To understand the potential benefits of servant leadership behaviors for university teachers, we draw on social identity theory [32
], which is used to explain how servant leaders make employees feel like they are part of an organization [33
]. This theory focuses on how individuals enhance their positive self-image and self-esteem by relating their self-concept to other social groups [35
]. Social identity theorists suggest that social identity enables an individual to achieve a positive self-concept [35
According to social identity theory, university teachers will achieve a positive self-concept when they are treated by their leaders with respect, politeness, and acceptance. The interpersonal treatment from supervisors is usually regarded as a cue for employees to make inferences about their status and value [38
]. Furthermore, we posit that university teachers with a positive self-concept are likely to engage in innovative behavior, which is beneficial to themselves and their organization [34
]. Linking servant leadership literature with social identity theory, we propose that servant leaders facilitate university teachers’ innovative behavior due to its positive influence on the self-concept of university teachers, indicated by their PIS and OBSE.
2.1. Servant Leadership and Innovative Behavior
The term servant leadership was coined by Greenleaf [40
], who stated that “Servant–Leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first”. Although this statement is the most well-known description of servant leadership, it is inadequate for guiding empirical study [33
]. Eva et al. [33
] defined servant leadership as an other-oriented leadership, in which leaders give priority to their followers’ individual interests and needs, and is reoriented toward concerns for others within an organization and the larger community. Van Dierendonck [18
] presented the characteristics of servant leadership, such as empowering and developing people, humility, authenticity, interpersonal acceptance, providing direction, and stewardship. In line with the “acid test” of servant leadership [40
], employees under servant leadership are likely to engage in positive work-related behaviors, such as organizational citizenship behavior, proactive behavior, and innovative behavior [33
Innovative behavior refers to the production and implementation of useful ideas [41
], which may entail considerable risk taking [43
]. Numerous studies suggested that leadership plays a critical role in the process of innovation [44
]. Krause [46
] developed a model to explain how leadership affects the cognitive process of perceiving that the work setting needs to change and developing innovative behaviors (generate and implement new ideas). The altruism in servant leadership has been proven effective to promote individual creativity or innovative behavior [15
According to social identity theory, social identity is the perception of membership to a social group. Specific emotions and values are created because of this perception of membership to a group [47
], and individuals tend to select and implement activities that are consistent with their social identity [37
]. As an other-oriented leadership, servant leaders are willing to empower and provide opportunities to followers. Owing to the dyadic relationship with servant leaders, employees are likely to develop a strong sense of belonging and acceptance [17
]. Namely, employees under servant leadership are more likely to develop a positive self-concept, which will motivate them to engage in innovative behavior. Specifically, servant leaders establish close bonds with their followers, who are likely to perceive themselves as insiders, thus developing an intrinsic motivation to engage in innovative behavior [17
]. Accordingly, servant leaders make followers feel emotionally safe and hence increase their willingness to generate new ideas and initiate change. Moreover, the purpose of empowering people is facilitating a proactive attitude among followers and developing a sense of personal power [18
], which makes employees feel autonomous and take new challenges. Previous studies also provided support for the positive influence of servant leadership on employee innovative behavior [12
]. Thus, we hypothesize the following:
Hypothesis 1 (H1).
Servant leadership is positively related to university teachers’ innovative behavior.
2.2. The Mediating Role of Self-Concept
Although social identity theory provides a potential perspective for understanding the servant leadership–innovative behavior relationship, the meditating mechanism needs to be further explored. Given that servant leadership reflects high-quality organization–employee relationships, it enables employees to incorporate their statuses as organization members into their self-concept. The influence of servant leadership on innovative behavior can be explained with regard to the experience of self-direction that servant leadership engenders. This experience will motivate employees to challenge themselves and try new ways of working, thus contributing to innovative behavior [43
Accordingly, we expect that self-concept is an important link in the servant leadership–innovative behavior relationship. Self-concept refers to the totality of an individual’s thoughts and feelings in relation to themselves [49
], which involves the dimensions of self-conception and self-evaluation [50
]. In an organizational context, self-concept can be disguised as PIS and OBSE, which reflect the self-conception and self-evaluation dimensions of the self-concept, respectively [43
]. PIS refers to the extent to which employees perceive themselves to be organizational insiders [51
], which reflects a sense of having earned a “personal space” and acceptance inside in their organization [52
]. In contrast, OBSE refers to the degree to which organizational members believe that they can satisfy their role’s needs [53
], which reflects the self-perceived value of importance, competence, and capability within their employing organizations [54
]. The potential mediating mechanism of the two self-concept constructs is predicted based on the notion that the effect of servant leadership on the followers’ innovative behavior is due to the motivational implications of the self-concept [55
Following social identity theory [48
], we expect servant leadership to be associated with the self-concept constructs of PIS and OBSE. For one thing, Takeuchi et al. [38
] suggested that a follower’s sense of belonging to a group is influenced by the interpersonal treatment from leaders. Servant leaders establish close connections with followers through their follower-centric nature, which makes employees perceive themselves to be partners in the organization [33
]. Thus, employees likely perceive themselves as in-group rather than out-group members [57
]. Accordingly, Liden et al. [25
] suggested that servant leadership gives priority to followers’ individual interests and needs, which helps followers develop an identity interlinked with the work group represented by the leaders. Furthermore, servant leadership is associated with PIS because being empowered to take responsibility for certain activities signals an individual’s respected position within an organization. For another, employees with high OBSE are likely to believe that “I count around here” [54
]. As an other-oriented leader behavior, servant leadership will facilitate high levels of OBSE because servant leaders emphasize empowering and developing people. Such empowerment facilitates a proactive work attitude and a sense of ability among followers [18
]. This perception signals to followers that supervisors or organizations consider them important, task-competent, and need-satisfying within the organization [54
]. Further, servant leaders focus on the development of employees’ skills, competence, and abilities [59
], and they provide direction for employees to clarify what is expected of them [18
]. The incorporation of such positive support into an employee’s self-concept can enhance OBSE.
