“Because I said so…”. This is a “powerful” sentence that (almost) every child has heard at least once. When they are criticized, misunderstood or just denied of what they want (with no explanation whatsoever), a child’s first impulse is either to dissolve into tears and/or to push back, puffing and woofing angrily towards the “repressor/enemy” (usually an adult). They want to show that they are in pain (psychologically) and frustrated.
But when you are 4 or 5 or 7 years old, it’s almost impossible to describe eloquently your state of mind, your emotions. It’s much easier to display them. This is why, in those particular moments, children begin to shout, whimper or scream. They actually begin to (what psychologist call) act-out (their feelings/emotions/ frustrations).
And guess what? In the adult world, it’s almost the same.
As adults, we learn to restrain (even repress) ourselves from physically exhibiting our (deep) emotions. We try to explain them, rationalise them as much as possible. However, as soon as somebody is “pushing” (harder) our buttons, we tend to return to our inner (indignant) child. We sulk, puff and woof, retreating from that conversation or, quite the opposite, retaliating in a strong, powerful manner. And, more often than we think, we want to protect ourselves by being more offensive. Instead of understanding our fears, insecurities and self-doubts, we block them and, most importantly, we turn them back on our opponent/”enemy”.
Didn’t you feel, after a dense, heated conversation and after you had time to cool off, that you might have just overreacted? That some of the actions you took and/or replies you uttered seemed (after you cooled off) exaggerated and inflamed considering the light weight of the topic itself?
That’s because you acted-out your state of mind. In that particular moment, the anger you experienced came from the fear that you will not get what you need/want, that you are not loved, not respected, not included/accepted by the group.
Isn’t that exactly how it was when we were kids, only with more psychological “baggage” accumulated over the years? We are adults now, we can be angry and fight back with more power and more means. We can win this one - not like when we were kids.
Oh, this is such an illusion…
Now, imagine all of these for an individual in a leadership position. The number of threats and (possible) conflicts rise exponentially. Higher expectations and greater ambition bring an increased level of stress and anxiety. All of the repressed fears, emotions find an easier way to surface and the individual (the leader?!?) is more prone to act-out in difficult times such as short deadlines, conflicting teams, disgruntled employees, stressful projects and more. Just like in childhood, acting-out brings (most of the time) many disadvantages and problems in any human relation.
Obviously, we wonder if we can avoid these situations as much as possible or, at least, reduce their probability. It’s hard to give a recipe for such a complex psychological matter.
However, I would venture a guess and offer three key elements that, in my opinion, any individual should focus on if she/he wants to be a better person (and, consequently, a better leader). As a side note - these are also core elements of servant leadership and promoted as such.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, I am sure. Emotions, sensations, feelings, fears: all of them are part of a “world” that constitutes the foundation of any relationship; being personal or professional. Therefore, we must not ignore them but try to understand and have them work for our benefit as individuals, especially, for the ones aspiring to lead.
To be the leader everyone expects today, we need to heal the “wounds” from yesterday or, at least, acknowledge and start working on them. And this is the toughest leadership decision that any of us wishing to lead has to make.
Are you up for it?
There is an old saying in the Medical world - “There are no healthy individuals in the world. The ones that pretend to be must have been insufficiently examined for physical and/or psychological issues”. And, for the latter, the “usual” split is between “neurotics and persons with character disorders”.
Neurotics are individuals who assume too much responsibility and, when in conflict, they always blame themselves. Their speeches are full of phrases like: “I ought to”, “I should/shouldn’t” - illustrating their assumed “inferiority” doubled always by (what they feel that are) wrong decisions. Au contraire, individuals with character disorders run away from responsibility and, in conflict, they always blame “the world”. The speech of an individual with character disorder will rely on “I can’t/couldn’t” or “I have/had to”, always accusing “no power of choice” and the external forces that act beyond his or her control. There is also a combination - called “character neurotics” - describing individuals who fail to find the balance in assuming responsibility in different situations.
In fact, the whole classification is built around responsibility and the pain and effort that this might bring. Assuming it too much and at a wrong time can bring a lot of bad consequences (and associated pain). Running away from it in crucial moments can ruin everything - results, relationships etc. Finding the right balance constitutes one of the most difficult problems of our lives.
And, unfortunately, nowadays, existing environments don’t make it easier for us. All around us, there are forces that exert pressure and these forces are getting bigger and bigger: tighter deadlines, higher payments, greater expectations etc. We start to feel psychologically unsafe and either attempt to pass the responsibility to other individuals/organisations or assume too much, get too exposed and burn out quickly in a huge amount of stress.
Responsibility has become the “tiger in the room”. We either run like hell from it or jump in front of it, waiting to be eaten. As soon as we no longer have the instruments - the whip and chair - to tame the tiger and to show our power, we run and hide or expose and accept the fate. Instead, we should use our authority and try to cope, dominate and even, love the “tiger”.
