Servant leadership is a hot topic these days, and rightly so. The traditional leadership model – a powerful individual sitting at the top of a hierarchy, issuing orders and making decisive, unilateral calls – has no place in a modern business.
Today’s servant-leader is interested in unleashing the skills, passion and initiative of everyone in the organisation. When that happens, decision making no longer needs to come solely from above. Power is shared, people rise to new challenges, and overall performance rises.
I’m a firm believer in this approach because it’s good for employees and good for our clients. But like any approach, it shouldn’t necessarily be swallowed whole. One popular claim about servant leadership that raises a red flag for me is that this type of leader puts the needs of others first.
It seems to me that a true leader puts the aims of the organisation first, then selects employees who are aligned with those goals so that they and the organisation can flourish.
I’ve taken that approach in my business, and am constantly amazed at the creative solutions that our employees come up with to problems that would leave me scratching my head. Not only that, but often those solutions are delivered to the client before I even hear about them.
That’s what I call power.
Successful adults don’t want their needs taken care of – they want to know that what they’re doing makes a difference, and does so in a way that’s meaningful to them personally.
In his wonderful book “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” Sebastian Junger talks about US war veterans who’ve put themselves in harm’s way to save their buddies on the battlefield, only to return home to a country that doesn’t need them, whereupon many have become withdrawn, depressed and even suicidal.
Why so alive in the face of danger, yet so dead when back home safe? Because, as Junger puts it, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
Except when an employee is facing exceptional circumstances – as we all do from time to time – I don’t see my role as putting their needs first. My role is to provide them with challenges that stretch and enliven them, and also support the company’s goals. That is, to ensure they know how necessary they are, and to give them the tools and authority to get the job done.
I would caution any leader who put others’ needs first to check on how that plays out in reality. Do you have your eye on the company’s goals when asking what those needs are, or have you become a shoulder to cry on when things don’t go well? If the latter, you’re not being a leader; you’re being a therapist. (By the way, if an employee does need therapy, see that they get it.)
Servant leaders expect their people to deal powerfully with the challenges that come their way and give them plenty of room to try and fail. True leaders rarely, if ever, fix or solve a problem for someone else.
Servant leaders prefer people to make the occasional courageous mistake than be timid and make no difference. (And they expect people to learn from their mistakes.)
They are interested in building leaders around them. They recognise that leadership can show up in many different ways, but most of all in a willingness to assume responsibility in service of the customer. That kind of leadership doesn’t require a job title and is available to anyone.
Above all, servant leaders recognise that success is less a function of who heads the business, and more about the quality, passion and confidence of the team doing the work.
Effective employees rarely need taking care of. They need an environment that demands the best of them and rewards them for performing.