There is a lot of talk today about “servant leadership." It's a management buzzword that is controversial and, I believe, very misunderstood. The controversy usually arises from the counterintuitive nature of the concept. How can you lead and serve? Sounds like a recipe for leadership failure, no?
I believe it is the only leadership approach that works. This isn’t mere conjecture. I have discovered the hard way, after over twenty years of using traditional position-based leadership style, (I often refer to myself as a “reformed arsehole”) that being a bossy-boss simply doesn't work.
All the modern workplace desirables- engagement, happiness, productivity, low turnover, mastery, cohesiveness, etc. are all the result of a consistent message you send your team.
My leadership style was typical of the time- “I’m the boss, you’ll do what I say or else!” I began my culinary career in 1972 when smoking while working was permitted and the concept of workplace happiness would have been considered mutinous. I like to refer to those days as “pre-HR”! In the kitchens of the day, the chefs were downright abusive. They would hurl profanities and whatever was in reach at anyone who dared question their authority. They were the proverbial captain of a pirate ship, where “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”
We all excepted this form of leadership. It was all we knew. I often muse about going back in time to my first place of employment and trying to enlighten my old chef about workplace happiness and employee engagement. There is no doubt they would have thought me daft and had me walk the plank. So much has changed since 1972- not only more enlightened HR practices, but also the science behind what builds happy, high-performing teams.
Nearly 50 years since my first workplace experience, and 25 years practicing servant leadership, I now understand that it's not about technique, but about action. People don’t care about what you say, they care about what you do. All the modern workplace desirables- engagement, happiness, productivity, low turnover, mastery, cohesiveness, etc. are all the result of a consistent message you send your team.
What humans need from leaders is a balanced and high-effective approach we call Connect and Direct. Written as an equation: Connect + Direct = Servant Leadership. When leaders know how to connect with their team and also know how to direct them in a manner that produces positive results, they are Servant Leaders.
Trust is the word we have given to a feeling of safety and belonging that humans need to give the better part of themselves to an organization. It's a primal defense mechanism controlled by our brains. Trust or the lack of trust derives from a nanosecond reaction in our primitive limbic brain; our fight or flight center. Humans are now at the top of the food chain, so we no longer run from Saber Tooth Tigers. We now use that powerful instinct around the workplace.
Trust inspires loyalty, engagement, creativity, and actual makes us happy. When we are happy all the learning centers in our brains turn on. We are truly at our best. So- happiness is good business. Understanding human nature is a necessity for servant leaders. Many of my clients tell me, “I don’t understand my people." Being a student of human nature and discovering what motivates and inspires your team is paramount for the servant leader. A trusting, motivated, inspired team is rocket fuel for your business.
Servant Leadership has three requirements:
- Love your people
- Be a student of human nature
- Take 100-percent responsibility
Yes- love. Caring deeply about your team is the entrance fee for all the benefits you will reap as a servant leader. If you have no empathy, get someone who can be a leader who actually cares. Perhaps you need to discover why you don’t like people anymore. I’m sure they have disappointed you. Get over it and move on.
I am suggesting being a student of human nature, not an expert. Being a student simply means having empathy and look to understand your people in a parental-like approach. Why is it we love our family unconditionally but leave that sentiment at home. We can often treat our team members like “others," not really people. Your journey as a student of human nature starts with some simple facts about humans:
● They only do what they really want to do.
● They don’t care about What, they only care about Why.
● They need Purpose.
As a new servant leader you now live in a no-victim/no-excuse zone. You must take 100-percent responsibility for your every action and that of every team member. Many leaders pass the buck and pass the blame. Servant Leaders use “the window and the mirror”- they look to praise and give credit when things go well (The window) and they take the blame when things don’t go quite so well (the mirror). This behavior is contagious and will become a part of your culture. It will eliminate the blame game and the victim mentality that is so prevalent in today’s workplace.
Now that you have connect and built the needed level of trust, how do you execute? You must continue to build and maintain trust while you direct your team towards the organization’s desired goals. This means communicating consistently with your team. Think of it as a series of questions that your team is asking. Answer these questions and you will have powerful engagement and productivity levels in your organization. Your team needs to know:
- What’s important? Share your vision, purpose, values, cause, primary focus.
- What is my role? Help your team understand their special place and value
- What do you want me to do? Give your team clear, measurable, attainable goals. Coach for competency and accountability.
- Are you worth following? Consistent Integrity. Live your culture. Admit when you are wrong.
- How am I doing? Commit to regularly scheduled (no less than once a month) one-on-ones.
- How is the team doing? Transparency is key. Communicate openly and often.
- Does what we do matter? People don’t care about WHAT, they can only care about WHY. Ensure your organization is about more than generating a profit.
These seven questions need to be answered everyday by a leader who wants to maintain trust, create engagement and insure execution.
So, servant leadership is the way a leader behaves, consistently delivering the kind of message to the team that builds trust and engagement. It is probably best to call this approach a leadership habit. It is about actively, habitually connecting and directing people and then coaching and directing them toward their individual goals while achieving the organization's goals. An engaged team is the economic engine of any successful organization.