In this last case, the effort is huge. It requires discipline, a lot less ego and more emotion than rationality. We suffer more and gratification is delayed. However, this way our self-growth will get a boost and, most importantly, as leaders, we will be ready to help and nurture our team members’ growth/development.
Let me recap: use authority instead of power, delay gratification to obtain a more sustainable result, less ego (other-focused), more emotion and feelings and, most of all, loving that “tiger” - knowing when/what is your responsibility and when/how to let it go and trust your team, your peers, your colleagues. For me (at least), this sounds a lot like Servant Leadership.
How about you - Are you ready to take responsibility and “love the tiger”?
The word “servant” triggers (in many situations) goose-bumps on individuals aspiring to be leaders. We are wired to perceive it as a “status-reducing” label, as a way to mark the limits for a second-class role (or, even worse, an individual). Associating it with strong, powerful noun - like leadership or leader - doesn’t make it better.
In fact, in this case - servant leadership or servant leader - the term “servant” (officially, a noun) is perceived more like an adjective, diminishing the force of its more famous associate. I always look at people’s faces when this topic is brought to the table. I actually started a little experiment. When asked about what I am most passionate about and what my favourite speaking topic is, I answer first with “I am really into [or] I really like to speak about leadership…”. My conversational partner’s face lights up (“Oh, another one…” - he might be thinking) and he asks - ready to share and engage in a small debate - “What kind of leadership?”.
As soon as the “infamous” association - servant leadership - leaves my mouth, the just-created magic disappears. I can see disorientation and confusion in my interlocutor’s eyes. The comfortable smile is replaced by a suspicious scowl and, most probably, questions start popping into his or her mind - “What the hell is this? You are either a servant, or a leader. Are you mocking me?”
The reduction-effect of “servant” upon “leadership” - which I described earlier - is almost instantaneously present. Everybody loves Leadership and are willing to talk about this “amazing, sensible and always up-to date” topic. We need leaders and leadership. They are vital for our success, for our well-being, for our society. But...Servant Leadership? Servant Leaders? It seems to degrade the powerful noun.... leadership - as we were wired to perceive it.
We put our leaders on a really high pedestal. Even if they don’t want to be there, we elevate them. In many situations, this is the only way we can see (as in “perceive”) them as leaders. We need to see them at any moment, to have them in front, (literally) leading the way. Our leaders have to pull us and help us achieve a strong pace to the target. Otherwise, they are not the leaders we expected, the leaders who can take us there no matter what. How can we trust a leader who is actually behind us, gently pushing, not pulling and, most of all, serving us?
The way I see it, this sorry situation is triggered by two main factors:
As I recall, coming back to my little experiment, no conversation about Servant Leadership ends up in a dull, boring way. The majority of my interlocutors smile politely and either change the subject or excuse themselves, leave or engage in another conversation. I get it - we might not be ready for this. Re-wiring our brains can be hard and takes a long time.
However, I have seen individuals (it’s true, just a small percent) who were stirred and intrigued by the whole idea. Something sparked behind their eyes - maybe just enough to kick-off an internal revolution. This kind of “inception” is the one I am counting on. This is the one bringing more selflessness and less selfishness, more trust, more community and less individuality, more authority and so on and so forth.
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?
“A man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.” (Martin Luther King Jr.).
Once again, using a powerful and profound image, Dr. King summarized the right “posture” of a Servant-Leader: ready to “carry” the followers, to help them “reach” their “destinations” (their life goals). However, the quote has a very interesting approach, not so easy to spot: ONLY your back should be bent JUST ENOUGH to allow the journey. There should be nothing demeaning or humiliating in this gesture or in this posture for the Servant-Leader and it shouldn’t be considered as such by the people around him or her.
This is one of the challenges of becoming a Servant-Leader and, moreover, of implementing the Servant-Leadership model in different organizations. Due to its characteristics (listen and understand, show empathy, be aware, lend a helping hand etc), Servant-Leadership is seen as a “softer” approach than any other traditional leadership approach. Competitive times - like the ones we experience nowadays - bring strong prejudices such as a leader must be tough, maybe even aggressive (if needed), ready to impose and direct people (for their “own good”) to the right path. There is no time to “listen” and “understand” completely. Leaders should be (and this is one of the most common prejudices that I encountered) concentrating on actions and less on feelings.
The Servant-Leadership approach is contradicting this trend - taking care of the feelings and then getting to actions. This is why - as I saw on several occasions - Servant-Leadership is seen as a good and interesting thing, but not fit (in terms of “power”) for the cloudy world we live in.
And this is, actually….correct. Servant-Leadership is promoting authority, not power. It is based on the skill of getting people to willingly perform because of the leader’s personal influence. Moreover, James Hunter (in “The Servant”) describes the Servant-Leader more as a “pit bull”, who “hugs hard and spanks hard”. When “it’s time to appreciate, honor and value team”, the Servant-Leader is the “first in line”. But, when the team has to perform, true Servant-Leaders “demand excellence and have little tolerance for mediocrity”.