Additionally, we expect the self-concept constructs of PIS and OBSE to be related to innovative behavior. According to social identity theory, employees with a positive self-concept are likely to engage in activities that are consistent with and beneficial to their group membership [34
]. On the one hand, the influence of PIS on innovative behavior can be explained by the motivational implications of the membership. Stamper and Masterson [51
] argued that individuals who perceive themselves to be organizational insiders are likely to accept the responsibilities of citizenship. This acceptance is consistent with social identity theory, which explains why organizational members are willing to undertake extra-role activities that are beneficial to their own and their organization’s future well-being [48
]. The sense of belonging along with PIS will motivate employees to perform the prescribed work role and engage in discretionary work roles, such as innovative behavior [43
]. The existing literature suggested that PIS can stimulate employee innovative behavior [17
]. On the other hand, self-consistency may explain the influence of OBSE on innovative behavior [54
]. Social identity theory suggests that individuals with a positive social identity will strive to maintain and enhance their self-esteem [38
]. Korman [61
] argued that individuals with high OBSE are willing to engage in behaviors that strengthen their positive self-cognition, even if innovative behavior is often accompanied by a fair amount of risks [41
]. Employees who feel capable and competent may take risks and engage more in innovative behavior [43
]. Therefore, we expect the effect of servant leadership on innovative behavior to be indirect, operating through the motivational implications of PIS and OBSE. Thus, we hypothesize the following:
Hypothesis 2 (H2).
PIS and OBSE both mediate the servant leadership–innovative behavior relationship.
2.3. The Moderating Role of LMX
Positive interpersonal relationships between leaders and followers are a key factor for servant leadership to play its role [20
]. Hence, we examined LMX as a moderator in the servant leadership–self-concept relationship. LMX refers to the quality of exchange relationship between leaders and followers based on trust, respect, and obligation [62
]. According to LMX theory, high- to low-quality supervisor–subordinate relationships will be formed, and the quality of the LMX may be reflected in the followers’ self-concept; that is, individuals who develop high-quality relationships with their leaders will be attached psychologically to their work group [63
], paving the way for social identification and fostering the perceptions of insider status and self-esteem [17
The core of servant leadership is to believe in the intrinsic value of each individual [64
]. Servant leaders who show humility, authenticity, and interpersonal acceptance create a favorable working environment, where followers feel trustworthy [18
]. Therefore, the effect of servant leadership on followers’ self-concept may be influenced by the quality of the LMX. According to social identity theory, relational factors, such interpersonal interaction, may affect how individuals identify with a group [38
]. Tajfel and Turner [48
] argued that social identity will be more influential when individuals establish a strong emotional connection with the group; that is, individuals with high-quality LMX may perceive themselves as in-group members, and they can achieve more valuable resources, such as benefits, training, and promotion, which will signal to employees that they have gained insider status [43
]. Meanwhile, self-esteem is partly rooted in the valuable messages transmitted from an organization to its employees [61
]. Such individuals may develop a sense of trust and be more confident to carry out work-related activities; that is, servant leadership will be instrumental for individuals with a high-quality LMX in enhancing not only their perception of their status in a group (PIS) but also their belief that “I count around here” (OBSE).
In contrast, a low-quality LMX is based on economic exchange, which is characterized by low levels of trust, respect, and infrequent interactions between leaders and followers. Employees with low-quality LMX will perform their duties and roles according to the employment contract [62
]. Accordingly, we can expect that the positive effect of servant leadership on the self-concept constructs of PIS and OBSE will be less obvious for individuals with low-quality LMX. Individuals with low-quality LMX are likely to perceive themselves as out-group member [62
]. Further, they feel unable to gain the necessary resources, and their contribution is hardly recognized by their leaders [67
], which will lead to low employee self-esteem. We can expect that a low quality LMX will weaken the positive effect of servant leadership on the self-concept constructs.
Hypothesis 3 (H3).
LMX moderates the relationships between servant leadership and both PIS and OBSE in such a way that the relationships will be stronger for individuals with high-quality LMX than those with low-quality LMX.
Based on the hypothesis above, we further propose a moderated mediation model (see Figure 1
); that is, the quality of the LMX moderates the indirect effect of servant leadership on innovative behavior via the self-concept constructs of PIS and OBSE. Namely, the indirect effect of servant leadership on innovative behavior via the self-concept constructs will be stronger for individuals with high-quality LMX. Thus, we propose the following:
Hypothesis 4 (H4).
LMX moderates the indirect effect of servant leadership on innovative behavior via both PIS and OBSE in such a way that the indirect effect is stronger for individuals with high-quality LMX than those with low-quality LMX.