audiotapes will be kept by the researcher and after the publication of the dissertation, chain of evidence will be erased. Further, participants will be assured that they can terminate their participation in the study any moment they wish.


This study proposes a qualitative interpretive biographical method to examine the practice of servant leadership as exemplified by Dr. Jim Otten, a prominent leader in higher education. Interviews will serve as primary data to be triangulated with other pertinent documents related to the personal and professional history of the subject. Participants of the study will include around 30 of Dr. Otten’s close professional associates and subordinates. They will be selected via the snowball sampling method. Content analysis will be used to evaluate and interpret data using nine strategies outlined by Neuendorf (2002). Ethical considerations are outlined and given highest regard.

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