Servant Leadership: Here’s Why We Need It Today More Than Ever

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Jul 24, 2014

The question caught me off guard.

I’d been offered a promotion, and my manager and I were now talking money. In response to my salary request, he’d asked, “Do you think what you’ll be doing is all that different from what you’re doing now?

For a split second, I wondered if this was a trick question. If I gave the wrong answer, would I end up making less money?

But my boss seemed genuinely curious, so I paused to give his query some serious thought.

“Yes,” I told him, “It will be different. As the Director, I’ll be responsible and accountable for someone else’s work. Right now I’m only responsible for mine. That’s a very big difference.”

When I think back on that conversation, it strikes me as funny that my boss, himself a senior executive, didn’t quite understand that.

But then, it seems so few managers really do.

We’ll say it again — managers DO matter

A classic article in the Harvard Business Review explores the irrefutable connection between quality of management and quality of employee performance.

In The Set-Up-To-Fail Syndrome, authors Jean-François Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux illustrate how a manager’s low expectations can drive poor performance.

Here’s how it works: A small “triggering event” (missed deadline, sloppy report, minor error in judgment) causes the boss to doubt the employee’s competence. The boss reacts to his doubt by exerting stricter controls over the employee’s work, which then causes the employee to feel distrusted and undervalued.

The employee begins to withdraw intellectually and emotionally, which leads the boss to doubt the employee’s competence even more. A vicious cycle of cause and effect ensues, typically ending in the employee’s dismissal or resignation.

The set-up-to-fail phenomenon proves the significance of managerial influence — a truth I believe is worthy of deep reflection, especially considering that many managers are happy to have influence (power) over their employees, but far fewer are happy to accept responsibility for their employees, and far fewer still will even consider being accountable to their employees.

And that’s too bad, because managers are accountable to their employees.

It’s called servant leadership

Managers have a job to do, and when they do it poorly, theirs is not the only job affected.

Ken Blanchard, co-author of the hugely successful book The One Minute Manager, is also well-known for this writings about servant leadership — the concept that effective lead-ers need to serve the needs of their people, instead of looking to be served by them.

Frankly, I don’t know why this idea gets so lost in our modern workplaces. The moment I was promoted, it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks that my direct reports were going to be looking to me for guidance, mentoring, promotions, pay raises, and so forth.

This was an awesome responsibility, and I better get my shit together or someone could get hurt.

And I’m not saying all this to show how cool I am (although I am a little cool), because I’ve been a bad boss at times, too. But to me it’s so obvious — the basic premise of management is to serve. It’s kind of like parenting.

How the boss manages matters

Now maybe you’re thinking this sounds too touchy feeling and misses the point about the business.

I assure you, it doesn’t. If you’ve ever had to smack your kid upside the head (metaphorically speaking) or ban him from your house (literally) because he needed a big old dose of tough love, you know how being responsible to others is not about handing out bags full of goodies while chanting “You can do it!” It’s about much, much more than that.

And management is about much, much more than throwing your weight around, expecting everyone in your charge to do your bidding so you can feel good about yourself and look good to others. Sadly, however, I’ve met far too many managers who didn’t get that memo.

So I appreciate the research conducted by Manzoni and Barsoux, which shows that how the boss manages matters. A lot.

Because that’s a sobering notion that should cause anyone who manages others to think long and hard about how she treats those placed in her care.

Why servant leadership?

But perhaps you need more convincing about the benefits of servant leadership versus other types. OK, that’s fair enough.

What makes servant leadership better? For one, it’s respectful. It’s humane. And finally, it’s sustainable in a way that other leadership styles simply aren’t.

Go ahead and be an autocrat, and watch your employees:

  • Quit;
  • Passively rebel;
  • Actively rebel; or,
  • Slack off the minute your back is turned.

No adult wants to work under another adult’s thumb, period.

My hopes for the future

Or perhaps you’re more of a laissez faire manager? Hmmm … I hope not. I’ve never met a single one of these who wasn’t just a lazy, no-kind-of-manager manager. And employees looking to develop will eventually outgrow that dynamic.

In contrast, servant leadership is active, and it’s about real relationship. And because it’s about relationship, there’s room for growth, change, and mutual benefit. Servant leadership is about human connection, and it keeps people engaged.

I hope (I pray) servant leadership is the way of the future. I like to criticize Millennials as much as the next Gen X’er, but I hope as time progresses Millennials kick the butts of tyrant/lazy/no-boss bosses who don’t know a damn thing about effective leadership and seem to care even less. I hope they say, “No, that doesn’t work for me. I need my manager to manage.”

Even more, I hope they become the leaders our workplaces need.

I hope.