Monday 8 October 2018

The Sacrifices of the Servant Leader

Being in a position of leadership is a mixed blessing. Many of us starting out in our careers assume that achieving a position of leadership, and the respect that comes with it, is something to ultimately aspire to. Others don't feel this calling and at some point on their career path decide that a position of deep expertise is more suited to their skills. Some end up in leadership without any real concept of what their approach is - after all many people are promoted into a leadership role from a technical position without any real training or initiation into the role. Many such folks tend to 'find their style' rather than intentionally selecting a particular approach based on their personality or context - in my experience this can result in some rather unpleasant and dictatorial work environments.

Having studied management science in the past I have found that as I've moved into senior roles my approach has been guided heavily by my former studies on management, leadership and motivation. Whilst not a purist in any sense, I do find that the concept of 'servant leadership' is one I can strongly associate with. Research, and my own experience, suggests that the approach - whereby leadership is delivered through promoting collective decision making and supporting teams in taking responsibility - is very effective at leading teams to successful results, particularly when compared to more autocratic approaches. This success can, however, come at some personal cost to the leader themselves....

What is servant leadership and why is it a good idea?

I don't particularly like the term servant leader. It under-sells itself as a term, for me coming across rather weak and woolly. The reality could not be further from this. Yes servant leadership is a more supportive approach than other approaches, but it's a hard approach to adopt that takes strength and commitment to deliver.

  • A servant leader will seek to bring together diverse opinions rather than dictating their own ideas with a focus on inclusive decision making
  • Servant leadership is built around the idea of culture of mutual trust between leader and team which requires a high level of openness and honesty
  • The aim of a servant leader is to encourage others to take responsibility and provide support to improve their ability to do so
  • A servant leader places a high level of autonomy on teams and motivates people to step up and deliver

This definitely correlates with my style of leadership. I believe that building strong autonomous teams containing the right balance of skills and supporting them through a process of collaborative decision making provides the greatest opportunity for long term high performance and incremental improvement.

Does it work

I can appreciate that one person's experience does not provide for exhaustive evidence. Also my personal approach isn't one of 'pure' servant leadership. Last year I took an IDEOU course in creative leadership which identified 3 types of leadership.

  • Leading with a strong point of view
  • Leading through culture
  • Leading alongside

Servant leadership ties in strongly with the last of these. I agreed with the couse approach that to be effective this needs to be combined with other leadership approaches that can be adopted at appropriate times. This allows a leader to establish a vision and culture necessary to establish an environment that supports servant leadership.

In the situations where I have personally succeeded in creating such an environment and adopting an approach aligned with the principles above, I've experienced significant benefits as compared to other leaders that I've seen adopt a more autocratic standpoint

  • Team motivation - Being more inclusive in decision making really does motivate everyone to contribute ideas. I find that people respond well to being part of a decision making process and really engage as part of a team that makes their decisions and deals with their mistakes collectively.
  • Not hiding the problems - Playing a supportive role for people working in your department helps to more quickly spot the problems and keep them out in the open. Rather than having a culture of hiding bad news from the boss, keeping problems out in the open helps to identify where genuine and useful improvements can be achieved.
  • Collective Responsibility - Delegating responsibility for decisions helps to ensure that people are genuinely considering the risks and benefits of what they are doing. One of the biggest dangers of command and control leadership is that those implementing decisions are aware of the problems that may arise from them, but don't act on this as they have no personal responsibility for the negative outcome
  • In it together - Adopting a standpoint of serving the team provides a sense of being all in it together which makes it easier to drive through difficult times or raise and discuss challenging subjects. I recently raised a subject with my team around some potentially negative habits which, as an autocratic leader would have made them very defensive. Instead I discussed whether there were any underlying causes and whether the habits indicated problems with direction or motivation that I could help with. As a result we had an honest and open discussion without animosity about a potentially emotional subject.
  • Knowing how to help - When problems do arise I find that a servant leader approach actually positions me well to help the team to work through and deliver. When I've been in a more isolated 'pure management' role relative to a team with problems I've found my input very limited. There's nothing worse as a leader than being limited to repeating platitudes and passing ineffective generic advice on issues that I don't really understand.

With this in mind - I'm not about to change my approach to leadership in a hurry, however it's not all plain sailing...

Challenges of being a servant leader

Given all the benefits I've outlined why at the start did I suggest that being a servant leader may not be so great for the leader themselves?

I think the main challenge is that, being an effective servant leader is only possible if you work within and among the people who report to you. Unfortunately this can diminish your standing from the perspective of other with different ideas on what leaders look like.
It's a frustrating dichotomy that to be a really effective leader requires humility and the abdication of ego, yet doing so may undermine some people's perception of you as a strong leader and can place at risk some of the 'respect' that comes with a position of leadership. In a world that increasingly promotes individual 'profile' and accomplishment, delegating responsibilities and achievements is something that may appear to place our profile on the back foot on a few different fronts.

