What do we need to make things work?
In any field, any job, any team, any country - what must we have in order to be sure we are heading to success?
Ask these questions to different people and, for sure, you will get different “ingredients” that are mandatory to complete any task/project/endeavor/work. But, at the same time, in 90% of the cases, one element will always be on the list.
And that element is leadership.
Immaterial and shapeless, always there, but not easy to find, leadership is seen as the panacea for every major challenge. Of course, we don’t ignore the small “pills” from the soft skills batch (e.g. negotiation, motivation etc.) or from the technical assortment (e.g. project management, business analysis etc.). But, every time (lately, at least), the general impression seems to be that they work only in combination with leadership.
According to every (major) “business” book, in order to be successful, you need skills, luck, stars to be aligned correctly and so on. But, apart from all of those, you need leadership!
Every successful recipe and every successful story is not about the despair, the stress and the sick to the stomach that burden the hero before triumph. It’s about how he or she grabs his or her own destiny with bare hands and seizes the right moments, overcoming the challenges. It’s about how he or she exhibits true “leadership”, most of the time, despite the opposition, resistance and/or lack of trust coming from the team or any other stakeholder.
Again, the leadership-panacea worked. The hero-leader “administered” it to the team and it brought results. It doesn’t matter that some of them didn’t respond to this “treatment” or just showed “side-effects” (like demotivation, low efficiency etc.). What matters is that we have another successful story about another “great” leader, ready to share his “unique” example. We have another example of “I did it my way and it worked, thus I am a great leader!”.
And... the tragically comic part is that most of us want it this way. We like the lonely hero (leader?) who manages to get himself or herself “reborn” and wins against all odds, despite the ultimatums.. We are fine with “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs” as long as we aren’t the “eggs”. Ultimately, we savor the “winning” stories and most likely, picture ourselves in the same situations, showing the same power, pushing everybody until their last drop and succeeding no matter what.
Then, in this “power-hailing” environment, what are my chances as a Servant Leader?
Servant Leadership is all about promoting a virtuous cycle “serve<->lead”, focusing on the people and not on self and leading with authority, not power. It’s about patience, kindness, respectfulness, commitment, sacrifice. It’s about finding and understanding the “WHY?” for every one of your followers so you can contribute to his or her development. No universal recipe, no panacea and, most important, no you or we but they.
And, even if it is about others-focused, the change has to start with you, as a Servant Leader. It’s not about what I can do with you or to you (as it was in the hero stories mentioned above). It’s about what I can do for you. So, is there any room for Servant Leadership?
We (meaning our two servant leadership trainers from my company) had recently a workshop with several leaders (CEO, CFO, CTO etc) coming from different companies. They wanted to get acquainted with Servant Leadership and see if this can be a good approach for them (they lead teams with 10 or more people). We did an experiment at the beginning and asked every each one of them to tell us their leadership challenges from both directions - as a leader and as a follower. And, for the follower part, we ask them to make an effort and tell us also what they believe the challenges are for their team (their followers). The list that resulted in the end was impressive but, at the same time, pretty common for this level of management: making people understand the vision and becoming more independent, eliminate fear of outsourcing, having people assuming responsibility and ownership and so one and so forth (on the leadership part) and fear, lack of trust, lack of vision etc. (on the follower side).
We asked also for some solutions to attach to this list. And here we had the most interesting revelations:
1. All of the solutions were focused on what to do TO and WITH the people in order to tackle the lack of vision or bringing independence. “FOR the people” was completely ignored.
2. None of the solutions were actually related to the leader himself - what he needs to change in his behaviour and/or his approach. Everything was meant for the other side - the followers
3. None of them even remotely considered the possibility of understanding WHY the people in their teams behave in such a way that they bring these challenges on the table, WHY they express fear, lack of trust etc.
Even more, when we suggested going back and find out the WHY (the root cause, if you like) for each one of the team members, some of them smiled ironically. In their opinion, that “Why” mumbo jumbo is just about motivating and engaging people. And they already did that ONCE in the past! At this moment, they wanted a clear solution (“pill”?) on how to make them independent, on how to eliminate fear and lack of trust. They needed to take action and show the direction to the team. A suggestion to serve by exploring the needs of each member seemed rather ubiquitous, time consuming and useless (as they already did it ONCE).
