Servant leadership is the need of the hour

Culture  Leadership
17 August, 2020

Why the “serve first, lead second” philosophy is important during periods of uncertainty

Recently, a colleague was talking about wartime versus peacetime leaders. She felt that the current pandemic calls for wartime leaders. Almost 10 years back, entrepreneur/author Ben Horowitz had written a post to trigger this distinction:

Peacetime leaders employ techniques to encourage broad-based creativity and contribution across a diverse set of possible objectives. In wartime, by contrast, the company typically has a single bullet in the chamber and must, at all costs, hit the target ….

Peacetime CEO focuses on the big picture and empowers her people to make detailed decisions. Wartime CEO cares about a speck of dust on a gnat’s ass if it interferes with the prime directive….

Peacetime CEO does not raise her voice. Wartime CEO rarely speaks in a normal tone….

Peacetime CEO works to minimize conflict. Wartime CEO heightens the contradictions… 

Peacetime CEO strives for broad based buy in. Wartime CEO neither indulges consensus-building nor tolerates disagreements

In March this year, US President Donald Trump said, “This is a war….A number of people have said it . . . and I feel it, actually: I’m a wartime president.” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has also been describing himself as a wartime leader recently.

While the wartime analogy might be appealing to some, I wonder if this is a misleading template for these times. The current pandemic is more than a war – how long it will last for, how widespread the impact will be and how we will get through this are such big unknowns. We need levels of trust, creativity, tenacity, empowerment and collaboration like never before. About five years ago, I had shared a piece on ‘servant leadership’. My thoughts have been returning to this philosophy again and again over the past few months. So, this week, my message takes another look on the importance of servant leadership, especially during periods of uncertainty.

According to a recent global analysis by Odgers Berndtson, 95 percent of executives believe that managing rapid changes – including pandemics, climate change and technological disruption – are critical for a company to succeed in today’s world. Yet only 15 percent feel that their top leadership is equipped to navigate such shifts. So, where are we falling short?

Many leaders are overly focused on the trappings of success and their own self-interests – power, status and money. This type of leadership is even more damaging today, in the midst of a global crisis. When the wellbeing of team members become an afterthought, the very fabric of the company is weakened, leaving it unable to pivot and extra-vulnerable to external shocks.

I believe one key problem is that many leaders are overly focused on the trappings of success and their own self-interests – power, status and money. When this happens, our egos take over and make us self-serving. Obsessed with outcomes and personal gain, we start treating our team members as a means to an end. This type of leadership is even more damaging today, in the midst of a global crisis that is creating seismic shifts. When the wellbeing of team members become an afterthought, the very fabric of the company is weakened, leaving it unable to pivot and extra-vulnerable to external shocks.

Trust, inspiration and collaboration – which are the bedrock of innovation and resilience – cannot be commanded. Only when people feel valued and know that their leader has their back will they be inspired to look out for each other, go the extra mile and bring their brightest ideas to the table. What we need, therefore, are leaders who put themselves at the service of their team members.

“Serve first, lead second” – this is the advice from Ken Blanchard, celebrated management expert. Keep in mind that a service mindset doesn’t mean being meek or wishy-washy. As Daniel Cable explains in his Harvard Business Review article, How Humble Leadership Really Works: 

Humility and servant leadership do not imply that leaders have low self-esteem, or take on an attitude of servility. Instead, servant leadership emphasises that the responsibility of a leader is to increase the ownership, autonomy, and responsibility of followers – to encourage them to think for themselves and try out their own ideas.

The term ‘servant leader’ was coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf, an ex-AT&T employee and management theorist. Servant leaders make it their priority to care for their teams, unlock their potential and help them grow – rather than leading through authority and domination. This means shifting from the traditional boss mindset of “You must respect and serve me” to “I will respect and serve you”.

This idea sounds radical in today’s corporate context, but it has been advocated by prominent figures through history. All the way back in the 4th century BC, Indian philosopher and royal advisor Chanakya wrote these words in the Arthashastra: 

…the king (leader) shall consider as good, not what pleases himself but what pleases his subjects (followers); the king (leader) is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people.

Now, new research from the EMLyon Business School in France has found that not only does servant leadership improve employee morale and engagement but also boosts financial performance. As Vincent Giolito, a professor of strategy who worked on the study, explains: 

There has always been the suspicion that servant leaders have better performance because they may be ‘nice’ to their teams, which could be at the company’s expense… By showing servant leadership as conducive to profit, we may help resolve a fundamental tension between team members and shareholders.

