Let’s Clear Up Some Misunderstandings about Servant Leadership

When people hear the phrase servant leadership, they are often confused. Their assumption is that it means managers should be working for their employees, who in turn would decide what to do, when to do it, where to do it, and how to do it. If that’s what servant leadership is all about, it doesn’t sound like leadership to them at all. It sounds more like inmates running the prison, or managers trying to please everyone.

The problem is that these folks don’t understand servant leadership.  They think you can’t lead and serve at the same time. Yet you can, if you understand that there are two aspects to servant leadership:

  • A visionary/direction, or strategic, role—the leadership aspect of servant leadership; and
  • An implementation, or operational, role—the servant aspect of servant leadership.

The traditional hierarchical pyramid is effective for the leadership aspect of servant leadership. People look to their leaders for vision and direction. While leaders should involve experienced people in shaping a compelling vision, setting goals, and defining strategic initiatives, the ultimate responsibility remains with the leaders themselves and cannot be delegated to others. Once employees are clear on where they are going, the leader’s role shifts to the task of implementation—the servant aspect of servant leadership. The question now is: How do we live according to the vision and accomplish the established goals?

Most organizations and leaders get into trouble in the implementation phase of the servant leadership process. With self-serving leaders at the helm, the traditional hierarchical pyramid is kept alive and well. When that happens, who do employees think they work for? The managers above them. The minute an employee thinks they work for the person above them for the implementation process, they are assuming the manager is responsible and their job is being responsive to that manager’s whims or wishes. Now “manager watching” becomes a popular sport and people get promoted based on their upward-influencing skills. As a result, all the energy of the organization is moving up the hierarchy, away from customers and the frontline folks who are closest to the action. Servant leaders know how to correct this situation by philosophically turning the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down when it comes to implementation.

When that happens, who is at the top of the organization? The frontline employees who work with the customers. Who is really at the top of the organization? The customers themselves. Who is at the bottom now? The “top” management. As a result, who works for whom when it comes to implementation? The leader works for their employees. This one change, although it seems minor, makes a major difference. The difference is between who is responsible and who is responsive.

When the organizational pyramid is turned upside down, rather than employees being responsive to management, they become responsible—able to respond—and the manager’s job as a servant leader is to be responsive to them. This creates a very different environment for implementation. If a manager works for the employee, as servant leaders do, what is the manager’s purpose now? To help their employees accomplish goals, solve problems, and live according to the vision.

Servant leadership is when a manager’s mindset and skill set are focused on serving others first. This new approach, combined with a clear strategic direction, creates a 1+1=3 environment where leaders develop great relationships, achieve great results, and delight their customers.


Would you like to learn more about servant leadership concepts?  Join me for a free online Livecast featuring 20 different authors, CEOs, and thought leaders from all walks of life.  It’s a two-hour exploration of the new Servant Leadership in Action book I co-edited with Renee Broadwell, which goes on sale March 6.  The event is free, courtesy of Berrett-Koehler Publishers and The Ken Blanchard Companies.  More than 3,800 people are registered already.  I hope you can join us. Use this link to register or learn more: Servant Leadership in Action Livecast.

Create a Workforce of Self Leaders

Leaders and managers ask me all the time how they can help their people become self leaders. It’s no secret that employees who are proactive self starters are huge contributors to organizational success. But sometimes people just don’t have the skills or confidence to get what they need to become high achievers.

That’s why I’m proud to announce the release of our newly revised Self Leadership program that I co-developed with motivation and engagement experts Susan Fowler and Laurence Hawkins. The success of your company depends on every person being empowered and committed to achieving results. Yet sometimes when it comes to training, individual contributors are overlooked. But if you don’t help them reach their full potential, your company won’t reach its potential, either.

This engaging new program is based on years of research. It teaches individuals the mindset and the skills they need to proactively take the reins, achieve their goals, accelerate their own development, and ultimately help the organization flourish. The truth is that people want to be engaged, to make meaningful contributions, and to be appreciated. And it is your job as a leader to help them be the best performers they can be.

I encourage you to take a look at the Self Leadership program and invest in the talent you already have in your company. I guarantee you’ll build an empowered workforce of people who are productive, innovative, and passionate about their work—and that passion will grow into individual, team, and organizational success.

Coaching—the Most Essential Part of Performance Management

Performance management has three elements—planning, day-to-day coaching, and evaluation. When I ask managers which of these elements takes the most time, they almost always say evaluation. Sometimes I hear long statements full of frustration about the forms, activities, and deadlines involved in the evaluation process. It makes me realize that people are putting the emphasis on the process—not the performance. And that is where many managers make the wrong choice.

Effective managers should spend most of their time on day-to-day coaching. Let’s take a closer look.

As a leader, it’s true that you have to spend time up front to set clear goals. Once you’ve completed that part, however, your job is to be there to coach your employees and help them accomplish those goals. I think of it as turning the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down so that you work for your people. You are there to help them.

If you spend most of your time coaching your people and helping them succeed, what do you think happens when it is time for the evaluation? You get to celebrate accomplishments! When you help your people win, you win, your department wins, and ultimately your organization wins. That’s why I say coaching is the most essential part of performance management.

Coaching: The Key to Being an Effective Manager

Why is it important to use coaching skills if you want to be an effective manager? Because when people get the coaching they need, they perform better. Managers who provide day-to-day coaching have more effective teams, grow and retain their key people, and experience higher productivity overall. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Over the years when I’ve asked people to describe their best boss ever, they often say it was a manager who helped them be successful in their role through coaching. It is important to set clear goals with your people, but it is critical to then use coaching skills such as

  • asking what they need from you to reach their goals,
  • listening with the intent to learn, and
  • working closely together to solve problems.

Coaching is the key to building a trusting work environment and improving the competency of your staff. Remember, your most important job as a manager is to help your people succeed.

In the short video below I share a story of how, as a college professor, I used coaching skills to help students get an A in my course.

Please give coaching a try. I know when you make coaching a priority, you’ll help your staff improve performance levels.

 

Building a High-Trust Work Environment

Building trusting relationships is one of the most important elements of being an effective leader. The good news is that turning around a low-trust environment isn’t rocket science. It starts with performance evaluation. If you are evaluating your people’s performance with a judgmental mindset, I guarantee you are eroding trust.

But if you partner with your people to set clear goals, and then provide day-to-day coaching to help them reach those goals, you’ll build high levels of trust—and that leads to higher morale, increased productivity, and improved engagement. And, as a leader, the constant communication you have with team members makes the performance evaluation part of your role much easier.

Remember, placing an emphasis on judging performance instead of coaching performance will create a low-trust environment. Setting clear goals and working side by side with your people to help them do their best will not only build trust and create effective teams, but also form the kind of working environment where people flourish.