Basically, the conclusion was that this is a “tough world” and the leader needs to take action now and to decide what’s best for the team. Competition is fierce, results are needed so we don’t have time for “mellow” stuff like concentrating on meeting people’s needs, finding the why, serve and make sure that the team members perform at their highest potential.
Interesting, isn’t it? There were about 15 companies represented there, with more than 1500 employees (all together). For all of them and for all of us looking for great leadership, I keep and convey my message that closes every presentation I do on Servant Leadership: Anyone can be a Servant Leader.
But are we ready for Servant Leadership?
Parents have great dreams for their children. As soon as we hold our child, for the first time, it seems that an unbeatable “contract” is signed: parents - the “supplier” - will offer all available resources for the child - the “client” - to succeed. It is an “open-ended” contract as it doesn’t have clear targets, goals, ambitions, or even desires. Parents don’t know if they “raise” a doctor, a fireman or a project manager. But, with few exceptions, they know their child will be a fantastic or a great - doctor, fireman etc.. She or he has to be fantastic or great since we - the parents, the “supplier” - are all in. We offer everything and we don’t expect anything but success.
And how do we know that he or she will be great? Or that our full-of-uncertainty endeavor will be successful?
Again, with few exceptions, parents will make the supreme argument - in a magnificent, but really concerning, consensus: that we raise them to be leaders. No matter the area, field, range, territory of operations, our kids will be leaders and will do great.
In plain and simple “contract” terms, in this situation, “being a leader” translates into: get above the others, acquire and utilize your amazing competencies that some others may have also, but they cannot “use” them as you do. You need to show the path to others, but always be “number one”. In a nutshell, be a leader first and we - as parents - can guarantee a big rate of success.
I don’t want to fight this wrong (in my opinion) attitude. Every parent has the right to dream big for his or her child. And, at the same time, he or she has the right to try to fulfill this dream in his or her own manner.
However, following “the leader first” logic in a Servant Leadership context, I was wondering:
How can we teach Servant Leadership to our children?
This question arises almost in every discussion/webinar/conference on the Servant Leadership. The whole philosophy of Servant Leadership is based on “Serve First”. A Servant Leader is a leader but without being “number one”. He or she will exercise a “paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will” (Jim Collins) in order to engage and develop others. “Get above the others” means, in a Servant Leadership context, to find the right and correct way to serve “the others” in order to become a great leader.
Coming back to the unbeatable “contract” and its expectations, a Servant Leadership approach seems to contradict the “big dream” path. It suspiciously “reduces” personal visibility and promotes humility instead of (supposedly, a more penetrating) aggressiveness. Most of all, it rules out the power-positioned leadership (based on coercion, force and position) for an authority-situated one. Personal influence and trust are the most important currencies “traded” in this latter approach. They replace the former final and recurrent argument “I am your appointed boss”. Instead of an almighty position to make people do my will, I - the doctor, the lawyer, the project manager, etc…, will influence them to get the job done willingly. It doesn’t sound fantastic or great anymore, does it?
For me, it sounds...amazing. To have my daughter leading people to work enthusiastically toward goals identified as being for the common good is something I would be happy to promote. I am all in for helping her learn how to be “others-focused” (Jim Collins) and how to become a strong professional that will do the right thing for her people and for her organization. This way, for sure, she will build great character traits and be a...fantastic Servant Leader.
You shouldn’t worry, the infamous question from above hasn’t been forgotten. Addressed again, but more personalized, it will be:
How can I teach Servant Leadership to my child?
Actually, paradoxically, I can’t! She has to see if this is the right journey for her. I will present her the “available” options from out-there and offer all my help (based on my experiences). And all of these (again) so she can choose the leader she wants to be. I will be a true Servant Leader for her. It is tougher this way. But - for me - it seems the right way to do it in order to leave the choice for her life to the rightful owner – my daughter.
Are you ready, as a “supplier”, to do the same in both your personal and professional life?