An excellent example of servant leadership comes from Simon Sinek, who has shared the inspiration behind his book, Leaders Eat Last. What is the secret behind the legendary loyalty, cooperation and effectiveness of the US Marine Corps? Go to any ‘chow hall’ in the world and see the order in which the Marines are served meals: junior-most members first, and senior-most officers last. There is no written rule instructing leaders to eat last; they do so because they view leadership as a responsibility, not as a rank.

Caring for and supporting your team members will win their hearts and minds, unleash their talent, and enable them to bring their best selves to work. Here are five ways in which you can practice servant leadership, especially during an upheaval like the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Step up the connect

Many leaders have been proactive about reaching out to clients and partners to reassure them during this turbulent period. But how many have done the same with their team members?

This is a great opportunity for leaders to provide more direction and support to our teams. Do find ways to significantly dial up the connect with your team. Employees are understandably feeling very anxious and have a lot of questions on their minds. While you won’t have most of the answers, it is important to regularly communicate in an open and transparent manner. Daily check-ins, weekly huddles, monthly townhalls and frequent one-on-ones are some of the ways to ensure that you are in close touch with your team members. Use these forums to answer any questions, demonstrate care about the wellbeing of your team, express gratitude and make them feel safe. Convey realistic optimism and strive to make your team members stay positive.

Do take the time to reach out and have informal chats with your team members. Ask them how they are feeling and what you can do to help them. It is also important to get regular feedback. Pulse surveys or other mechanisms to get continuous feedback can be especially useful during this time. You will better understand the areas that are causing stress and what you can try to do to make things better. Don’t make assumptions about what your team members need. Make the effort to truly listen to them. Encourage them to speak up.

2. Empower teams, with purpose

In times of chaos, you might see team members running helter-skelter, often working at cross purposes. There is an air of confusion and nobody seems to know exactly what they’re expected to do – or why. Not only does this cost the company in terms of productivity but also demoralises the workforce. Without a tangible end-goal or an understanding of how you fit into the bigger picture, it’s impossible to find any meaning or joy in work.

Creating clarity around purpose and goals is probably the most important responsibility of any leader – even more so when the surrounding environment is ambiguous. Make an effort to explain the organisation’s broader purpose (which may have shifted under stress), then lay out specific objectives for each team member. Don’t make assumptions about what they know: spell it out, encourage questions and address doubts. After that, leave it to them to accomplish their task. Offer support, but make it clear that they’re the ones in charge. This is the foundation of creating ownership and empowerment at the workplace.

3. Exude a sense of control

Try to be calm and confident. You can be honest about future uncertainty, but don’t appear anxious or helpless – this can spread panic through the ranks. If you’re feeling worried and shaky, take some time to compose yourself before speaking to your team. Try to anticipate what their key concerns will be. What steps can you take, immediate as well as in the long term, to protect them from the fallout? It’s important to create a sense of control as well as identify concrete actions for people to rally around. As business researcher and author Marcus Buckingham says: The best leaders take anxiety and turn it into confidence.

4. Share the sacrifice

Servant leaders place the interests of their team ahead of their own. They are willing to make sacrifices to protect their team members.Over the past few months, many leaders have taken salary cuts. Some have pledged to not layoff employees. Employees expect leaders to also bear the brunt. You cannot have one standard for yourself and one for the team. If you expect your team members to be in the trenches, you should also be there with them. If you need your employees to make some sacrifices, then you need to lead by example. Research done by Prof Stephanie Johnson of the University of Colorado, suggests that self-sacrifice by leaders during crises makes employees feel more positively toward their leaders and more committed to their organizations.

5. Focus on growth  

As we hunker down, there is a risk of becoming more task-oriented and getting consumed by short-termism and fire-fighting. In our desire to be more efficient, we can become siloed in our thinking and transactional in our relationships. With many people still working from home, structured learning and development of our team members can take a backseat. Meaningful discussions on new growth opportunities for the business can get side-tracked. Leaders need to get these important issues back on the agenda. With remote working, this won’t be easy. However, it is important to have regular conversations on the development plans of your team members. Guide them and support them more on their personal and professional growth during this time. Ensure that you are breaking the barriers and finding the ways to come together as a team to share and brainstorm on the opportunities the crisis might provide.

Servant leaders put the interests of their teams first. They empower them to accomplish their goals and inspire them to innovate and grow. Harness a service mindset to infuse your leadership with purpose, with the added bonus of improving financial performance.


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