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Servant-Leadership: Practical Implications

In an earlier article, I had shared my thoughts on the concept and style of “Servant-Leadership”. I analyzed its 10 principles as postulated by its founder, Robert Greenleaf, and compared them with Blake & Mouton’s Club Management style, a few habits of Steven Covey, and the concepts of Daniel Goldman of the Emotional Intelligence fame. I had concluded that a servant-leader is neither a servant nor a conventional leader but a rare and unique breed of leader of the highest order. Most occupy the pinnacle of leadership and organizational success. The main points are:

  1. Servant-leadership is about human relationships of synergy rather than control.
  2. The servant-leader spends his time in promoting innovation, empowering others, and making sure that people are healthy, happy, and engaged.
  3. The long-term goal of servant-leadership is to make similar leaders among employees.
  4. It exhibits a humane management style, and demonstrates empathy, listening, stewardship, and commitment to the personal growth of others.
  5. Leaders are respected and have earned power rather than positional authority.
  6. The foundation of servant-leadership is trust, initiated by the leader, which is then reciprocated.

That said, there are certain limitations:

  1. Servant-leadership is not appropriate to emergency situations that require decisive action.
  2. Not all leaders have the innate nature to serve. Therefore, it is not easy for people to cultivate such a mindset.
  3. Introducing such a style needs an accommodating culture.
  4. Adopting this type of leadership will require substantial cultural changes, which in itself, is a huge task.

Practicable or Impracticable? 

In this article, I will examine the feasibility of adopting this style in corporate organizations, its relevance, opportunities, hurdles, and limitations. Greenleaf was quite clear and almost vehement in his observation that the servant-leader starts as a servant because it is his or her innate nature to serve. And then when the opportunity presents itself, he or she by deliberate choice, dons the cap of a leader, and not the other way around. So, according to Greenleaf, a leader cannot turn around and start serving people and thereby become a servant-leader. If we go by his reasoning, people occupying leadership positions in organizations are automatically disqualified because none of those leaders rose to the positions of leadership having started as servants. Greenleaf argues that people occupying leadership positions do so because of their need for power and/ or material benefits the position provides. In such a scenario, organizations need to wait for lower level, non-managerial staff to evolve into servant-leaders. I personally cannot think of any such instance where, say, a janitor evolves and occupies a servant-leadership role. This is the first practical logjam that I see.

Other Logjams

  1. In a free market, companies compete against each other for a piece of the customer-pie. This environment requires competitive and sometimes aggressive people to lead the company.
  2. In public funded companies, the leadership is accountable for the financial results and stock performance on an annual basis.
  3. Conventional leaders are people who take on enormous responsibility and expose their careers to risk and failure. They are mostly motivated by conventional needs like recognition, influence, and material benefits.
  4. Most leaders in large companies are employees, drawing a monthly paycheck, even if performance bonuses and stock options are considered to mean something. They are not the ultimate owners of the company.
  5. The primary owners are thousands of nameless shareholders and a few institutional investors, both of whom want their investment to yield maximum returns in minimum time.

To me, it looks like servant-leadership cannot exist in its true essence in large, publicly funded organizations. It may be possible in smaller, family-owned or partnership companies where the owners take an active part in running the business.

Baby Steps Toward Servant-Leadership

There is some literature on the subject that promotes the idea that servant-leadership can be a cyclic journey – one can start as a servant or as a leader and add the missing part. If we wish to accept this idea as a way out, there may be some small ways of implementing the spirit of servant-leadership in business organizations. Although it looks to be an impossible task to bring about servant-leadership in totality, we can at least implement some small steps.

1. Treating People as People

To start with, stop referring to your people as ‘human resources’ or ‘resources’. Start calling them associates or partners or members or any other label that doesn’t demean them into the inanimate. While you are at it, rename your HR department appropriately.

2. Transparency

Share financial information about the company’s performance. If not the confidential sensitive information that may hurt the company if it falls into the wrong hands, at least the information that can be shared which will engender ownership and trust.

3. No Pecking Order

Remove all visible and invisible trappings of power and positional authority. Get rid of cabins and cubicles for “senior” leaders.

4. Food is Good

Invest in a good kitchen and cafeteria. Recruit professional cooks on the company rolls. The family that eats together stays together. Do not outsource to a catering agency.

5. Office Timings

Instead of checking when employees are logging in, check when they are logging out. Make it a strict policy to restrict work time to 8 hours. Reward people who honor this and penalize those who don’t.

6. Privacy

Never infringe on their weekly holidays and PTOs. Don’t call, message, or email them. In a hybrid or WFH model, don’t monitor screen activity or insist on the employees’ availability all the time. Measure them on deliverables and performance. Resist the temptation to put them on an electronic leash.

7. Roles and Responsibilities

It may be a good idea to make more experienced managers primarily mentors and leave the heavy lifting, including decision-making, to the younger generations.

8. Old and Young Blood

Youth crave career guidance and patient hearing from more experienced parent figures. They usually don’t get it from parents or older siblings. This is an acute need that can be addressed by most senior members, who in the process build future leaders and mentors.

9. The Old Should Blend

How many of us from Gen-X or Y even understand the Gen-Z? We hardly know them, their language, their priorities, their avocations. We need to reduce our mental age, shift from our parent-egos state and our child and adult ego states.

Servant-Leadership Not Optional?

In these times of WFH, hybrid models, gig economy, and entrepreneur spirit that is raging the world over, it is time for leaders across industries to rethink how they are going to ‘manage’ their people. This generation and the future ones no longer want to be managed. They do not work for a livelihood or to better their standard of living. Their parents have taken care of those for them. They are better educated, widely travelled, and more technologically and financially savvy than their parents ever were. They want their jobs to offer them challenges, learning, freedom, responsibility, and risks, yes, the risk of failure in their work. More so, they loathe control, and regimentation of any kind nor do they want to hear the wiseman’s tales. They prefer collaboration to competition. Most of them are excellent autodidacts.

These are the people that will form most of the workforce in the next decade. It is time to think if we can continue to deal with them the same way we have for the last 50 years. I certainly don’t think so. Maybe servant-leadership has now come of age. We cannot even think out of the box. There is no box!

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