In the team

  • Not leading the charge - It can be hard to give up being the one at the front. For someone used to setting direction it can be unnerving to accept input from others on the best approach. This is something that I have got used to, while at the same time having to remind myself not to be too defensive about my own opinions.
  • Finding the time for strategic thinking - Leaders will naturally have responsibilities for strategic direction and long term planning that may not be the focus of other members of the group. Yes we can coordinate group planning and strategy workshops, but ultimately the responsibility for strategy will lie in leadership and it can be hard to carve out time to do this when operating to support the day to day team activity. I find that taking time away from the office at fixed times (e.g. 'Strategic' Work from Home Wednesday mornings) helps to step into that more long term mindset and ensure the important long term considerations aren't forgotten.
  • Constant questioning can be demotivating - This is one that I find personally tiring. While the dictatorial leader can issue JFDI commands and expect unquestioned obedience, a servant leader can and should expect to have to justify their decisions. This undoubtedly results in a lot more consideration of the decisions that you make, which overall is a good thing but can become tiring if you are having to do preparations worthy of a court prosecutor to progress decisions. There's a balance to be had here and in my current role I've worked to establish an expectation around the degree of questioning that is appropriate. This is based on trust in my decisions and has been necessary to ensure we avoid justification paralysis and avoid the risk of not being able to progress anything.
  • Bring together opinions - Inevitably when it comes to collective decision making not all opinions will align and individuals sometimes come to loggerheads over which approach to take. This is when the strength inherent in servant leadership really comes apparent. Being able to bring opinions together into a considered approach that everyone at least supports is critical to avoid ongoing resentment and counter-productive behaviour towards other people's ideas.
  • Being T-shaped - As part of an effective Square-shaped team, leaders need to be T-shaped people as much as everyone else. This inevitably means having to learn basics of a lot of skills at a level that allows you to understand and evaluate options, if you are to drive decisions that others respect.

Amongst other leaders

  • Underestimation resulting from not visibly making all decisions - Allowing others to drive success and supporting them in doing so means stepping out of the limelight so that others can step in. In environments of competitive leadership this can seem like a personal sacrifice.
  • People think it’s easy - This is an unfortunate consequence and something I've encountered a few times. When you are running effective teams or departments with little fuss, this can result in others' perceiving your situation as somehow easier than if you're battling disorganisation and discord.
  • Less credit for achievements - Inevitably when working to share collective responsibility and recognition for work there's less of a sense of personal achievement. Whilst this is both right and good, it is still a relative sacrifice when compared to the high level of individual achievements that we may have enjoyed through education and early career. It's right and good for those not in leadership roles to get the lion share of recognition for their efforts - after all being in a leadership role in itself is an ongoing reward for achievements of the past. At the same time it's important to gain appropriate acknowledgement for your achievements so maintaining a solid professional profile both internally and externally e.g. on LinkedIn is a good way of tracking your own achievements.
  • Less time for leadership positioning - Leading from alongside a team requires a much higher level of involvement in day-to-day work than high altitude command and control behaviour. This is time consuming and can result in having less time for general high level relationship building that's key to progressing oneself and influencing the higher level decisions in a company. Just as maintaining time for strategic work is important, so too is taking the time to maintain solid relationships with your peers and ensure that your close connection to practical delivery doesn't diminish your internal credentials.

What flavour respect

At the start of this post I used the word Respect to describe an aspirational goal for those pursuing leadership roles. In a literal sense this seems harmless and should be something that we should all expect and drive for. In a leadership context it's one, as I've stated above, that we fear is most at risk when we adopt a servant leadership oriented approach. Respect however is nuanced, and I'd argue that respect is a word that has negative connotations as well as positive, and I personally place much higher value on some sources of respect than others:-

  • I value respect from my teams, however I would never expect to insist that they respect me purely through my position.
  • I value respect from my peers, whilst at the same time not wanting to receive that respect for values that I don't believe in.
  • I don't believe that respect should ever come through fear, such as wielding the power of hiring and firing.

I think that with an approach aligned with servant leadership, respect comes mutually. It gets greater over time and is strengthened rather than diminished by admitting mistakes and admitting others opinions may be more valid. It is reinforced by taking on board others' ideas and including them in decisions.

Most importantly respect for the servant leader is received because it is given. For me that provides the strongest basis for deserving it, so even if the principles of servant leadership may present some challenges on the way, I don't see myself giving up on them any time soon.



Robert Day said...

I've never been a manager in a workplace situation (though I've had other roles that have been of similar status), but I've taken a professional interest in the way management is done and I've had to work in a voluntary capacity against some of the worst excesses of traditional management styles.

I think you've missed one other thing that I've seen and done in the past. The servant leader promotes the achievements of other team members. They assign credit for good or constructive work done by colleagues and don't take credit themselves for others' achievements.

I've done that myself when I've seen colleagues who have been less confident at promoting themselves. I suspect this in turn helps reinforce the status of the servant leader as a leader (whether they want that status or not).

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